My seven year-old son won't eat. He's as thin as a stick and the only thing that I can get him to eat is spaghetti. I'm worried that he's not receiving enough vitamins and minerals and that he is too picky of an eater. Do you have any ideas?
You sound to me like the classical, concerned Jewish mother and I'm sure that there are thousands of mothers out there with the same concerns as they tell their children, "Es my kint (eat my child)". For some reason, it seems to be that mothers are always worrying about their children getting enough to eat (and something new that was never heard a few decades ago-about eating too much). I've been there too, sitting with my child, trying to coerce him to take, "one more bite of chicken." While coercion might achieve short –term goals, i.e. you got your child to eat two bites of chicken, it certainly isn't going to achieve long-term goals-having your child like and eat chicken when he grows older.
The more a parent pushes, the more the child pulls. It's the nature of life. If I keep telling my child to "eat, eat, eat" the child is not going to eat and if I tell the child, "stop eating so much, that's enough" the child is going to find ways to sneak food and eat even more than he would otherwise. So how do we do it? How does one achieve short-term and long-term goals?
First-know what your obligation is as a parent:
A parent's obligation is to provide nutritious food for their child and to make sure it is available. If a child is hungry, they'll eat. (Also I would ask my pediatrician if the child is really under/overweight or if he is just too thin/heavy in my eyes. If the doctor is not worried, you shouldn't be either.) If you are not filling them with candy and snacks and they have no other choice I guarantee you that by the end of the day they'll eat something that you give them.
Remember as well that children have small stomachs! They might need to eat smaller amounts in more frequent sittings. Also sometimes kids are so active and are having a good time playing that they forget to eat. You can call them, have everyone sit down and say, "It's meal time now." No force, if someone is hungry they eat, if not, they don't, but this is what we are doing now, sitting at the table.
The issue then is not about the food, but about the activity. There are times to eat and times to play. On the other hand if you find your child overweight and eating all the time you can do the same. "It's playtime now, not time to eat. If you are hungry, let's sit at the table and eat." If the child is hungry, they need to eat. If they are eating too fast and want more, you can suggest, "Let's take a few minutes to digest and if you are still hungry I'll be glad to give you more." After a few minutes they might realize that they are full and again instead of making an issue about the food, the issue is about eating slowly and listening to your body's natural level of satiety.
If we force our children that they absolutely must eat their chicken and peas because we are worried about them receiving enough protein, I promise you they will hate them and it will be an ongoing battle. What you can do is teach your child about the importance of vitamins and minerals. At their age level explain what iron does for the body and why we need calcium. Explain to your child what sugar can do to their teeth and the advantage of eating whole grains.
I started explaining to my child even before he was three about trans fats, artificial coloring and preservatives, and the importance of fiber and whole-wheat. The same year he told his pre-school teacher who offered him a white flour pita that we only eat whole wheat bread because "it's healthy and we want to be strong". At five he comes home with treats from school and asks me, "Mommy, does this have trans fats?" If the answer is positive he himself throws it in the garbage. Educate your children so that they themselves can make wise decisions.
This was the hardest one for me, the Northern Californian organic granola hippie child. If your child receives treats from friends' birthday parties and from school, don't take them from him and say, "No, no, no, no!" You will get the reverse affect and make the treats even more desirable to the child.
I have one neighbor whose children ask other children to hide their treats for them so that they can eat them when the mother is not looking because she is so strict about sugar. While I would never encourage my children to eat junk food, as long as it's Kosher, I won't deny it to them either. I will go as far as to read them the ingredients (see above for educate) and I will offer them substitutes as an exchange. If they take it great, if not, I let them eat it. Nine times out of ten they don't even end up eating it and the junk goes into the garbage (where it belongs). I find that the more relaxed I am, the less they want it.
Of course if your child has an allergy or medical condition being relaxed doesn't apply and in that case you need to take the food away from the child.
Fourth-Choose your battles:
Like I said earlier, don't make issues about food; instead make issues about values . You just cooked a wonderful dinner and your child looks at it and says, "Yuck. I want spaghetti." Again, don't argue about the chicken and the peas, but you can teach your child about consideration for others and about being happy with what one has. Instead of forcing them to eat the dinner you can say, "Mommy worked hard to make a special dinner and this is what there is, if you are hungry, you can eat it and if not, then don't, but I can't make anything else."
You can teach your children the importance of saying a bracha (blessing) on the food before eating it, thereby elevating the food from a mundane item to a median for bringing more holiness into the world. Let them know that where the food comes from and that one should never take having food for granted. After eating ones says another blessing. Both blessings acknowledge our gratitude to G‑d for creating and giving us the food we eat. Another example of a lesson that they can learn-"We have an order in our home, first the main meal and then dessert." No mention of the food item, the value is not the food, but that in life there is an order to doing things.
Fifth-Involve them and be patient-they'll grow out of it:
Involve your children as much as possible in making meals. If they put in their own energy to make them, it will be more of an incentive for them to eat them. Have a child peel vegetables or make healthy zucchini or banana muffins. Let your children pick menus if that is reasonable and works well for you. If they want spaghetti for three weeks in a row, they won't die of malnutrition. Give them whole-wheat spaghetti with plain tomato sauce and know that after a few weeks they will be sick of it and want something else. You can try to throw some cheese on it and make it a complete meal. Supplement with a multi-vitamin if you are really worried and call it a day.
Sixth-Last but not least...Set an example!
Do your best to also eat healthily! Setting an example for your child is the best way to get the message across.