Every so often, I like to torture myself: I write out a list of the foods my 4-year-old, Harry, will eat. At last count it totaled 27 items, not including "gimme" foods such as crackers, cookies, and animal-shape snacks. Charting his favorites on paper is painful, yes, but it's also embarrassing. See, I'm writing a cookbook for new parents to reassure moms that they can cook -- and raise good eaters while they're doing it. But Harry, oh, Harry. Nine times out of ten he recoils in horror if my cooking so much as brushes his lips. I hesitate to use the word "picky" since that label feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but quietly, to myself, I admit: My son is one heck of a picky eater.
Harry started out as an adventurous eater: His earliest favorite food was pesto -- a reflection, I assumed, of my parenting and cooking skills. Raising a good eater is so easy!, I thought. Clearly, those people who moan about their vegetable-hating tots are doing something wrong.
But over time, Harry's willingness to try new things withered, along with his fondness for many of the foods he'd previously enjoyed. Pesto hasn't been on his list in years. I take the experts' advice and offer a variety of healthy foods at each meal, but most days my boy won't even taste anything unfamiliar. And I don't mean he won't taste the curry I've tinkered with for hours. The boy won't touch even the friendliest of kid-friendly foods: Baby carrots, simple rice pilaf, roast chicken, even my perfectly smooth, gently sweet spaghetti sauce -- a recipe that's delighted children in my husband's family for four generations.
When the great decline started, I decided I wasn't going to take this lying down. I'm a foodie, for heaven's sake. Over the last two years, we've tried:
- Sam-I-Am-ing: We tried to encourage Harry to just take a single bite -- hey, he might be surprised by how good it tastes. He stalled, he sobbed, he finally succumbed ... and I felt like the worst mother in the world. Who wants her child to succumb to food?
- Bartering: We promised dessert in exchange for a mouthful of a new food. That iron-will whippersnapper would just forgo the treat -- something I'd never be able to do.
- Going dessert-neutral, serving it together with the rest of the meal, so as not to turn it into a reward. (That's right, we flip-flopped.) I was pleasantly surprised that Harry didn't gorge on sweets, but he also rarely tasted a new food.
- Reverse psychology: We told Harry that the delicious gnocchi, over which his dad and I were loudly oooing and aaaahing, was off limits to kids. Nope, no siree, he couldn't have any. This was generally met with a shrug and a request for more yogurt.
- Homemade versions of processed foods: He turned up his nose at my meatballs, preferring one particular brand of frozen minis. Hand-cut-and-breaded fish sticks went untouched. Macaroni and cheese, my mom's recipe instead of the powdered packet? "That's not macaroni and cheese," he said, fighting tears.
- Cooking with Harry: Experts insist that kids are more likely to eat food they helped to make. For a while, Harry was happy to be my sous chef, although he never tasted the results. And then one day I suggested that since he'd enjoyed spinning the salad so much, he might like to try some. He packed up his specially-purchased, kid-friendly knives that very day.
The amateur psychologist in me understands the problem: It's a control issue. Harry knows how important food is to me. He's figured out that one of the best ways to get some extra attention (because, y'know, he doesn't get enough) is to refuse foods. Given that insight, you'd think that I could at least pretend not to care. Eh, not so much. I try to feign indifference -- really, I do. Each meal begins with me nonchalantly setting out the various dinner components: We serve meals family-style, since it's rumored to encourage children to expand their horizons. Then I watch as Harry gobbles down fruit (he's a fruit fiend) and helps himself to a yogurt, a compromise we introduced after I decided I wasn't going to try so hard. That's when I forget that I'm not supposed to prod, and casually ask if he'd like to taste something. And that's when he responds with "no." If this is a game, he wins every time.
These days I'm focusing on snacks. Harry would nosh all day if we let him, so I do my best to ensure that the majority of his snacks offer real nutrition. Fruit, of course, but also cheese sticks, whole-grain crackers, olives, cashews, and avocado smoothies. I don't worry about his overall diet -- the combination of fruit, dairy, and whole grains provides what he needs, so I'm not tempted to sneak spinach into brownies. I do worry about his palate, and all the amazing experiences he'll miss out on by refusing to consider the unfamiliar.
When I was a kid I had a firm list of off-limit foods, mostly dairy products and mayonnaise. (I still won't touch a cheese sandwich slathered in mayo.) My husband, on the other hand, was even more challenging to feed than Harry, but as an adult, he eats everything from braised rabbit to sea urchin. (Maybe that's why he doesn't stress about our son as much as I do; the man outgrew pickiness himself.) Who Harry will take after in the long run remains to be seen, but by the time he visits Italy, the land of his father's forebears, I hope he'll be pesto-friendly again.
Do you have a picky -- excuse me, discerning -- eater? How do you handle it?
Debbie Koenig's cookbook, Parents Need to Eat Too, is coming next year from HarperCollins. Until then, find her at Words to Eat By
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