The I-Don’t-Like-It-Today Syndrome: It’s “Normal”

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.


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6 Responses to The I-Don’t-Like-It-Today Syndrome: It’s “Normal”

  1. Justin says:

    I like your approach. It certainly beats the, “There are starving children in Africa who would *love* to eat your broccoli,” approach (though I’m sure I’ll drag that old jewel out at some point once I’m a parent…it’s inevitable). I’m also a HUGE fan of the, “I’m not a short order cook,” attitude. If you don’t like what’s on your plate, I’m not going to make something separate for you.

    That reminds me of one day when I was sitting at Panera, happily chomping away on my overpriced, yet delicious deli sandwich on freshly baked bread and I watched a Mom and her (7, maybe 8 year old?) kid walk in. The kid was toting his own bag with the golden arches on it (I’m not exaggerating) and sat-down with it to begin chowing-down his nuggets and sauce while mom went up to order her own meal. I remember being thoroughly disgusted because, a) That’ll be the day when I visit TWO take-out places to feed myself and my child because the kid is being stubborn; b) I find it rude in most cases to blatantly walk into a restaurant with a competitor’s product, take-up a table and consume it; and c) There are plenty “kid-friendly” choices on the menu at Panera (if you buy the kid-friendly food thing, which I don’t), most of them way healthier than McNuggets.

    • I think I’ll write a post someday about the starving children in Africa routine. 🙂 And I really think not being a short-order cook is a necessity for children to learn to manage their own eating habits and palates. If they never have the opportunity to experience hunger, they’ll never learn to self-manage their cues and make decisions based on need, not want.
      I cannot even believe that Panera story…well, okay, maybe I can, but honestly. I”m just shaking my head. And frankly, the food at Panera is still pretty hefty in terms of calories and fat, though I agree that the overall QUALITY is really quite good for a semi-fast-food kind of chain. I’ll eat at Panera in a pinch. In fact, we take the kids there once a year, because there’s one near the farm where we pick our pumpkins each fall, and it’s a nice little outing. But truly, to bring McD’s to Panera is an insult in every possible sense — it’s rude, as you said, and pandering to the child; and it’s taking a somewhat shrugworthy nutritional outing to a new low by introducing the worst of the worst into the picture. There are so many things wrong with that, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.

  2. James says:

    Kids will not behave like an adult; yes, obvious statement is obvious. Example: I will at times force down some semblance of a lunch despite the fact that it’s not what I want to eat, but primarily because I know I am hungry and need to eat or there are consequences (headaches, shakes, etc). Kids won’t just eat whatever is lying around or offered if it’s really not what they want, so there have been many nights where our dear children have also opted to eat nothing (and we hope for a decent breakfast showing the next day).

    We use the sometimes frowned-upon “bargaining” as a rare means to stave off complete nutritional collapse when we’re out at a restaurant. “You may not have any more chips/fries until you eat some chicken/meat or fruit/vegetable, then you may have more.”

    • I don’t see that necessarily as “bargaining” in the negative sense, James — I see it as “survival.” No, seriously. When I think about the maligned “bargaining,” i think of it as “If you eat your (fill in the blank), you may have dessert.” What you’re describing is similar, but it’s more like “You’ve eaten some of x…I want you to eat a variety, so I’m asking you to eat some of y and z before having seconds of x.” We do the same thing often, as in: No, you may not have seconds of chicken until you’ve tried some broccoli and rice. If you have some broccoli and rice, AND YOU ARE STILL HUNGRY (very important point), then you may have more chicken. It’s a fine but important distinction, I think, and teaches children that there’s a need for variety in their diets. Plus, I don’t know about chips/fries necessarily… 🙂 but the try-everything-before-more-of-anything approach doesn’t set up an unintentional food hierarchy. “Eat dinner and you get dessert” tends to equate in a child’s mind to “Dessert is waaaaay better than dinner.” (As if they needed to be told that!) “Eat broccoli AND chicken, not just chicken” means BOTH foods are equally desirable and important.

  3. Kim B. says:

    Thanks for this, Bri! I am so guilty of offering an alternative – a no-cook alternative – when T. refuses to eat what I’ve served. I know it’s a bad habit that I need to break ASAP. The other thing is my emotional state: it’s not his fault, but I feel deflated when I’ve worked all day and don’t feel like making dinner, but I do so because I have a kid whom I love and it’s my responsibility to feed him, and he won’t eat it! In the olden days, before kids, on those days, I would just pour myself a bowl of cereal (I know, I know, not a healthy or satisfying way to eat), but I don’t have that luxury now. Man, being a parent is hard! 😉

    • Hey Kim! You’re welcome. I’ll do a few more in the next couple of weeks. 🙂 Sometimes, we all need a lifeline, even if it’s just hearing that somebody else’s house is as crazy as ours is!

      The emotional state thing is HUGE. That’s a subject in and of itself that needs tackling, and I’ll do it soon. I hear it from lots of people, not just you, and I remember quite clearly the days when I’d cry in frustration as L. clamped his mouth shut and just refused to eat a darned thing. With P., I’ve learned a lot and am a lot more zen, but boy, have i been there!
      As to the cereal for supper thing: When I was in graduate school and in my first apartment, I kept a cupboard of oatmeal pouches, a stash of cheese and crackers, and some celery and carrots on hand. At the beginning of a week, I’d make a big pot of something, usually chili or soup or lasagna, and I’d eat it for lunch and dinner until it was gone. Then I’d subsist on the oatmeal, cheese, crackers, and raw veg. until I went shopping again. Some nights dinner was celery and carrots with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. No, not totally healthy or satisfying, but completely understandable! There are nights when I’m tempted, believe me! 🙂

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