Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Imperfect Diet of my Pre-teenage Daughters (and why I don't feel bad about it)

The tweens in our home are not all that unlike other children their age. They attend public school, occasionally participate in sports or music outside of school, and have a list of favorite and most loathsome foods that they believe in religiously.

What separates our daughters from a good chunk of those other kids at school is that they have been a) spoiled with lavish vacations, and b) presented with a variety of opportunities to expand their palates... which they have refused to do.

When our girls were toddlers, we took them on a cruise to Catalina Island and Mexico. You know what the most ambitious thing they tasted was? Fish sticks. Yup. Fish sticks. While we were in Catalina Island, they agreed after much argument to try the fish sticks at Antonio's. Neither of them had any complaints regarding the meal, but it hasn't exactly paved the way for us to serve fish sticks at home, either. It has happened, but there's no "Fish Friday" here. We're still a long way from that.

A couple of years after that, we took the children to Hawaii for an island hopping 3-week extravaganza. They ate a lot of hotdogs and shave ice. We had to tell them that the lychee flavor they were enjoying on their shave ice was actually cherry. Consequences for telling the truth? Massive hysterical public fits.

 Zoe's "cherry" shave ice at the 2008 Ukulele Festival

If I were to hear this from another parent, I'd question their parenting outright and have plenty of silent judgements going on in my internal monologue. I'd assume the children were always obnoxious brats and I'd blame the parents. Hands down. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've done it a couple of times. I'm not proud of it, but it is something I know I'm capable of. But here's the thing: My kids are, generally speaking, amazing. They aren't brats. They come home from school, do their homework without complaining, put away their school things, help around the house... they don't even fight bedtime. Some part of me felt back then that this food aversion thing was a toddleresque phase that they just hadn't quite grown out of. I believed that if I was patient, they'd come around. Maybe if they saw how much we enjoyed real food, they'd start to show an interest on their own.  

Besides, if this was their biggest flaw, 
shouldn't I count myself incredibly lucky?

But they weren't growing out of it. When Zoe was 8 and Jaime was 6, we made our first visit to Disney World. The stubborn little food snobs came out again. I kept my cool and kept telling myself that they'd almost grown out of this little phase.

 Not a single picture exists from this trip that involves any kind of food.

6 months later, we tried Disneyland. Zoey had just had her 9th birthday and (thanks to "The Princess & the Frog") she mustered up the courage to try beignets. Miracle of miracle: She loved them. She loved them so much that she convinced her sister to try them. Confirmation miracle: Jaime liked them, too. Unfortunately, this was the only new food to come from the experience and our attempts to replicate the willingness to try new things phenomenon at home were a bust.

4 months later I had neared my breaking point and I knew it. We packed up my mother and the kids and we went back to Disney World for EPCOT's International Food & Wine Festival. Dining around the world in itty bitty portions! We made elaborate dining reservations. Fun, interactive dining reservations. This had to work!

(Remember that the only thing visible on Jaime's plate is macaroni & cheese. We'll come back to that.)

...It didn't work.

What did they eat? 

 That's actually the only photo I have from that entire trip that includes my daughters putting some kind of calorie-laden "food" item in either of their mouths. I was disappointed, but I consoled myself with the notion that in all other respects, I've got good kids.

 If atrocious eating habits are the worst I have to cope with, my lot can't really be that bad, right? 


Fast forward from October 2010 to May 2011. Our attempts to prepare the children for whatever they may encounter in airports and throughout long bouts of travel have, for the most part, paid off. Our 14 hour flight from LAX to Auckland, New Zealand is relatively uneventful - a feat that parents who have traveled for even a short time with children can appreciate is a remarkable event all by itself. Sure, we ran out of Oreos before the second half of the flight, but by that time the kids were half asleep and content to watch Disney Channel episodes on the mini TVs in the headrests in front of them.

We arrived in Auckland and haphazardly figured ourselves out. We found a hotel two blocks from the Sky Tower (If you haven't heard of the Sky Tower, just imagine the Space Needle in Seattle... except the top of it is a massive casino.) and settled in. By this time, everyone was hungry. We took the advice of our concierge and wandered down to Princes Wharf in search of sustenance. No luck whatsoever. This had nothing to do with an absence of restaurants or convenience shops. No, it had everything to do with our children and their minds being set against anything new. We wandered back up near the Sky Tower and found a DENNYS. A DENNYS IN NEW ZEALAND. We traveled thousands of miles to eat at a Denny's. Better still: The kids freaked out when the menu included items they had never seen before.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident and that the rest of the trip saw a change in the children's perspectives.

 (Can you see my husband hiding behind the Happy Meal bag? Neither of us were too happy.)
If you've seen one McDonald's Play Place, you've pretty much seen them all.

While Abe and I tried to relish the culture of New Zealand...

 (Bungee Jumping off of the Auckland Harbour Bridge)

 (Finding a new favorite soda made only in New Zealand)

(and attending amazing Maori luaus)

...the kids continued to pout. 
We spent days scouring local grocery stores hunting for Kraft Easy Mac. 
We prepared Top Ramen with our hotel coffee makers. 
We bought imported American food. We felt like rubes. 

When we got home, I had reached my breaking point. New Zealand had been Zoey's 10-Year Trip (A right of passage we've set for each of our kids. More on that in another post.) and Jaime's 10-Year Trip was just 22 months away. I was not going to do this again. 

Never, ever again.

Jaime kept talking about how she loved Zoey's 10-Year and how she wanted to pick something awesome like that... something like Paris. Horror and fear swept over me as I imagined mangling the french language as I tried in vain to hunt Kraft Easy Mac in Parisian markets. Something had to change. 

The first step was to admit that I don't care what my kids eat. I really don't. They're alive. They're relatively healthy. I'm not going to fuss over little things. So what's my problem? My problem is that I am sick of not being able to trust my children to try new things and thus, allow me and Abraham to go out and try new things. While pre-teen picky eating may be excusable, short changing my lifetime of experiences (and theirs) is not. 

We started small. We explained that once a month Mom & Dad get to pick a restaurant and they will go with us. They don't have to eat a thing if they don't want to, but they have to go, they can't complain, and if they choose not to eat, they don't get dinner or dessert. Period. It's been mildly successful, but the option to skip dinner has been taken on more than one occasion. 

After that, we stepped up our game: At least once a week, Mom & Dad get to make what we want to eat for dinner and the kids must try it. They must eat a full bite of it. If they decide they hate it, they can have something simple as a replacement. 

Now that Jaime's 10-Year Trip is booked and deposits have been made (Oct 2013: Disney Cruise to the Caribbean followed by a week at Disney World... DURING THE FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL!) we're pushing even more. They must eat small portions when we offer new foods. No more "one bite" meals. Often this is limited to pieces that can be taken down in 4 bites or less, but it's still progress. 

The kids complain. They don't like this process... 

...but you know what? They're starting to find some other things that they do like. 
Tonight they both had to sample Grandma's homemade lasagna. Jaime did okay. Zoey did not. Earlier in the week, Abe made homemade enchiladas. Zoey did fine. Jaime threw a fit and pretended she was choking to death. Last week we hosted a pot luck and they had to try various dishes. It was relatively successful. 

This is something that I'm still not happy about and I doubt the kids will be as open as I'd like them to be for quite some time, but I'm not going to stop trying. As we try new things and fail or succeed, I will be tracking the progress here on the blog. If you have any questions, comments, ideas, or things you'd like us to try out on our kids before you try them out on your kids, post in the comments! I look forward to the future. 

Peace, Love, and Hope, 


P.S. If you tell me your kids can't handle this, that they're too different, I will tell you that you are probably wrong. My oldest has Asperger's and my youngest has an eating disorder. If we can try, you can try. Believing in your kids is the very best thing you can do for them; especially if they're not what society calls "normal".

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