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The Sibling Factor: The perks and perils of siblings at the dinner table

Twice in the past month my younger son, who is a much more selective eater, has stunned us by happily trying and then falling in love with new vegetables (asparagus and artichokes). They are now two of his go-to requests when I check in with him about meals for the upcoming week. I wish I could say it was due to my inspired, creative, and especially delicious presentation of the foods, but the reality is that in both cases it has been due to his big brother.

These are two foods that my older son loves and now that they are in season he has been eagerly requesting them and then enjoying them with gusto when they are served. I noticed that each time, my younger son was carefully watching his brother out of the corner of his eye and that he then, quietly, tried the food himself. These foods were offered in the same way we serve all new foods in our house: they were put out with the rest of the meal, which included “safer” foods to fall back on, there was in invitation given to try the new food such as, “would you like to try the asparagus?” And then it was left at that. I am convinced that it was his big brother’s enthusiasm that made the food more appealing.

On the other hand, I have also seen it go the other way. I have watched in dismay as my boys negatively influence one another when a new food is presented. I have also worked with clients who struggle with this. For instance, one family I worked with had an older brother who was very selective about what he ate, while his little brother was curious and eager to try new foods. The older brother, though, was very vocal about his dislikes and would even say things such as, “don’t eat that! It is SOOO gross!” The parents were at a loss because their younger one was becoming more and more selective, in order to be more like his brother.

A child who is very vocal about his or her dislike for certain foods can easily influence other siblings who then either get scared off or see it as an opportunity to declare their dislike as well. So I have come up with a set of expectations that I have implemented at our table and I use with clients as well:

  • No one is required to try the foods that are offered, but the foods are offered to everyone and offered cheerfully and without pressure.
  • If you would like to try the new food you are welcome to smell, touch, lick, or bite the food. If you find that it is unappealing to you, you are welcome quietly spit it out in a napkin.
  • No one is allowed to say things such as “gross,” “yuck,” or “I don’t like that!” The reason for this is that everyone has different tastes and that is a good thing! But if someone says that a food is gross or yucky, then other people who like the food might feel bad or embarrassed and the person who made the food might feel bad or embarrassed.
  • If you take a bite you are welcome to give a “thumbs up,” a “thumbs middle,” or a “thumbs down” to express your opinion.
    • If you express a “thumbs up,” then you are invited to say what you liked about the food.
    • If you express a “thumbs middle” or a “thumbs down,” then instead of saying what you didn’t like about the food, you are invited to give suggestions for what might make it more enjoyable for you the next time. Examples might be: more salt or seasoning, a different way of cooking, a dipping sauce, a different texture, etc.

Time and time again, I have seen at my house and in the homes of the families I work with that once those negative statements are taken away, but another opportunity for expression of preferences and tastes is offered, the children (and sometimes adults) are much more likely to try things, to be curious, and to be respectful of one another’s tastes.

While we often focus on the influence of parents, we also can forget about the other essential people at the table, the siblings. They are great influencers of one another, so if we can use that to our advantage and create an environment in which everyone feels heard and individual tastes are respected and even celebrated.

Have you seen these dynamics in your household? Do your kids encourage or dissuade each other from eating certain foods? How have you handled it?


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