Q: I can’t believe it’s almost Pesach! I just want to enjoy this holiday, but I’m so stressed out about my picky eater! I try to make healthy meals, but it seems like no matter what I make, he just refuses it. How can I get him to eat?
A: Yes, it’s that time of year again.
Time to clean behind the fridge and under that really heavy couch that nobody wants to move.
Time to plan, shop, and prep the menu.
Time to make the inside of the fridge look like an alien spacecraft…belonging to aliens who are amazingly good at meal prep and organization.
Whether you’re peeling, ordering, staying with relatives, or staying in a resort, Pesach is stressful. OK, maybe a little less stressful if you’re staying in a resort.
But what is the one thing that can really send someone over the edge?
A picky eater.
A child (or spouse?) who is open to a limited variety of foods on a regular basis, and who now has to subsist on Pesach cereal or ladyfingers for a whole week. While out of school. While off his regular schedule.
But Pesach can be fun too.
The jumping frogs and scary frozen-but-fiery hail. The creative masks and fun sing-a-longs.
So let’s agree to take off the stress-goggles for a minute and talk about how we can best pass down our love for our tradition. Because it’s only when we can show our kids the beauty of the holiday that they will feel our joy and see it as something they also want to pass down to their children.
And stay tuned for the end where I’ve attached a printable summary, so if those stress-goggles sneak back on, you have a cheat sheet in hand.*
Don’t Call Your Child Picky
First off, it’s not actually your job to “get your child to eat”. It’s your job to decide where and when the meal will be served, and then to put food on the table. It your child’s job from there—your child’s job is to decide what to take onto his plate from what you have presented. Your child’s job is to determine how much to eat and when to stop.
Think about that for a second. What a relief! No more fighting over food!
When we label our children, we are assigning them a personality trait. The label creates an excuse for a child to remain selective about food, rather than naturally growing through a normal childhood phase. Giving a child a negative label also decreases his confidence. The child believes that this negative label is a permanent part of his personality, and continues to believe this while growing up.
Negative labels also make it more difficult for us as parents. It’s much more challenging to parent a “picky eater” than it is to parent a child who is “hesitant around new foods” or a child who is “selective”.
Food Isn’t Just Nourishment
We are told that “food is just food”, but it’s so much more than that.
During Pesach, that borscht isn’t just borscht. It’s Great Grandma Chaya’s borscht which she made in hiding. That potato kugel is the same recipe enjoyed by Zayde Mendel when he was a young boy at his parents’ seder table.
Food represents culture, tradition, family, and happiness.
And we should enjoy it, because we need to teach our children how to enjoy it!
Don’t Worry About the Kids
They will be fine. Really.
The lack of control concerning what they eat during Pesach can be uncomfortable. There are many anxiety-provoking situations. The best thing you can do is relax and show them how you enjoy the holiday. They will want to enjoy it with you. Often, kids will default to certain foods if they feel those foods are forbidden, limited, or otherwise discouraged. When they see there is no negative reaction as they express the desire for something, they will lose a bit of that initial interest. The food no longer holds that same appeal. At this point, they will be much better equipped to listen to their own internal cues: the hunger and satiety that should truly guide their food choices. And they may become more adventurous as they feel supported and grow in their confidence at the table.
Pesach is busy. Skipping meals will set the whole family up for a rough time. Eating a satisfying, balanced breakfast gets everyone ready for a day of enjoyment. Make sure there is some amount of fat, protein, carbohydrate, and fiber present. Pair your eggs with some avocado. Add some melon on the side. Consider some yogurt or a piece of cheese. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to taste good and hold everyone over until the next meal.
Oh, and pack some snacks.
Just as it’s ok to have delicious food, and it’s ok to take seconds, it’s also ok to say no to something that doesn’t hold your interest. And this goes for kids as well. What goes on your plate, and subsequently in your mouth, is nobody else’s business. This holds true even if someone has made a special recipe and may be insulted if you don’t try it. As an adult, you may opt to put it on your plate but not eat it. Or you may decide to say, “I’m really full right now, but may I ask for the recipe?”
Your kids, however, may need some more help establishing these boundaries. You can ask them, “What does your tummy say?” Remind them that there will be more delicious food available later on, so if they are full, they can wait to see what’s next. And if their tummy wants some more, go ahead. Encourage them to listen to their body and the signals their body sends. By doing this, you are telling them that their perspective is important. This helps boost their confidence and may, over time, result in a more adventurous outlook on food. It will certainly help foster a positive relationship with their body, reducing the likelihood of poor confidence, withdrawn demeanor, and even eating disorders.
Family and community gatherings can be a hotbed of anxiety-provoking conversations for adults. And kids feel it. Keep conversation positive whenever possible. Avoid the diet-talk around kids. It’s so common when we get together with friends or family to make innocent comments like, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” A child will hear this—they hear so much more than we think—and understand it as, “Smaller people are more attractive”. “Potatoes are so bad for you” becomes “I am a bad person if I eat potato kugel”. So pass over those comments and stick to positives—ideally, about non-body attributes.
Do a Dry Run
Our schools are so good at teaching kids about the seder. They learn the items on the seder plate and the meaning behind each item. But what about the rest of the meals?
Because of the food restrictions inherent during Pesach, our whole menu changes. Suddenly, most foods are unfamiliar. While we are enjoying the special dishes we associate with friends and family around the seder table, a hesitant child will see a buffet of unfamiliar choices. This is very challenging for the cautious child, and may result in a decreased appetite.
At every meal. For a whole week.
The solution? Make some of these mains and side dishes familiar with a dry run. I am not suggesting turning over your kitchen weeks ahead of schedule, but consider busting out your Pesach recipe collection a bit earlier than anticipated and choosing a few key dishes to prepare for your child. Not an entire meal—just a main dish at one meal, a side dish at another, and maybe a couple of snacks here and there. Discuss the meaning of each dish—why it’s special and what you love about it. Your child may not take a bite, and that’s ok. You can examine the smell and the color, and consider the ingredients together. Share a memory with your child while you prepare to create new memories.
Embrace the Change
The whole schedule is up in the air. Embrace it. Go with the flow. Remind yourself that it’s just this week. Naps will be less frequent (for the kids too!). Meals will be at different places and different times. Showing [the facade of] a happy and flexible attitude will help everyone maintain a sunny disposition throughout the holiday.
Find a Safe Person
Pick a friend or relative who can be your sounding board so that you can hash out the obstacles of the holiday in a safe place, rather than in the direction of your loving family. When you are more relaxed, the family will be more relaxed. This means fewer arguments about washing hands, taking showers, and—you guessed it—food. If you can manage it, choose someone local so you can get out of the house and go for a walk. The endorphins from the pleasant physical movement won’t do you any harm either.
Show yourself grace. Show your husband grace. Show your kids grace. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that we are celebrating leaving slavery. Don’t create an emotional slavery for yourself by setting unreasonable standards and expectations.
Focusing on gratitude can help. When you’re having a difficult moment, think about one thing that brings you joy. Take a deep breath while holding that image in your mind. And then take another deep breath. And another. Until you’re ready to let yourself out of the pantry and rejoin your family.
Put Your Family First
By the time the first seder begins, the prep is all done. All important decisions have been made. Now it’s time to enjoy the food, the atmosphere, those oversized sunglasses and the plastic bugs. This is your time. This is your family. And you can make it beautiful.
Giving credit where credit is due, I took a lot of inspiration from an article written by Emily Murray, RD. While she focused on adult eating disorders during her holiday season, I used the same concepts to address childhood nutrition.
*Click here for your Kid-Friendly Pesach cheat-sheet!