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I Make Multiple Meals for My Picky Eaters and I'm Not Ashamed

Photograph by Twenty20

It’s dinnertime, and I’ve got a giant pot of spaghetti on the stove. That’s one of the only foods everyone in my family will agree to eat. Side dishes are a whole different story, though, so I’ve got a couple other things cooking simultaneously. I’m microwaving chicken nuggets for my 4-year-old. There’s a strawberry yogurt on the counter, ready and waiting for my 10-year-old. There are two separate pots of veggies steaming—a pot of broccoli for the big boy, and a large pot of string beans for everyone else.

I’ll probably be frying up a pan of tofu for myself and my husband, who will get home after I serve the kids. I’m not sure when on earth I’ll sit down to eat, but it will be sometime after I’ve served the kids, because this mama prefers to eat in some amount of peace and silence.

Sounds kind of chaotic, right?

I’m breaking pretty much all the rules about how you are supposed to feed a family. Family dinners—where we all sit down together at once—do happen, but given everyone’s varied schedules, it’s rare that we get to do that coveted activity most nights. And yes, I’m doing that other thing you’re pretty much never supposed to do: I’m making my kids separate meals. I’m catering to their picky eating habits—you might say I’m even enabling them.

But at this point in my parenting career, I just don’t care.

I have two sons, both of whom are picky in their own ways. My 4-year-old is actually the more adventurous of the two. He’ll eat a pretty large variety of fruits and vegetables, but if there's any kind of "weird" sauce on or near them, there’s a red-alert emergency in the works. He'll try new things, but only sometimes, and usually not when I’m presenting them to him. I would say on the spectrum of pickiness, he’s not the worst, but he’s not the easiest kid to feed either. Also, he’s four, so pickiness and an iron-clad will kind of come with the territory.

My 10-year-old is extremely picky, and always has been. It has gotten marginally better as he’s gotten older, but he's far pickier than almost any of his peers. There's a very short list of foods he will eat. Thankfully, that list includes broccoli and corn (literally the only two veggies he will eat) and a few fruits.

Proteins are also a struggle. The kid would live on bread and cheese if I let him. I have tried all kind of methods to end his picky eating, including presenting him with whatever I’m serving and trying the “eat it or starve” strategy.

I have some picky eater qualities myself, and if someone were to come and tell me I had to eat a certain food, I would pretty much clock them on the side of the head.

Anything I have tried over the years has failed, or backfired. He has ended up skipping meals—or becoming extremely angry and upset. I haven’t had him tested, but I believe he has some sensory issues, and truly does find the foods that he doesn’t like offensive. He gets visibly repulsed by strong food odors as well.

And you know what? Whatever the reason is for my kids’ pickiness, the last thing I want to do is make eating a stressful experience for them.

There's already enough stress and pressure out there in terms of eating, weight, and body image—why add to it by making my kids eat food that their bodies tells them is not right? Yes, some of it is probably willfulness as well, but I still don’t see the point of turning mealtimes into a battleground.

Even though I allow my kids to eat what they want at mealtimes, I'm not a slave to their whims. They know that there are limits to the kinds of foods I am willing to cook (i.e., nothing fancy or complicated if they aren’t eating the main dish). They know that every meal they eat—especially dinner—has to include a vegetable and a protein (carbs are never a problem for them!)

They also know that they aren’t allowed to return a meal I’ve presented with them just because they have changed their mind, or it’s all of a sudden “icky.” My oldest now knows how to prepare himself an alternative meal, mostly a bowl of cereal at this point, and I’m working on my youngest doing the same.

I believe in body autonomy for my kids. They get to decide if they want to hug or kiss family or friends, what clothing they want to wear—and what food enters their body. As kids, I expect them to have all kind of irrational, finicky food choices—that’s normal for little ones. But if the pickiness lasts until adulthood to some extent, I know that's within the realm of normal as well. Just think about it, you must know at least one picky adult eater!

I have some picky eater qualities myself, and if someone were to come and tell me I had to eat a certain food, I would pretty much clock them on the side of the head. I believe it's my job to teach my kids good eating habits, which include being able to (politely!) make their needs and desires known. So I respect them as much as possible, even if that means that dinner has to be a little chaotic for a few years around here.

Everything is a phase in parenting, and I do believe that one day mealtimes will be more streamlined. But for now, this is what it is, and my kids are happy and healthy, so that’s what matters most.

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