My Two Year Old Eats Octopus
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Chapter 3 It Starts With an Attitude

“My husband and I, and just about everyone in our extended families, love food. We’re OK cooks; not the best, but we all enjoy trying new things both at home and at restaurants. I love walking through the produce aisle or a farmer’s market and seeing all of the beautiful foods. A good meal makes my day!” Anna, mother of a four-year-old (Sigh)

“I guess I have to go to the grocery store. Again.” Me, too often

(Which of these people would you rather spend time with?!) Think about your own relationship with food. Do you “hate” to cook or grocery shop, and not mind telling anyone so? Do you gravitate to the same restaurants, the same three or four quick dinner recipes, the same brand of cereal or snack food, “the usual” when you eat out? There’s nothing wrong with having favorites, of course, but there is a fine line between being in a comfortable routine and being in a real rut. Branching out and trying new things in the kitchen or at a restaurant can be daunting and maybe even disappointing. Many people don’t want to take any chances. Food is expensive; what if I ruin a challenging recipe? What if a new restaurant lets me down, or if I try a different menu item and I don’t like it as much as what I regularly order? Or, probably most common, I’m in a hurry, dealing with a lot of issues, and need some level of predictability in my day. Meals can provide that. There’s a lot to be said for opting for the easy choice when we are overwhelmed.

It’s also easy to let thoughts about food variety and nutrition slip when it’s just you, or just the two of you. You work out, you had a fruit salad on Tuesday, you skip lunch most days to cut down on calories; of course you’re taking care of yourself. What difference does it make if “dinner,” such as it is, is in reality more like a sandwich in front of the television at midnight or a bowl of cold cereal after a long day?

It might not make much difference in your life, but when you’re trying to influence a young child, who has neither the knowledge base from which to make taste and flavor comparisons nor the judgment to decide for himself what he should eat, it becomes an important matter. It’s up to us as parents to teach those skills. And like many areas of parenting, what you do and what you say can really make an impact.

How often do you hear adults talking about their own dietary limitations, foods they don’t like or even “hate,” and their disdain for cooking? “My husband is a meat and potatoes guy; he would never eat that,” is a phrase I hear often from women. “If the Smiths are coming over, we’d better just order pizza; there are too many things they won’t eat.” Or, “I’m on a diet and I can’t be bad again today and have a dessert.” If young children are in the house, you can bet that they pick up on these statements and incorporate them into their own thinking. Even worse is when adults make definitive comments about not liking entire categories of food. Personal preferences and negative generalizations become the subject of too much conversation, as in: “I don’t eat spicy foods,” “He doesn’t eat seafood,” “Uncle Mike doesn’t like vegetables,” “I tried that once and didn’t like it.” And on and on.

Remember that all of this chatter is heard and absorbed by little ears and gives kids an as-yet undeserved license to judge foods. So if you find that you or your spouse are falling into these habits, be aware and make a commitment to make only positive comments about food when children are around. Like or dislike something all you want; just don’t pass your personal sentiments about these issues on to your kids.

Chapter 5   The Menu, Please

“We plan meals and restaurant trips entirely according to our own dietary preferences. That has been our approach from day one. My husband is fond of sushi, for example, so when he’s out with her, they often end up at sushi places. I like Indian food and Latin food, so I gravitate towards those restaurants.” Erika, mother of a 28-month-old

“When Brad prepares meals, instead of telling the kids what they’re getting, he lets them tell him what they want, creating a lot of extra work for himself!” From “Behind Closed Doors: Brad and Angelina’s Nanny Tells All!” Star Magazine

So what should you be feeding your young Toddler at this meal, as he sits proudly in his high chair, waiting (or screaming) for more food to put in his mouth, or perhaps smear on his face?

Just exactly what you are eating, say many of the experts on the subject, ranging from culinary professionals to health practitioners to child development specialists. Aside from obviously inappropriate products such as alcoholic beverages and any foods that may be an issue because of potential food allergies, at this point in Toddler’s young life, he is ready to sample as much full-fledged adult fare as you are ready to give him. And in keeping with Dr. Cashdan’s report, as well as many other research findings that demonstrate that there are important windows of time when children are the most receptive to new foods, why not start now introducing as many as you can?

Virtually every expert that I spoke to on the subject—doctors, psychologists, chefs, and just-plain-experienced parents—agreed: If you want to want to raise a child who will love to eat everything, you’ve got to start setting up that expectation at a very early age. And that means this: What we’re having for a meal is what you’re having for a meal. No exceptions.

Start now with the idea that there is one menu for the entire family. This is a dinner, not a diner, although kids are prone to confuse the two! Don’t go down the path of allowing a special meal for children of any age, including Toddler. Tell your kids that “this is breakfast or lunch or dinner,” and you’re going to love it! If it’s steak and potatoes night, chop up the meat and mash the potatoes and let Toddler enjoy along with mom, dad, and whomever is dining together. Serve the youngest eaters the same sauces, side dishes, salads, and vegetables that everyone else has on their plate, just in smaller portions. If Thai, Mexican, Chinese, or another ethnic take-out food is on the menu, all the better. Talk it up and tell your toddler what she is eating. If a certain food is a little spicy, you might stir a tablespoon of milk or sour cream into Toddler’s portion. And be sure to let the food cool thoroughly; he won’t want his at the same piping-hot temperature that it may be served to everyone else.

Chapter 8 Welcome to My Restaurant: What We Wish Parents Knew

“We took a family trip to Italy, where eating with your kids is sort of the way of life and not a big deal. We went to this really nice restaurant (mistakenly) for lunch, where they required a jacket, and they let me borrow one. But it was so natural for them to include our kids. They had special china for children; it was just how they do business there. Versus here, where it’s like, ‘oh my God, the kids!’” Dan Sachs, Chicago restaurateur and father of three children

When it comes to dining out with children in tow, many chefs can speak to both sides of the coin. They know what it’s like to set the stage for a nice evening for their guests, only to have a screaming toddler disrupt things for everyone. But chefs are parents too, and many of them can feel your pain. Sometimes, they’re even the ones in that situation.

“We’ve walked out of restaurants with them kicking and screaming,” confesses Frank Bonnano of his two little boys. “With our order in, I’ve dropped the credit card and said, ‘We’re leaving.’ Same thing in the grocery store. You could have a basket full of groceries and if they melt down over that thing they want, we leave.”

“I’ve had to pick him up and walk out,” says Chef Dunia Burgo of Alo and La Duni in Dallas, of her now seven-year-old son. “I’m not going to put up with [misbehaving in restaurants]. I’m very sensitive to it, maybe because I have restaurants, and I want to make sure everybody else around me is enjoying their meal and is not bothered.”

“We take them out to restaurants and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” Gayle Pirie added. “My nine-year-old is a breeze; he’ll go anywhere. Our three-year-old is difficult, and she’s been difficult to go out with for about a year. And we get stressed out at restaurants if she’s being bad. It’s very stressful on mom and dad if a child is not behaving. But we don’t want to shelter them and limit their experiences, because then as they get older, they’re less adaptable. But you do pay a price if they’re not well-behaved.”

So how best to handle temper tantrums and meltdowns in restaurants, if yours happens to be the Problem Child? Unanimous agreement: Deal with it, Mom and Dad, and fast. Don’t just ignore the situation.

“What we’ve always done with our kids is just pick them up, bring them into the bathroom, and have a talk with them,” says Chef Marc Murphy. “Remove them from the situation and remove them from driving everybody else crazy. If that doesn’t work, take them home. I don’t think there is any reason to make everyone else suffer. But you do see parents whose kids are throwing a fit and they’re like, ‘Oh, well,’ and they just kind of ignore it. I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re not the only one here!’”

“I think everyone in the restaurant business has seen situations where parents are not mindful of their child throwing things all over the place, making a total disruptive mess,” says Chef Richard Vellante of Legal Seafoods in Boston, who has a young son and a daughter. “The parents should not overstep their bounds. The waiter is not there to babysit the child, and sometimes, that does happen. I’ve seen parents that don’t even know the child is walking around the restaurant or making a huge mess.”

If your kids are causing a problem, “You can’t be afraid to say, ‘Your behavior is not conducive to us being out tonight, and it’s time for us to leave’,” Vellante continued. “It’s almost like when you make a deal with someone, you can’t be afraid to get up and walk away from the deal. Sometimes a walk outside, getting them away from the atmosphere, will help. But I haven’t been above just saying, ‘It’s time for us to go.’ It doesn’t happen too often, but I’ve been there.”

Chapter 10 Where Does it All Lead?

“My boys have grown up loving food. We’ve cooked together, grocery shopped together, eaten together since they were very young. Now they’re young men and there is still nothing we’d rather do together than all sit down for a great meal and some good laughs. It’s part of the way we stay connected.” Bonnie, mother of two sons, now grown

As with most aspects of childrearing, there can be a certain amount of tedium involved in all of this.

Feeding kids day in and day out is never easy, but if you take on the additional task of trying to add some quality, some flavor, some nutritional and taste value, some real meaning to what they consume—well, if you’re like me, there will be many times that you yourself will have had enough. There have been plenty of occasions when I’ve questioned the point of stepping out on this limb, wondered if it’s worth the hassle, and been very tempted to relent more than I should. I mean, so many other kids and their parents don’t seem to give a whit about what they eat, and they seem fine. Do we really need to add a layer of complication?

And then I meet people like Di-Anna Arias of San Antonio, a catering sales director at the acclaimed Don Strange of Texas and a co-owner of Earl Able’s Restaurant, a city landmark for more than 60 years. When Di-Anna and her husband returned home from a recent trip to New York, their son Jordan eagerly awaited his gift from the Big Apple. A Knicks jersey? A new CD? Nope, for this 16-year-old, it was a bottle of first-press olive oil and a balsamic vinegar that they found at a small grocery store. “And his eyes just lit up at the sight of it,” his mother recounts. “He was immediately off to Central Market to buy some bread to try it.

“This is not a complication,” Di-Anna corrected me. “It’s a personal value that we want to instill in him. And it’s a value that represents so many other things, namely a healthy body and a curious mind. What better way to teach kids about their world and the people in it than to teach them about the food that we all eat?

“So we brought Jordan up to love food,” she said. “It started years ago, with me making his own baby food. Jordan never ate commercial baby food. I just could not bring myself to open up a jar of food that had been sitting on a grocery store shelf since who knows when and one that contained preservatives.”

Uh-huh.

“I remember when he was about three, we went to his cousins’ house and the kids had canned ravioli for lunch,” she continued. “My sister-in-law still teases him about his comment: ‘Aunt Cindy, this doesn’t taste right!’ It wasn’t said in a mean or snotty way, it was just an astute observation.

“We also started taking him to restaurants at a very young age. When he was five years old, he knew how to order his steak—the soft one, tenderloin—and when he would order a latté at the end of the meal, the waitress would just look at us, sometimes with disagreement, but I figured that since my great-grandparents began drinking coffee at three or four years of age and lived into their late 90s, what do I have to worry about? To this day, coffee is one of his favorite things in the world.

“And then there was his school lunch. He took his lunch every day because he could not stand the selection in the cafeteria. Usually his lunches included a great sandwich of turkey, pesto sauce, cheese and greens, and sometimes a slice of cake from home or a wedge of Brie with crackers. His friends would wonder what was for lunch each day. Many times he took extra to share.”

I asked Di-Anna what benefits she and her husband are now reaping, and how their perseverance through the years paid off. Give us parents of younger kids some encouragement, I said. Are we on the right track?

“Eating together is something that you should look forward to, no matter if it is a pizza and salad or you bring out the good china, it is a meal together,” she said. “We never did the ‘eating in the car’ thing, and still don’t. If our son has a commitment around dinner time, dinner is planned a little earlier or later. Remember that you have control of their time when they are young. You can teach them so many basic manners—how to hold a knife and fork, how to order in a restaurant, how to excuse yourself from the table, thanking the server.

“And all these years later,” she continued, “We have a handsome, popular teenage son who has a knowledge and love and appreciation for food, far beyond what I see in most of his friends,” she said. “It’s something that will serve him well for the rest of his life, both from a health and nutrition point of view, and an intellectual perspective, as I’ve seen how it broadens his mind and encourages creativity.

“It’s something we will always share together as a family.”