Spoiler alert: This is one of those posts where I brag about my kids. If you find yourself annoyed at my perfect kids, skip this one (I get it, you're jealous. That's ok, I'd be jealous too if I ran into these kids at the supermarket. For about 5 minutes. Or until the next tantrum, that is.)
Last weekend we celebrated the Ethiopian New Year by participating in the cultural festivities in Oakland, watching the Mesgana Dancers, and having lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant . I watched our kids devour the Yedoro Wot and Yemeser Wot, soaking up the flavorful sauces in the pancake-like injera. And I thought to myself, This food is soooo gooooood.
Followed by ..... We can actually eat in places like this with the kids now.
Followed by.... It's about time.
Seriously, I'm beyond happy that we've left the safety of "kiddie food". They eat from all food groups (and they'll even eat veggies when they're not smothered in cheese). They will happily eat the foods of our three cultures: English (for example, fish-n-chips, sausage rolls, roast dinner), Filipino (adobo, lechon, lumpia) and American/Western (Caesar salad, meatloaf, quiche, etc...) They've also tried and enjoyed more ethnic foods like Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Spanish, and now Ethiopian. Even more important, they're open to trying new, unfamiliar foods.
Of course, it wasn't always this easy. They are kids, after all, and I think pickiness is a stage all kids go through. There was a time that The Pea would not eat any meat at all, and would live on mac-n-cheese with peas if I let her. The boys were the opposite; they loved any kind of meat but would not eat carbs like bread, rice or pasta. For a while I became a short-order cook, making separate dishes for kids and adults, sometimes different things for each kid.
It's all too easy to fall into this pattern, especially when you can stop the whining by simply opening a box/can/packet and heating through. We had to make a concerted effort to broaden their tastes. We used well documented, tips and tricks. To get them to eat veggies, I initally smothered them in cheese. I discovered cherry tomatoes. I alternate between preparing "grownup foods" and their old "kiddie favorites" (with a bit of nutritious foods hidden inside). We ask them to try new foods again and again and again. We heap praise on them when they actually do try the foods. Little by little, our perseverance did the trick. Or perhaps they outgrew their pickiness. I still like to claim the credit.
Even now, each kid still has foods they dislike. The Pea hates chicken (except when it's chicken teriyaki or chinese chicken salad, go figure). 3Po still doesn't like peas. Jammy likes the taste of almost anything but is extremely picky when it comes to texture: he won't eat slimy, mushy food like polenta or mashed potatoes. None of them like spicy food.
As parents, we respect their individual preferences and try not to force them to eat anything they truly dislike. We allow the kids to have an alternate meal (leftovers, or simple, healthy, easy-to-prepare foods like toast, bananas and milk or yogurt) if they have tried the food, given it a genuine chance, and still dislike it. If they say they are full, they are excused from eating the rest of the meal (including dessert).
Speaking of dessert, the one old-fashioned rule we still abide by is "No dessert unless you finish your meal". It's not a hard-and-fast rule: they don't actually have to lick their plates clean, and if dessert happens to be fruit or yogurt they can go straight to it. We just want to reinforce the idea that some kinds of food are not-so-good-for-you treats (i.e. ice cream, cakes, chocolate, etc...) and they must put some healthy things into their bodies as well as the junky stuff.
Once in a while I'll tear open a box of macaroni and cheese. But happily for all of us, my kids now prefer with penne with goat cheese and spinach.