Family Food Rules Chez Arbo

Kale is a champ eater. I am proud of this. He wasn’t always a champ, and we often waffle back into “not so champ” territory, but in general, I would call him a champ eater. Since starting school we regularly struggle with getting Kale to eat enough food quickly during the ridiculously short 20 minute lunch break his school district plans for, but he’s (knock wood) lately been reliably a decent eater and he’s relatively easy to feed. I am grateful for this not being a constant issue. It has taken a fair amount of dedication to get him this way. Mostly, I think he is a kid that likes rules, including rules about food.

As many of you know, I sit on the Royal City Farmers’ Market board of directors, and I’m really jazzed up about this coming year. We just had our AGM and we have a strategic plan. One of the components of the strategic planning focuses on kids and food – getting them interested in food, learning about food and nutrition, and being introduced to food selection and preparation. I (and my fellow board members) truly believe that kids can learn food basics at a very young age, and that the farmers market is one of the very best places to connect with food. I love this proactive education about food.

I’m also a frequent commenter and participant on the closed Facebook group New West Moms Group, where we regularly discuss food and kids. (If you are a New Wester and you are a mom, this is an amazing resource you should check out – it is a closed group so you need to request access but it is really great). A lot of times on this group it is much more reactive, as in “my kid is a terrible eater – help!” or “my kid is refusing to eat her lunches, what do I do?” or “I’m totally tapped out of ideas for food for my family – share some ideas”.

Plum Sauce - the only sauce Kale likes besides ketchup, but at least he loves it on everything and it's easy and cheap to make.
Plum Sauce – the only sauce Kale likes besides ketchup, but at least he loves it on everything and it’s easy and cheap to make.

I am also big into home preserving, making from scratch, and am an avid meal planner. I maintain a public Trello board with my meal plans and recipes and other food ideas to try and very very recently started contributing to a Group Recipe Board on Pinterest (I am touch and go with Pinterest, loving it for weeks at a time and then abandoning it for months). I like growing my own as much as I can, and try to support local, small scale agriculture. This year’s garden is basil, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, garlic, and rhubarb.

I think a lot of people see my enthusiasm for food and kids and cooking, and see that my kid is a pretty decent eater, and so I regularly get asked about my Family Food Rules. I had a chat a few nights ago with a friend about my rules, so today, I thought I’d share some of them. They are a bit of a mishmash from a lot of sources, and at the bottom of the post I will share some links I like for further reading.

Without any further long winded back story, here they are:

Parents Control the What, When and Where, Kid Controls How Much and Whether

This is straight from Ellyn Satter’s super helpful “Division of Responsibility in Feeding” which I’ve read is referred to as “the gold standard in feeding”. The Ellyn Satter Institute’s mission is helping children and adults be joyful and competent with eating. I love this mission because there is So. Much. Joy in food. It is my job to pick when and where we eat, and to offer a variety of foods to choose from, including at least one sure bet I know Kale will eat. It is Kale’s job to decide how much (start small and have seconds!) and whether he eats what I offer. Note, I do not offer an alternative. Eat what is presented to you, in whatever ratio, or go hungry. We do have snack times, but we also have rules about snacks-in-lieu-of-meals.

Try a Taste, You’ll Be Surprised

This thing is hella ugly and even has all sorts of weird crunchy bits but YUM.
This thing is hella ugly and even has all sorts of weird crunchy bits but YUM.

As an addendum to the Division of Responsibility, above, I ask that Kale at least try a taste of everything on the night’s menu. Nothing was more satisfying than Kale once trying passion fruit and being delighted that he actually loved it, despite its ugly appearance. It was very convincing for him to learn that sometimes food that doesn’t look good actually is good, and that a taste (and a taste next time and a taste next time and a taste the time after that) was important for opening your mind. All foods need at least a taste, and Kale can choose not to eat something after he’s had a taste.

I am not a short order cook.

While I will often slightly modify the family meal for Kale by not putting his veggies in the curry sauce, or not pouring the sauce on the rice before serving it, or by not cooking his mushrooms in the mushroom sauce and adding his in raw, etc, I am not a short order cook. I will not cook multiple meals for the family unless it is a special reason, such as the night I made scallops with asparagus (both confirmed dislikes on Kale’s part after multiple tries) for Ross’ birthday. Kale knows this, and sometimes greets the meal with less enthusiasm than at other times. But he always understands that whatever is before him that night is the dinner for tonight, because…

You can’t always eat your favourite foods.

Every night cannot be cheesy noodle night, despite cheesy noodles being delicious. We regularly repeat: “You can’t have your favourites every night, but we promise to offer you tasty food that is good for you every night.” Favourite foods should be saved for special days and Kale has learned that some of the foods he was suspicious of initially have become a favourite. Two recent meals – corner-cutter beef stroganoff and quiche are two recent meals that have been followed by “Mom, this is one of my favourite meals now!”

Involvement = Ownership

A child being involved can make a world of difference in thinking that they have influence and control over the food they eat. Kale gets to choose at least two nights’ meals when we do our weekly meal plan. He originally always picked pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, or cheesy noodles, but now he has expanded and includes all sorts of pastas, sausages, quiche, and others. We also try to eat from a regular rotation of sure bets plus a few experiments to continually try new stuff, including new to the adults!

Kale gets to help cook whenever he wants, and we always downplay meat as the primary protein. We also make sure Kale gets the chance to meet farmers and food producers, either at the farmers market or at the farm. It is critical he understand that the meats (especially) we eat come from animals killed for us to consume. When and if he starts suggesting this is uncool to his little personal set of ethics, we will talk about vegetarian and veganism, which he has already been exposed to in a healthy way.

No Phones / Books / Devices at the Dinner Table

We’re a bit flexible about this for weekend brunches when we all like to look at magazines, read books, catch up on Twitter, and share with one another, but for dinner there are no distractions allowed at the table. Dinner is about food and family time. We talk about our days, talk about the food, and talk about the future. It is the one and only time we guarantee that we will sit together and speak with no interruptions of busy lives (though there are regularly times when one of us has to eat and run to make it to a meeting!). Focusing on the food rather than the distractions for the main meal of our day is a great way to connect with what we are eating.

Food is Good for the Soul

A meal is more than just shovelling food in, and food is good for the body and the soul. Treats are okay now and then, and moderation is always the key. Experimentation keeps it lively, but consistency in how we experiment makes a big deal. By acknowledging that food is part of the fabric of our family, and revering it for more than just fuel, I hope to develop a lifelong interest and healthy love of food in my son.


Here are some of the better resources I’ve found.

Spoonfed – deals mostly in making sure kids eat healthy and avoid processed and synthetic stuff. Her blog is great on its own, and she has a great page of resources too.

Raise Healthy Eaters – another food blog, this one by a food educator and dietician Maryann Jacobsen. She’s a little bit more “preventing picky eaters” than Spoonfed, but her blog has tonnes of incredible resources. She has an e-book out that is really good and co-authored a book in print.

The Picky Eater Project is a series from the New York Times and chronicles one family’s attempt at overcoming picky eating. Start at Step One and work to the most recent.

100 Days of Real Food is another good blog, specifically this post which talks about the difference between a picky eater and a problem feeder.



7 years ago

1 Comment

  1. Nice blog.

    I live and raised my kid by the theory that no one needs to acquire a taste for french fries. It’s a given we will like sweets, salty treats, fried things and processed stuff that is chemically designed to delight our taste buds.

    So I delayed that stuff as long as I could. My kid ate fresh, fairly plain food for a long time. There isn’t a veg, fruit or grain or meat that he doesn’t like. Some he likes less, but if it’s what there is to eat, then he eats it.

    For a long number of years, my kid did not like peanuts, onions, or sundried tomatoes. That was his list. At age 12, he’s still not sure about the sundried tomatoes, but he tries them once a year because “I’m going to like them some day… just maybe not today”.

    Now we’re working on his tolerance for heat because I love spicy food and he is working on acquiring a taste for it.

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