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Reality Check: I'm Working Too Hard Feeding My Picky Eaters

Q  I'm tired of being a short-order cook every night. How can I stop making separate dinners for the kids?
A I, too, am a member of the short-order cooks' club, and until recently I resented it. But I've come to the conclusion that unless I'm prepared to adopt a hard-line policy ("Eat what I put on the table, or go hungry")¿ -- and I'm not¿ -- then I'm going to be serving more than one entr¿¿e most nights. I pick my battles, and this one isn't for me. I've just accepted that kids and grown-ups have different tastes.

That said, you don't have to wear yourself out pleasing everybody. I now follow these rules:

* Don't ask your children what they'd like for dinner¿ -- you're not a food fairy godmother who can grant their every wish.

* Tell them what you're making them (something you know they'll eat), or give them two choices, tops.

* If they can't agree, simply choose the one that suits you and tell the disgruntled diner you'll honor his request tomorrow.

* Keep it simple. A custom-made kid entr¿¿e can be as unremarkable as some leftover pasta, a scrambled egg, or even some cheese and bread with fruit. I mean, it's not as if you have to whip up a spinach souffl¿¿ and a chanterelle millefeuille for dinner.

You're not alone, of course; even globe-trotting epicures bump into this problem. Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet, has a child who would eat only "five whitish foods¿ -- such as french fries, chicken, parmesan cheese, vanilla ice cream, and scrambled eggs¿ -- at a time." She says she learned to worry less about the lack of variety in her son's diet (which she countered with multivitamins) and to focus on what was essential. "What I really care about is that meals be enjoyable family times," she says. "The important thing about dinner isn't the details of what you serve. It's that you sit down at the table together, enjoy each other's company, and talk about the day." Reichl's son is now 14, and he eats everything¿ -- including jellyfish. "But I don't mention to him that I'm pleased," she says. Perhaps she's still afraid to rock the boat.

Like giving baths, combing out tangles, and tying shoelaces, this form of parental servitude, too, shall pass. Meanwhile, keep the dinner peace.

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