On bribery, children and eating vegetables

Today I did something I swore I would never ever do in my parenting career. I used icecream as a bribe to get my six year old to eat his dinner.

Food and children. For some people, the problem is trying to get them to stop eating. In our house it’s the opposite. My children are the fussiest of fussy eaters. At the age of one, each of them started refusing the yummy baby mush I made them and began to limit themselves to toast and vegemite, pasta and cheese and yoghurt and apples.

I’ve pulled my hair out about it. I’ve tried forcing them to eat what I put on their plate, I’ve tried ignoring what they eat and simply going on and on about how yummy my own food is, and I’ve tried using peer pressure to get them interested in other foods. I’ve been to the library and pulled out every book on cooking for children I can find. I laugh bitterly when they gush “even the fussiest eaters will love this one”. Yeah? You think? You haven’t met my kids. If it’s green, they don’t put it in their mouths.

My friend’s 17 year old daughter has grown up on pasta and cheese. She won’t eat more than one type of vegetable and the only meat she puts in her mouth is the occasional piece of sausage. When I met her, I breathed a sigh of relief. She was alive, tall, reasonably healthy and not a mess emotionally. After talking to some other friends who assured me that they were fussy eaters as children, but now they like most things, I decided to not worry too much. After all, I didn’t like eggplant or pumpkin or even cheese when I was young, but things are different now.

One of my sons has autism spectrum disorder and I’ve been taking him to a doctor who looks at body chemistry in order to try to help him get better. When she discovered he had low zinc levels, she tested all the children and discovered that they are all the same. Low zinc affects the taste of food, so maybe there is a biological reason for their fussiness. We’ve all started to take zinc tablets on her advice, but she’s adamant that they need to eat more vegies and more meat.

So today, I explained it all to my six year old. “It takes six weeks for your tongue to get used to a new food,” I said. “So you’re going to have to eat a teaspoon of chicken every day for six weeks. By the end of the time you’ll like it. At least the doctor says you will. And just to help it along, I’m going to give you icecream after dinner if you eat it.”

His eyes lit up. “Really? Icecream?”

And all of a sudden, it’s worked. Yesterday he screamed for five minutes when I suggested he have a piece of chicken. Today he ate these foods that he has never before put in his mouth: chicken, prawns, lettuce and a piece of sushi roll.

Should I have used bribery before? I don’t know. I’m kind of against rewards and punishments on principle (see the brilliant writing of Alfie Kohn if you’re interested) but this is the parenting life. You try something for a while, and then you try something different. It’s a learning experience and you have to stay open to all the possibilities.