Eating in Peace

Q: We adopted two girls (ages 8 and 10 at the time) almost 5 years ago from an African country. They were incredibly picky eaters and refused to try new foods. I have been customizing our meals to accommodate them but lately have gotten fed up with their rude, entitled attitude towards my meals. They are also negatively influencing two younger children, who we recently adopted from the same country, but who are willing to eat everything.

I have uninvited them from dinner, which means they have to make their own meals and eat them on their own. Our relationship is already strained and not eating dinner together is distancing us even further. I don’t think that I can train them to eat new foods at this point in their lives as teenagers. Any suggestions?

A: Oh, dear. This has become a mealtime battle, hasn’t it? And it’s impacting your relationship with your precious girls. Adopted or not, this kind of daily friction can so easily erode the parent-child bond, but all is not lost! There is hope for a stronger bond between you and your daughters and to have mealtimes stop being full of anxiety—all without your cooking special meals!

But it will take work on your part, but I think you’re up for the challenge because on the other side is family meals and a closer bond with your older girls. You’re the adult, so you’re going to have to take the bigger steps toward reconciliation. This doesn’t mean you cater to them, but it does mean that you will smooth the way back into the family fold. Here’s how.

First, welcome them back to the table. The first couple of meals, make things you know they like. Not to cater to them, but to help sooth ruffled feelings.

Second, let each child (even the younger ones) pick one vegetable that they will never have to eat. That’s right—even if it’s served, they can say, “No, thank you” with your blessing. Post the list on the fridge (this is essential to avoid any confusion). My mom did this when I was a kid, and I’ve passed it along to my four kids. For example, my youngest choose potatoes as his veggie to avoid, so whenever we have potatoes, he doesn’t have to eat them. He can eat them (and he does eat French fries!), but he’s not required to eat them. To make this work, the child has to pick one specific vegetable: Not “squash,” but “spaghetti squash.” But the child has to eat everything else that’s served. If the child refuses, the “no, thank you” veggie is back on his or her plate. Then each year, either on a designated day (we do New Year’s Day) or child’s birthday, you allow the child to change or keep the “no, thank you” veggie. Simple, yes?

Third, remind them of the protocol for meals—manners for meals training. Items to be taught (over the course of several meals or weeks) include how to set a table, how to react when something’s served they don’t like (no “yucks,” for example), appropriate topics of conversation, etc. Work on this as a family. We often discuss our days or have a “question of the day” roundtable discussion. Eating together is more than about the food!

Fourth, follow the “one bite” rule. Each child or teen gets one, small teaspoon (literally, a very tiny bite) of everything on the table. Once their plate is clear, they may have seconds of anything on the table. In other words, no going to the snack drawer after eating the first bites!

Fifth, start involving the girls in meal prep. Buy a kids’ cookbook (Rachel Ray has a great one!), and then let each one pick a meal to make each week. Then that girl helps you cook that meal. Food always tastes better when you helped prepare it.

Sixth, consider starting a vegetable garden this summer. Again, let the girls each pick one veggie to plant, tend and pick. The closer your girls get to their food, the more likely they are to eat it! Or sign up for a community supported agriculture share with a local farm and get fresh produce delivered or picked up weekly during the growing season.

I hope this list spurs you to think of other ways you can connect your girls to food and, without their knowing it, expand their palate!