My one year old daughter is an amazing eater. Her favorite food is hummus. If she sees it in the refrigerator she excitedly claps her hand, gazes up at me and says, “Mommy! Hummmmmmm! Hummmmmmmmmmm!” The other night she ate a plate of spaghetti bolognese. Her favorite dinner is Jamaican chicken stew, which is made with no small amount of seasonings, including crushed red pepper. The child has yet to meet a meal she hasn’t loved. Then there’s my 4-year-old son. My beautiful, smart, talented, wonderful, frustrating, challenging, contradictory son. I probably shouldn’t complain. As far as picky eaters go, I hit the jackpot. OK, so there are only, like 5 foods total that he will deign to put into his mouth, but at least most of them are healthy or at the very least not unhealthy. This is at least what I whisper to myself as I cry myself to sleep every night, exhausted by at least recent three food battles.
If we’ve gone out to eat that day, or had company over, I’m also crying at the dirty looks (real or imagined) I’ve received from other people. Looks that say, “She’s letting him eat that for dinner?” or, “I would never give a separate meal to my kid. He’ll eat what we eat or go hungry.” (Incidentally, based on my anecdata of knowing people who said that last thing and then have kids, statistically speaking, you are going to eat your words as your child eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while the rest of the family eats salads.)
Food is never a socially or emotionally neutral subject, so it makes sense that parents would be so defeated and at a loss when their child is a picky eater. You think, for example...
Here’s a fun toddler recipe for you: Take Cheerios, raisins, and milk, pour it in a bowl, and then just dump it directly into your garbage. This is basically what my 4-year-old eats every morning. It’s not like I’m forcing him to eat something he doesn’t like. This is literally what he asks for every. single. day. My husband or I prepare it, he takes maybe a bite and then it just sits there as long as I let it. I have tried giving smaller portions; I have experimented with ratios of all three ingredients. No dice. At least ¾ of it remains uneaten, usually more.The kicker? He gets weepy and upset if I try to clear the cereal away. Because “he wasn’t done with it.” And I’m like
“Then eat it.”
Look, wasting food feels bad on every possible level: financially, ethically, parenting-wise and, of course it perpetuates the constant fear you have that your kid isn’t getting enough of the nutrients they need “to grow up big and strong.”
It doesn’t have to be bread, though that seems to be the most common item I hear from other parents. It can be a carrot, or an apple, or a cheese stick, or chicken nuggets. As you can imagine, based on the variety of foods I have presented, there’s also no set definition for what constitutes a “broken” food, either institutionally or individually. Broken can mean burned, or squished, or bruised, or dirty, or being lightly dusted with parsley, or having a small crumb missing from the whole. For all I know “broken” means the child feels the existential sorrow radiating from the food that they can only articulate through weeping over its brokeness as they reflect upon their own fragility. Who the eff knows. It’s frustrating as hell.
I mean, the Play-Doh in and of itself would be gross, but this is old Play-Doh that’s been dropped on the floor more than once and has collected its own ecosystem of cat hair and crumbs. This is gross. You’re gross, kid! But in addition to being deeply confusing and annoying, I also feel this is a subtle jab to the ego; your child would rather eat Play-Doh than your cooking. Nice.
How can you not appreciate how damn whimsical these bananas and veggie pancakes are? How can you not admire how many kitchen appliances I had to use? I’m sorry, but please explain to me what exactly about a delicious dinner that includes all the basic food groups and gives you your daily allotment of vitamins and minerals in one miraculous meal. And yeah: dinner. How are you not leaping for joy that I am letting you eat pancakes for dinner?
You try every “parenting hack” you ever saw on an internet list to sleuth healthy food into your kids’ diet and deliver it in a visually appealing way that would have them begging for more. The comments section was full of fellow parents who said things like “My LO just loves these pancakes! We make them together about twice a week!” You think back to these comments as your child refuses the fruits of your labor, and a single tear rolls down your cheek.
Of course, this only happens when you’ve only made enough for yourself. It doesn’t matter if the child has expressed that he hates it in the past, or if you offered him a plate of his own. Whatever you are eating is, somehow, mystically, delicious, food that is never “broken” and must be eaten. Sometimes it’ll even happen when you bring a new food in the house. You’ll, like, pour yourself some Grape Nuts or whatever, and your kid curiously and tentatively trots over.
“What are you eating?”
“Hmmm… okay. I’ll share.” (With my son, it’s never a question—he says it like I’ve already offered or like he’s being generous to me. I think he thinks he’s being tricky.)
Anyway, in this instance it’s annoying, but you you think, “Hey, he’s trying a new food. Just give him some.” So he eats with delight and keeps telling you how good it is, and you tell him how proud you are that he’s trying new things because encouragement and positive reinforcement are important. Next time you go to the grocery store, you buy two boxes of Grape Nuts… only to have your child whine the next time you serve it to him.
Among all these frustrations, I comfort myself in knowing that most people grow out of this… right?