Do You Have the Short-Order Cook Syndrome?
I hear it time and again. I hear how you make a rescue meal for your picky eater. How you always have a backup plan for food because sometimes your child won’t eat what you made to eat. How you know it’s wrong and you recognize your own frustration, but you can’t help yourself—it’s the Plan B meal or a meltdown.
I call this the Short-Order Cook Syndrome.
This is one of the most common (and honest) mistakes I see moms and dads make –resorting to a back-up meal (or an alternate dish) when your child won’t, or refuses to, eat what’s on your table.
It goes like this (or some variation of this): You make a meal of spaghetti and meatballs. Your child refuses to eat it, and instead just wants the pasta. You worry there is no protein in the meal. You ask your child what he would like to eat instead. He (or she) says, “chicken nuggets.” You make chicken nuggets (let’s acknowledge you’re frustration level here, and perhaps even some anger at yourself because you knew this would happen….and well, dangit, you should’ve made the chicken nuggets ahead of time).
Catering, or short-order cooking, is a fairly common scenario at family meal tables around the country.
One survey found that 80% of parents with picky eaters feel they have little control over their child’s food choices and their eating. Seventy-five percent of parents give in to their picky eater’s requests for food. That’s a lot of caving, parents.
As I said before, for many parents, catering to a child’s food demands is the path of least resistance.
Whether it’s your guilt getting the best of you, the meltdown you’re trying to avoid, or the belief that your job is to please everyone to keep the peace, one thing I know is this: the more you aim to please your child with food, the less pleased (and more demanding) your child will be.
Let’s tweet that out!The more you aim to please your child with food, the less pleased (and more demanding) your child will be. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, catering makes it harder to feed your child and your family (which, let’s face it, can make you unhappy).
Several short- and long-term consequences arise from short-order cooking.
Short-term Consequences of the Short-Order Cook Syndrome
Your authority is undermined. You are supposed to call the shots on food in the home, what is served for meals, when they are served, and where. However, when you cater to your child’s food requests, your child is the one in charge. At least in terms of the food he eats.
You short-change nutrition. Catering leads to repetitive meals. In other words, when you cater to your child’s favorite, accepted foods, you are narrowing his or her food variety. Food variety is a safeguard for adequate nutrition—the more variety in your child’s diet, the more overall nutrients your child receives.
You end up having a frustrated relationship. Although family discord and drama is placated for the time being, you may be left feeling frustrated, overworked or under-appreciated. Let’s face it, a lot of work goes into preparing a meal for a family, and to make an additional dish is more effort, time, and inconvenience for you.
Long-Term Consequences of the Short-Order Cook Syndrome
You are encouraging picky eating. “Catering” to food requests (or demands) on a regular basis not only encourages picky eating, according to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, but kids may also miss out on nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, and dairy products. Basically, being a short-order cook gives life and longevity to picky eating.
Your child’s health suffers. The longer picky eating lasts, the higher the risk for poor nutrition, inadequate weight gain and growth, and social challenges.
OK, you know what’s at stake—so how do you get yourself out of this rut? I’m going to be honest—it’s not easy. But, it’s not impossible either. I’ve got several things you can try.
But, word of warning: don’t expect overnight success. You’ve been doing this for a while and your child has gotten used to this way of life. You may see some resistance—real resistance. You may see sadness, anger, or defiance.
Think of it this way—you’re asking your child to stretch, to take a grown up step in his maturity around food and eating, and in a way, you’re wiping away the control and comfort he has grown to love.
Be patient, loving and kind. Be firm. Be on a mission.
And don’t roll over.
Try these alternative approaches:
Offer safe food. When you’re planning your meals, make sure to include one or two foods you know your child can handle. Safe foods are familiar and liked foods, which might be milk, fruit, cheese, or bread and butter. The goal: make sure there is something on your table you know your child will eat.
Nix Plan B. Done. Finito Benito. No more backup, rescue meals. No more hefty snacks one hour after dinner is over. You are done with that. Period. (And it’s okay to let your child know there’s a new gal in town). Close that kitchen when the meal is over and move on to the next scheduled meal or snack. It’s really as easy as that. And..oh yeah…I guess I should confirm…your child will survive.
Try family-style meals. If you haven’t given this a whirl yet, what are you waiting for? Family style meals allow your child to pick and choose what and how much he wants to eat from the foods you have set out for the meal. Try to include a serving from each food group so there are a wide variety of options on the table. And, here’s the upside: The more you let your child pick and choose from the options you have set out, the more likely your child will be able to find something to eat.
Do it the Dinner Bar way. Offer a smorgasbord of entrée ingredients and let your child assemble his main course the way he likes it. The Dinner Bar works well for combination dishes such as pasta primavera, pizza, tacos and salads. These are dishes that can send a picky child running the other way. Why? They are too complicated and not easily identified. Deconstruct your entrees and you may get more cooperation. The highlight: Kids eat better when they assemble their entrée (because they are invested in their creation). Check out the many Dinner Bar ideas in my archives.
Offer the basics. You know the important food groups—protein, grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy (or non-dairy substitute) and healthy fats. The more food groups you can offer at mealtimes, the better—try to hit all of them, especially at dinner when appetite is variable (young kids may have little appetite due to other scheduled meals and snacks earlier in the day, and older kids may carry a bigger appetite due to sports or growth). Here’s the bottom line: more food groups on the table means you have a better shot at meeting your child’s overall nutrient needs.
Double up on nutritious food, especially the ones your child likes. If you’ve got a fruit lover, offer 2 types of fruit at meals, such as strawberries and clementine. If you’ve got a starch lover, offer peas and pasta, or corn and whole grain rolls. Don’t panic about missing veggies, or too many starchy foods! You can still pack nutrition into the meal.
Keep it simple. Lose the idea that you have to make gourmet meals! Kids like food to be recognizable, identifiable and yummy. For veggies, raw and crunchy with an easy side dip will do the trick for most kids. Many kids are perfectly happy to see a meal with slices of bread or a bowl of unadulterated fruit. Shift your mind-set: Kids prefer less complicated food over food they cannot identify or that may be foreign to them.
Employ your child. Older children can peel a banana or an orange. Young kids can pop the tops off strawberries or separate orange sections. Support and challenge your child as needed, but periodically ask him to do some of the work at the meal table. You’ll be teaching independence and food skills at the same time. Basic point: Kids are happy to pitch in and take over easy food prep and eating tasks.
So, tell me, are you a short-order cook? If so, what’s the biggest obstacle in your way?