Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Fun and Frustration of Feeding Preschoolers

Do you remember the aggravation of feeding a small child?

I think it's one of the things we forget the quickest as our children grow. Oh, we remember in some drug-hazed way the pain of labor, recall the occasional embarrassment of department store tantrums, aggravation of potty training, and the bone deep exhaustion of interrupted sleep for months and months on end. We remember diapers, and car seats and children drawing on the walls.

Among all the things we have to cope with and manage when dealing with small children, I think the thing we forget most thoroughly, or at least it was true in my case, is how hard they are to feed.

I'm not talking about spooning baby food into the mouth of a small crawler who eats like a baby bird with her little mouth open. Unless it's a food she rejects, in which case you're scraping it off her chin, the high chair tray and possibly your clothing. Or even the general messiness as children learn to feed themselves, which can be dealt with somewhat like an organized serial killer with a lot of drop clothes and clean up, but even then you're likely to find food caked in strange places (enough for CSI to bust said serial killer).

No, I'm referring to children who can quite competently feed themselves and even manage (most of the time) to drink from a cup with no lid without a major catastrophe.

Those are the ones who drive their parents, and in my case grandmother, stark raving insane. Really, meal time can be so stressful that I wind up with a bowl of cereal at 10 p.m. because I just can't deal with them and try to eat, too. It's ridiculous.

Oh, I remember my children going through food cycles. I think I still do that myself. There would be days on end where, if asked, my son wanted nothing but peanut butter and jelly. My daughter, on the other hand, probably never wanted the same meal twice and still doesn't. I could deal with that by stocking up on their favorites. At least I would know they were eating.

Instead I'm dealing with two little girls who one day will devour a food and the next turn up their collective noses.

E1 is the ring leader in the food rebellion, as is often the case, and I know it's a three meal a day fiasco. Weighing in at a hefty 32 pounds and 4 years old (note sarcasm intended), we tend to worry about her eating enough. So when she requests a particular food for any meal in which individual orders are taken, we try to deliver. When that food is set in front of her, however, she's as likely to declare it "yucky," or spend 45 minutes rearranging it on her plate, as she is to eat it. Her list of go-to foods is really short and even then I sometimes don't feel like she eats enough. Of course, it is hard to remember that her stomach is really quite small so I never demand she clean her plate, as long as she samples what is on it.

Granted, she will almost always eat an apple or a stick of cheese, loves cold hot dogs (most of the time), turkey and ham, and will usually eat a carrot with some buttermilk dressing. But seriously, can you live on that?

Since she is quite outspoken, her food rebellion often overflows onto E2. If she declares it yucky -- a word I've banned at the table -- then of course her younger sibling will likewise turn up her nose. Never mind that neither of them have actually tasted the dish which usually contains only food I know they like.

At least once a day we try to sit down together for a balanced meal. Well, I may or may not eat then, but I do prepare a meal and sit with them. My meal time, however, is just as likely to be spent negotiating with E1 over how much she has to eat. If we can keep her drama to a minimum, E2 will often polish off her plate while we're debating. Often E2 finishes her meal and is excused before E1 and I have a food treaty ironed out.

We've had some balanced meal successes, although I'm always looking for more and have a stack of "kid friendly" recipes to try with my fingers crossed. I'm always on the lookout for something they might eat and expect that's a fairly common phenomenon.

Both love Lunchables because they put them together themselves, although I now get ingredients to assemble my own, serve them with carrots and they are allowed no more than once or twice a week; they expressed a love for Campbell's Chunky Chicken Noodle when I opened one for myself and they wound up eating it (but we've not tried a second round yet); virtually anything that smacks of pizza goes down well (think pizza casserole with whole wheat noodles and limited ingredients); they will consistently devour chicken breasts topped with a Greek yogurt and parmesan mixture; and the cheeseburger soup which we all made together turned out to be a hit even if it did dirty three pans and require a lot of chopping and preparation.

There is still no guarantee on anything from one day to the next. Although using familiar foods and letting them "help" increases the odds of success, we have prepared foods in which they know all the ingredients but insist that together, today at least, they are not edible.

At the same time, sometimes some totally unlikely food will be snatched up and devoured. E1, for example, loves onions with no real rhyme or reason. Raw or in the form of onion rings, which she once declared "the best food ever."

I can hardly wait until E3, who so far resists anything beyond milk, enters the fray. Hopefully by then I'll have a repertoire to enable me to feed them without totally losing my mind.

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