Recently a faithful reader, Kim, commented that she enjoys getting perspectives on the weird and often frustrating things my kids do at the dinner table, because it helps her (as the mother of a toddler herself) remember that her own child’s weird and frustrating dinner behavior is, well, “normal.”  I use that word with some trepidation, because: a) I’m no developmental specialist, so I’m probably highly unqualified to say what is and is not normal; and b) J. and I have a long-standing joke that, as our offspring, our kids have pretty much no shot at growing up and being what might acceptably pass as “normal.”

However, Kim inspired me to do a little mini-series on “Normal” eating behavior in kids that drives the adults around them completely batty.  Tonight’s example: “I don’t like that right now.”

True story: When our eldest niece was younger — probably around 6 years old — she was at my in-laws’ house for lunch.  She had also been there the day before.  On Day One, my mother-in-law, G., made her a grilled cheese sandwich using the white American cheese that was in the refrigerator.  She ate it without complaint.  On Day Two, G. again made her a grilled cheese sandwich with white American cheese.  The child’s response?  “I don’t like this kind of cheese.”

Yes, it’s one of the most crazy-making things kids do when we’re trying to feed them.  They seemingly CHANGE THEIR PREFERENCES OVERNIGHT.  And although J. and I, for the past seven years, have used “I don’t like this kind of cheese” as a private catchphrase to sum up any kind of general dissatisfaction (dairy-related or not) that cannot be rationally attributed to a functional adult, our kids do it just as much as any other kids.  L. himself has done it twice this week.  Yesterday, for example, I made whole-wheat macaroni and cheese for dinner — not his favorite, I know, but something he HAS eaten before.  His reaction?  “I don’t think I like that very much.”

Me: “Well.  It will be on your plate.  There will also be broccoli, and tomato salad, and you may eat as much or as little of anything I give you as you want to.”
L.: “Yeah, but I think I might just eat the broccoli.  Because I don’t like the mac and cheese.”
Me: “That’s fine.  You should probably think about trying it, though, if you could.  Because last time, you said you didn’t like it, and then you ate all of it.  Remember?”
L.: “Yes.  Except I liked it THEN, but I don’t like it NOW.  I don’t think I like it TODAY.”

The vaudeville act was repeated again tonight, with the appearance of veggie quesadillas.  I’ll spare you the details, but L. peeled his quesadillas apart and ate each ingredient SEPARATELY.  Yes, he ate it all, so I don’t much care…but boy, was there some kind of production about it.

Yes, most kids do this.  P. does it all the time, far more than L., as a matter of fact — but L. articulates it much better.  (Two-year-olds tend to be more demonstrative and less verbal about food preferences; I’m much more likely to catch P. doing a Jackson Pollock rendering with his meal than to hear him utter a polite “I don’t yike dis.”)  There are lots of reasons why they do it, possibly including, but not limited to:

1) Control — small children enjoy feeling that they have control over something, even if it’s just what they choose to eat (because, really, who’s prying their jaws open and force-feeding them?).  Saying that they don’t like something is easier than saying that they would really like to assert some dominance and autonomy in this psychological stage of individuation, thank you very much.
2) Lack of hunger/desire for said food.  Let’s face it — how many of us really want to eat broccoli EVERY SINGLE TIME it’s in front of us?  We likely do, and we may even enjoy it once we’re eating it, but that’s out of habit and will, not because we really FEEL like it.  There are certainly nights when I don’t feel like eating what we’re having, but of course I do.  Kids don’t have long-range thinking about these things; they just live in the moment, and in that moment, heck NO, they don’t like the asparagus they ate yesterday just to humor you.
3) Moods — when little people have moods, even if you’re not totally aware of what is going on inside their heads, they’re just not apt to do ANYTHING that seems like the “normal” or expected choice. 
4) Palate — yes, kids’ food preferences and tastes change.  (So do adults’.)  And no, it doesn’t seem logical, really, that the cheese that my niece liked one day was soundly rejected the next; but I actually wonder if, in some cases, it’s very possible that the child in question really wholeheartedly believes that he/she doesn’t like that food at that moment.  Kids’ palates are extremely sensitive and extremely variable until at least age 7, possibly even 10 or older.  So yesterday, asparagus may have tasted good, but today, well, he’s got a cold coming on or he drank milk before he tried it and it made it taste different or the sky was blue, but for whatever reason, it’s just not quite what he remembered.  And he won’t eat it.

What matters is not the “why” or the “what,” it’s really the “how” — as in, how we as parents deal with the syndrome.  I usually try to keep things very casual and non-judgmental.  I accept what the boys tell me, with great respect, because I want them to know that I’m listening and that, as far as eating goes, I’m not going to strong-arm them.  I try to acknowledge it without going overboard — a simple “Okay” or “I understand you” suffices — and then offer them the reality of the situation:
1) You’ll be served that item anyway. 
2) You do not have to eat it.
3) It’s always important to continue trying things, because we like different things at different times.
4) Based on the above, you may want to consider trying it, but it’s up to you.
5) You will not be offered anything to eat above and beyond what’s on your dinner plate.  You will need to determine how much to eat to keep yourself from going to bed hungry.

After that, I let it go.  L. ate nothing but broccoli for dinner last night (I know, kind of a “win,” really).  Tonight he ate everything, but in his own fashion and on his own clock.  P. ate a little broccoli last night and some fruit; he ate NOTHING tonight.  Nothing.  Both of them are happy and healthy and totally fine.  And tomorrow, I guarantee you one of them will wake up deciding to like or dislike something else totally random, because that’s how kids roll — but as usual, the game won’t get them very far, because I just don’t want to play.