Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

The Tragedy of Being A Good Cook When Your Kids Are Picky Eaters

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Whenever I go to the library I try to check out a cookbook. I find online recipe searches overwhelming, and enjoy narrowing my scope to 100 or so pages of a particular cuisine. Yesterday I picked up Deb Perlman's The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and spent the afternoon scanning recipe after delicious recipe with a pad of sticky tabs to mark the ones I wanted to try out. I marked none of them. This is the tragedy of being a good cook when your kids are picky eaters, my friends. As I looked at the slightly above-average techniques, time, and ingredients I thought to myself: "My kids won't eat this. They probably won't even try this. My horrible family doesn't deserve this level of effort."

OK, my family is not horrible. I love them very much and devote a massive amount of time to their health and happiness... but I have limits, people. Because I'm the one cooking dinner every night I'm pushing the limits of just how much culinary effort I'm willing to spend on them. And guys, I'm not a master chef or anything, but I'm a damn fine cook who comes from a long line of damn fine cooks.

My mom, grandparents, great-grandparents, and dozens of aunties from our community who would come over every Sunday with plates heaping with food, made from recipes passed down from "the old country". Homemade pasta. Stuffed artichokes. Braciole. Pignoli cookies that actually melt in your mouth. Surrounded by all this delicious food, I was inspired... to never, ever attempt cooking. I don't know that I'm scared of failure, but I'm deeply scared of looking stupid. And when it came to cooking, the bar was just so high that looking stupid felt like an inevitability. But somewhere in my mid-20s I thought it was time to be an adult. After all, cooking is a basic life skill.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

I started with simple baking. It felt more straightforward to me — enter the ingredients precisely as instructed and take out a cake an hour later. The imprecision of what makes a good meal that frustrated me about cooking was a non-issue in baking and — bonus — there were fewer bakers in my family so that intimidating bar was lower. Successful desserts provided a bridge to simple dinners. Eventually, over time, the training wheels came off and I was able to use recipes as inspiration rather than rigid instructions. I improvised. I imagined flavor combinations and tried them out and course corrected when I went too far with any particular seasoning or ingredient. I came up with my own dishes. I was doing it.

But knowing this is just a phase is one thing. Watching your children turn up their noses and gag at the very sight of a lovingly prepared saag paneer or chicken chasseur is another.

It took my more than a quarter of a century, but I got there and took my place among the other good cooks in my life. I could help prepare for a holiday dinner without worrying that my contribution wouldn't be up to snuff. I enjoyed having friends over for a meal. I took pride in being someone who could bring a dish to a potluck and people would say, "Oooh! What is this? This is good!" And I felt excited about the fact that, when I did have kids, they would have a mom who knew her way around the kitchen. A mom who could provide healthy, delicious meals and if they didn't like them, well then, they just wouldn't eat.

Oh yes. I was one of those.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

For a while, my plan was working great. I had compliant little eaters with adventurous palates. No matter what I put in front of them, they devoured it. My son loved kale! My daughter chowed down on spicy chicken stew! Fish, vegetables, ancient grains, tofu. Italian, Thai, French, Mexican. I'd gather armfuls of cookbooks and blithely tick off anything that tickled my fancy to add to the weekly dinner menu. I'd sigh smugly as I watched my toddlers dig into some shrimp. "Those parents who feed their kids french fries and chicken nuggets every night... don't they know that if you just let them try different foods they'll develop sophisticated and discerning tastes?'

At around 18 months old, each of my kids figured out that they don't have to eat what they don't want to eat. Old standbys fell away one by one until, over time, I could count the foods my children would actually eat on my fingers and toes.

The good cooks who filled my face and childhood full of homemade goodness instilled in me, both subtly and directly, that food is love. To reject someone's food is to reject them.

My husband and I frantically researched the topic and OMG the things we Googled. In our desperately, expansive search for answers, we kept coming back to the same refrain over and over: this is normal, keep offering a variety of foods, don't pressure them to eat, don't shame them or punish them for not eating, and their pickiness will almost certainly pass. We didn't want to give our kids "food issues." We didn't want to prolong this phase by triggering defiance. So we rolled with it. This translates to the fact that, for years now, I serve my kids a small portion of whatever I've made for my husband and me (they never eat it) alongside a dinner they actually will consume. Every night I scrape whatever I've made that they didn't touch into a container of leftovers, sighing reminding myself that this, too, shall pass.

But knowing this is just a phase is one thing. Watching your children turn up their noses and gag at the very sight of a lovingly prepared saag paneer or chicken chasseur is another. Or when they whine about something you've made that you know for a fact they like.

The good cooks who filled my face and childhood full of homemade goodness instilled in me, both subtly and directly, that food is love. To reject someone's food is to reject them. This is, I know, tremendously problematic and unhealthy, however well-meaning. Food is food. Yes it can convey culture and comfort and emotions, but it's not a stand-in for any of those things. And while I know this and am determined to break a cycle of unhealthy food relationships and politics with my kids, I can't completely scrub my own indoctrination with logic. My kids rejecting my food — my good food that I'm good at cooking — is demoralizing above and beyond feeling as though my efforts are wasted and unappreciated. It feels like a slight.

Keep offering new foods. Don't shame or punish when they don't like them. It will probably pass. Maybe sometimes the things you learn on Google aren't completely off-base.

Since every night entails preparing three different dinners (because my son and my daughter are picky in completely different ways!), I do not have the time or wherewithal to go all out for whatever the "main dinner" is going to be. I try to keep it to one or two pots and 30 minutes. I spent my 20s developing my culinary skills and I feel as I'm wasting the potential to continue to grow in my 30s I prepare yet another bowl of Greek yogurt and fruit puree for my daughter. The things we do for our kids, right?

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

But in the past year, something seemingly miraculous has happened: my 7-year-old son has begun to actually try new foods. The other night I offered him some eggplant rollatini, which he tasted without protest, and quickly declared: "I can't get enough of this."

Keep offering new foods. Don't shame or punish when they don't like them. It will probably pass. Maybe sometimes the things you learn on Google aren't completely off-base.

There's a glimmer of light at the end of this bland, repetitive tunnel. I live in hope that, someday, my kids will once again appreciate my kitchen skills. And it's that hope that keeps me cooking, even when it goes largely unappreciated.