It never ceases to amaze me how my two kids—born from the same womb—can be so different. I don't know why it still surprises me so much, but it always does. In areas where one excels, the other struggles. At times when one is calm, the other is fired up.
The differences in their personalities show up everywhere, including at the dinner table. One loves chocolate, the other loves vanilla. One is adventurous and willing to try new foods, the other is ... not.
Over the holiday break, we visited my mom and dad in Florida. One night, we went to a local restaurant called Deep Lagoon Seafood. Jack, my adventurous one, saw a poster on the wall promoting a local "delicacy" on the menu. The poster said:
"Gator Bites. Bite them before they bite you."
But, right away, Jack was practically bursting with excitement. (Kinda weird, right?) I mean, the kid was ALL IN.
Meanwhile, Caitlin (my not-so-adventurous one) broke out in a cold sweat. She was ready to do a mad dash from the restaurant. Can't say I blame her. My stomach did a few somersaults, too.
For me, it was a great reminder of the fear kids can feel when faced with an unfamiliar food. I'm a full-grown, 40-something adult and I was feeling the fear loud and clear. If someone tried to force me to eat 'gator, I would not be happy. Not one little bit.
As parents, it's human nature to want to encourage our kids to try new foods. After all, we know that foods like peas and broccoli are harmless and (sorta) tasty. But from a 2-year-old's perspective, those green veggies can set off the panic button, much like the 'gator bites did to me.
So, as a parent, how can we respect our kid's food preferences and aversions, while still encouraging them to eat healthy, new foods?
First, we can try to be good role models and eat the foods we want our kids to eat. In the 'gator example, I maybe wasn't the best at modeling adventurous food choices, but I also can't exactly say that 'gator is a food I want my kids to like. On the other hand, give me a fresh, simple salad and I'll role model my way to Timbuktu.
Second, as the wise Ellyn Satter recommends in her "division of responsibility" approach, it's the parent's job to offer kids healthy options; it's the kid’s job to choose whether or not to eat them. In other words, we should routinely prepare healthy foods for our kids, then leave it at that. Our work is done. Amen and hallelujah.
As I often tell my kids when they get all hot and bothered about the choices I've given them, "Food is food. You can eat it or not. It's your choice. But food isn't something to get worked up about." Then we move on.
Sounds like a ridiculously simple way to deal with a tantrum at the table, doesn't it? But once you get the hang of it—and your kid realizes that you aren't going to force a food—so many stresses at the dinner table melt away.
So what was Jack's verdict about the 'gator? "Tastes like chicken, but chewier."
P.S. I don’t know if eating ‘gator is humane, sustainable or acceptable. I should probably look into that. Keep in mind this was a one-time experience, not an overall lifestyle choice, so please be kind.