My kids are picky eaters.
I don’t much like to refer them as “picky eaters”. It’s such an ugly, unsavory term. It makes me think of fourth grade and Raymond Wallace sitting in the back of class scratching at the scabs on his knees and popping the scratched-off pickin’s into his mouth.
I much rather think of my kids as evolutionarily challenged.
It has a lyrical and at the same time objectively scientific ring to it, yes? Evolutionarily challenged. Makes it sound as if my kids' food issues are beyond my powers of nurture to influence one way or another, and - most importantly - it doesn’t make me out to be a bad mommy.
It’s Darwin’s fault that my kids hate kale, after all, not mine.
See, back in the day - waaaaaaay back in the day like when humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth together (eh-hem) - a kid who toddled around and ate anything bitter tasting was, most likely, a kid who did not live to see her second birthday. Even today, bitter tasting plants generally get the Mr. Yuck sticker. Bitter is poisonous. Bitter is vomiting and respiratory distress and violent convulsive seizures and a quick - or sometimes painfully prolonged - death. Bitter is hemlock and nightshade and giant, killer rhubarb leaves.
And guess what else tastes bitter?
Kale and collards and spinach and Brussels sprouts. All those “good for you” foods.
Now, if we’re talking 200,000 years ago, my kids are definitely the survivors who take the long road around both the pokeweed patch and the spinach field, while all those other kids who gladly ask for second servings of Brussels sprouts (although back then they were called Paleolithic Sprouts) are on the road to being pterodactyl food.
If we’re talking 200,000 years ago, my kids rule.
However, we’re talking 2007, and my kids’ DNA has evidently missed the memo which gave the all-clear for eating your leafy greens again.
Many a supper have I witnessed a mere eighth-cup helping of escarole (delicately seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, organic lemon, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper) cause a 40-pound child to writhe and retch and spin on her head to such a shocking extent that we had to lash her to the four poster bed and douse her with improvised Holy Water to stop the continued summoning of what could only have been demons. (By the way, you can readily concoct your own Holy Water by making the sign of the cross over almost any liquid - I once baptized an infant using a glass of V8. Although, I do not recommend Holy V8 for expelling beta carotene demons. Best use some plain seltzer.)
And I want to make one thing clear right here: up until the time they reached 18 months old, any and each of my children would eat anything. Really. Anything. Terzo is 14 months old and right now he’ll eat tofu mashed with wheat germ and almond butter; avocado and banana with smooshed sunflower seeds; cabbage and beef and onions and green peppers. He’ll even eat crayons and graphite and boogers. As of right now, he’s very much not a picky eater.
Meanwhile, Seconda, my six-year-old, watches her brother with disgust.
“Ewwwwwww. He’s eating green and brown chunky stuff. That looks like vomit.”
“Darling, you ate this same exact thing when you were his age and you loved it.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“No, I didn’t love it.”
“Well, you ate it.”
Seconda considers this historical factoid about herself, decides that it doesn’t jibe with her current identity as someone who will not allow green food to pass her lips, and eyes me with a mixture of indignant disbelief and white hot anger for all the psychological wrong I have caused her via past helpings of green and brown chunk food.
And if you ask me when their aversion to certain foods began, or why it happened at all, all I can answer is that I truly don’t know. One day, my kids were eating sardines and spicy mung beans and the next day the only thing that they’d allow to pass their lips was unsalted mashed potatoes.
Seconda whole-heartedly began her the picky-eater "stage" (I'm thinking positively, here) at around 2 years old and continues to be excruciatingly choosy. However, I honestly think she’s a Super Taster (someone for whom a lima bean tastes of 1,000 lima beans) and maybe, just maybe, a little more evolutionarily challenged than my other kids. I mean that in the best way possible. I love her dearly and she’s a charm of a kid, but let’s face it - she wasn’t going to make it through the Potato Famine of 1740 if she was going to insist on being picky about eating stray dog and peat. Either the stray dog-eating gene is recessive in our family, or Seconda takes more strongly after her Lithuanian ancestors who were all about potatoes and butter and hold the leafy greens, I don't care how many Prussians are coming through the door.
Prima, my eldest, went through a developmentally normal stage of “I no likey” and then came out of it at around age five without much - or any - brow-beating or bullying or gnashing of teeth on my part.
And yeah, I know that calling mealtime encouragement “bullying” comes across as a bit dramatic, but let me clue you in on where I’m coming from:
If you’ve ever been a five-year-old on a Kindergarten after-school playdate and have been invited to stay for dinner, and during dinner your best friend’s dad has stood over you gruffly not allowing you to leave the table and resume playing Colorforms until you’ve eaten what looks to be about three pounds of droopy, hemorrhaging, boiled red beets, you’d get a bit dramatic, too.
I shall never, ever forgive Wendy O’Boyne’s dad for trying to make me choke down even one red beet. To this day whenever I see a red beet, I fight back my gagging, and I say a small prayer in the hope that somewhere, at some dinner table, some child is finding the nerve to rise up and fight back his own fetid root vegetable oppressor by determinedly flinging the awful plate of pulsing purple blood tubers against the wall (or at least feeding them to the cat) and yelling, “Give me potatoes, or give me death! I shall not feast upon your bitter fruits of misopedia, nor give-in to this beta vulgaris that you call 'respect for authority'. As God is my witness, I will never eat red beets again!”
Seriously, what I put into my mouth is a very personal matter.
Just ask my…confessor.
You give me a rule like, “You must try three bites of every food on the table” and I’m going to do my best to prove to you that I’m not going to must try anything, sister, so put that wacky-weed in your bong and smoke it.
You tell me that I won’t get dessert unless I eat what’s on my plate, and I’ll sit with my arms crossed and lips zipped and say prayers to St. Sarturninus and the Irish Hunger Martyrs for a speedy delivery to the great beyond (Paris) where Gaston Lenotre will serve me plates of pain au chocolat while I sit upon a silvery tuffet.
You show me pictures of children starving in Kolkata and tell me that I am spoiled and over-indulged and I should be humbly thankful for the bounty that is The United States of America, and I’m going to tell you that, if you want the truth, a plate of uneaten green beans is the least of your worries when it comes to over-indulging the whims of this Western child; when it comes to me, you have bigger character challenges to deal with than can be wished away with the false security and self-congratulations gained by getting me to eat my legumes. (And anyway, my friend from India tells me that plenty of kids there are picky eaters and that her cousins’ mommy-talk is just as likely to be centered around “how to get kids to eat spicy curry” as not. Starving kids, yes, will eat anything, even their own hair or soiled bed sheets. But I’d rather not use starvation motivation as the basis of my parenting, nor associate pangs of hunger with my intended gift of enlightenment and deep joy that can only be gained through a profound and loving relationship with radicchio. Sure, most kids won‘t starve themselves - as is the oft-heard wisdom - but Seconda, who is already a wee slip of a girl, will easily drop five pounds when faced with a week’s worth of “just try it“ food. This is a fact. It's been attempted.)
Basically, I was an incorrigible child. But my steadfast stubbornness which was borne and came to full fruition at the dinner table has nevertheless served me well during, say, withstanding teen-on-teen peer pressure to forge notes from my parents to the tattoo parlor, and even thirty-five years later into the present day, e.g. when I need to doggedly negotiate with a surly customer service representative over returning a pair of shoes without a receipt. So there is a positive there.
When I was a kid, I didn’t like the taste of pizza.
Can you believe that?
What kid doesn’t like pizza?
I hated all red sauce. I didn’t like macaroni and cheese. I only ate vanilla ice cream. I survived, instead, on a limited diet of gravy bread and cube steak. Vegetables were mostly gray and came from a can and that's the way I liked it. I was not adventurous when it came to passing food across my palate.
These days, however, I am both gourmande and garbage can. I will eat anything and everything. I will try it. I will enjoy it. I’m an easy date when it comes to choosing a restaurant. The only thing I kinda sorta still despise is olives, and I sincerely feel bad about this. But greens and tripe, blood sausage and monkey eyes, I’ll taste them all. My favorite flavor ice cream is “yes please, I’ll have some more” and right now I am eating a plate heaped with roasted sweet-hot cubanelle peppers and throwing my head back and laughing in ecstasy (except only after chewing thoroughly and swallowing). I can devour a head of raw kale in one sitting and am firmly convinced that I’ve more than made up for all that lutein I missed out on as a child. Really. My eyesight is so good that I can see through walls, closed doors, and often right through the back of my head. Just ask my kids.
And best of all, trying any new food for the first time was all my idea.
The moment I started trying new foods was exactly that moment when other people stopped suggesting to me I should try them.
It was a control issue, pure and simple. It still is. I’m that kind of girl. Love me or leave me.
(Although, when I was five, tomato sauce did honestly taste like armpit to me.)
On the other hand, I hear I was ridiculously easy to potty train; I evidently went elsewhere to work through my control issues, i.e. the dinner table. So, carefully choose your parenting battleground and hill to die on, is my advice. Frankly, I much prefer being a conscientious objector parent at the dinner table, saving the bloodshed for the really important issues (like “no repelling from the second story roof”), but that’s me.
But what of my own kids? What of my super taster and my stubborn “you can’t control what goes into me or when I later expel it” child? What happens when Terzo just says no to roasted tofu and wheat germ casserole? Am I to play the short order cook to my equally and endearingly incorrigible children? And other than not having the time to cook eleventy-two different meals a night, is there something inherently wrong or morally damning to my children should cooking multiple meals be my choice? After all, my mom catered to my odd gustatory whims and - as the other oft-quoted wisdom goes - in spite of the anecdotal “data” and dire warnings which speak of airs of entitlement and all-around bad manners, I turned out okay.
Except for that belligerent arguing about shoe receipts thing.
And I know at least one person who ate all their vegetables every night as a child and who is now is prison. True story. So, so much for the virtue of clearing your plate and its magical property of instilling discipline and good-etiquette. According to my data sample of one, any success in getting a child to eat carrots under duress or threat of no brownies will be short-lived and only later lead to that child's driving without a license, armed robbery, and unfortunate choice of hairstyle. I'm not even smiling here.
Well, maybe a little.
Okay, I'm smiling a lot.
I know plenty of perfectly lovely people who were once childhood members of the Clean Plate and "Try A Bite" Clubs.
The short of it is that I cook food - when I rarely cook food - that everyone in the family likes. A little bit of everything that everyone enjoys out of respect for their oh-so-very-human idiosyncrasies, big people and small people alike. Something for my choosy husband, something for my picky kids, and I’ll just have a bowl of cereal, please. And if that’s not pleasing to your palate, then help yourself to a yogurt or grab an apple or learn how to make toast and open a jar of peanut butter. Choice is a luxury my family enjoys, not unlike the luxuries of indoor plumbing, relatively inexpensive gasoline, and the availability of twenty different brands of toothpaste, for starters. For better and worse, there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle either which way. We most of us have got it good here and telling a kid that they have no choice when right in the next room is a television with 3,490 children's entertainment channels is a bit…contradictory, yes? You recognize the forces against us.
Occasionally, for a vitamin boost, I puree organic green and orange foods along with a dash of wheat germ, and hide the veggie moosh in meatloaf or pancakes. Some would call that lying to my kids and being a bad mom. Well, I hearby promise to come clean about the sneaky yams around the same time I tell my kids the truth about Santa Claus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and Chappaquiddick.
Really, my kids have it very good. And they are very good kids, and not just "good for kids who don't eat salt cod". And if the worse that happens to them is they someday find out that I was lying to them about the tuna casserole ingredients, then basically their careers as misunderstood and tormented poets and artists will be over before they began.
They so want to be misunderstood poets and artists. And finding some depth of material borne of emotional and physical hardship can be rather tough in the cushy suburbs. No one writes long mournful songs about the time they got stuck in traffic and almost missed soccer practice. No, you need a good long famine or dinosaur attack to spark that kind of creativity.
So maybe - just maybe - in spite of all I've just said, this evening I’ll whip-up a pot of gelatinous red beets and kale, and force my kids to eat a plateful. In fact, I think I hear Andy Warhol insisting on it.
Tomorrow is born the artist.
Tonight, my children dream of pterodactyls...and bitter greens.
John Lee Super Taster, by They Might Be Giants - creators of the best kids' music on the planet