How do you feel when your kids refuse the meal you lovingly prepared (by spending hours in the kitchen)? Rejected? Offended? Like a failure? I used to feel all of that, too. Until I looked at the situation from a completely different angle.
I absolutely love cooking. One of my favorite reads, as I was growing up, was my mother’s thick, picture-free books with recipes. I was happy to browse through the dry paragraphs describing proper ways to knead bread dough or braise beef. I still remember the taste of my first culinary creation – a 2 egg omelet I proudly whipped all by myself at the age of 7 or so. And I never stopped after that.
In fact, all of the most meaningful memories of my life are related to the taste of the food I ate – my mother’s borscht, the frugal vegetable stew I was making as a student, my future husband’s Spanish version of Russian salad (they put tuna in it in Spain, for God’s sake!).
Because of my love for good food and cooking, I chose to change my career and become a dietitian. I started cooking even more after I got married and eventually became pretty good at it, if I may say so.
And then I had my first baby who started promptly rejecting all my food other people absolutely loved. As I pressured her to eat or even try it, she resisted even more. Raising a picky eater was the hardest thing for me because it seemed like all my efforts in the kitchen were wasted.
But then I started looking at this situation from her point of view and here is what I discovered:
1/ My love for cooking is not my child’s problem. I cook elaborate meals because I really enjoy it. My daughter never asked me to spend all this time in the kitchen. It is fun for me to plan, shop for ingredients and try new recipes. It was also my hobby in a way. I imagined how it would feel if my hobby was sewing and she was indifferent to all the dresses I made for her preferring to wear the same jeans and t-shirts instead. Would it make me feel just as bad as seeing her reject the food I made?
So I decided that the enjoyment of cooking and eating was a reward high enough for me. I did not need to see my daughter appreciating the meals to confirm the worthiness of the effort although that is always a nice bonus. I was cooking because I WANTED to and I enjoyed the final result. Of course, it would be impossible to feel this way if I was cooking something specifically FOR HER and she kept rejecting it. But as far as I decided on the menu (of course including one or two foods she liked), everyone was happy.
2/ Cooking does not have to be associated with love. I know most of us are raised in families where cooking for kids was a way of showing affection and care. But it was too heartbreaking to see the meals I poured my heart into being left uneaten. So I tried to not take it personally. As a result, I became more matter-of-fact about my daughter’s eating because I consciously invested more time into showing her my love in other ways. Our bedtime snuggles became longer and I tried to spend more time catching up with her during the day.
3/ The main purpose of meals is connection rather than an opportunity to hear praise for cooking or see my child licking the plate clean. As a result, the meals I was preparing became a little less elaborate but the dinnertime became the time of the day all our family looks forward to. In a more relaxed ambiance, my girl started asking to try new things more often and grew into a pretty adventurous 9-year-old.
Years of working with parents of problem eaters confirmed my observation: the more parents invest in cooking as a way to get their child to eat, the worse the child eats. Even if we summon all our willpower to avoid pressuring or disappointed remarks, the look in our eyes or a glimpse of a facial expression is enough to spoil the child’s appetite even further.
So if you have the skill, time, and desire to cook a seven-course gourmet meal because this is what YOU want, go ahead. Or, if you are in a time crunch, a pizza with a side of veggies makes a pretty decent meal, too. Trying new recipes from time to time and adding spice to your cooking, if you like it, may help your child enjoy a bigger variety of food in the future.
But spending hours in the kitchen obsessed with the goal of raising a gourmet has not paid off for me and may not for you either.