“I WANT IT!” her toddler demanded from his perch on her hip. He jabbed his finger at the multicolored carrots. The woman smiled like a starlet and handed the carrots to the sweaty teen behind the table. “MINE!” the little boy said once again, this time in reference to some pink fingerling potatoes.
“How can you say no?” she gushed, as the line behind her only grew longer “to a toddler who only wants his vegetables?” The tyrannical tyke next demanded some cranberry beans, and my irritation tripled. Not only was I short on time, but her smug, theatrical tone made me cringe.
You see, I’m afraid I had once affected that same smug tone. And I really don’t care to be reminded of it.
I have two goofy sons, who are now 6 and 8, who will eat—and always have eaten—everything. When that book came out—the one about hiding spinach in brownies—I was dumbstruck. Because my kids eat spinach by the truckload. Raw or cooked. They eat broccoli, beans, squash and kale. One of them will only eat beets hot, not cold. But I try not to hold it against him.
And yes, I have succumbed to the delight of watching other adults’ eyes pop in surprise. At our neighborhood Italian restaurant, my six year-old is known as “that kid who wants extra spinach on his.” At a very upscale Japanese restaurant we visited on vacation last spring, the young server was stunned to hear my children order ikura sushi and tako—salmon eggs and octopus. “I didn’t eat that until I was an adult!” she gasped. “And I’m Asian!”
Sometimes people’s reactions make me think that it must be really bad out there. “You’re the first kid to order the veal medallions in fennel and lemon butter sauce,” a waitress said recently, to which I could only say “really?” Because that dish is just meat and potatoes.
For a few years, I was even naïve enough to take credit for their gastronomic fearlessness. It’s my adventurous spirit, I wanted to believe. It’s my relaxed attitude! It’s because I put a vegetable on the table every night. It’s because have never served chicken fingers at home, or macaroni and cheese from a box.
I am such a great mom, right?
Cue the laugh track.
World, I am sorry. I now understand how that line of thinking backfires. If all their behavior were modeled on mine, dear reader, then you’d have to assume that I also pick my nose and use my tee shirt as a napkin.
So, if not from my excellent parenting, then from whence do their adventurous palates spring? It’s likely just the peculiar alchemy of birth order and our own personalities: take one laid-back older child, add a little brother with something to prove, and season with an adventurous father. Somehow, at our table, it’s just not cool to be a food wimp.
An even better theory is that they eat adventurously because early on I prohibited it. I was a nervous new mother, doing everything by the book. Baby’s first meal should be exactly one tablespoon of rice cereal mixed with breast milk; feed in 1/8 teaspoon increments and watch for the debilitating allergic reaction.
Don’t worry, I’m over it now. But because of my caution, we never urged our boys to taste oysters and mussels (favorites of my now 8yo) in the high chair. Instead, my attitude was: “no! You can’t possibly want that! You’re the baby! You’ll choke! Have some more of this pureed slime from a jar.”
Living in New York City, we at sushi. A lot. We always put the cooked dishes in front of our toddler—a little teriyaki chicken, or avocado maki. But it didn’t take long for the little tyke to notice that daddy’s chopsticks held something different. So he pointed at the mackerel sashimi, and daddy came through.
It’s reverse psychology, baby. Which is, of course, impossible to pull off unless you don’t know you’re doing it. I found myself sheepishly inquiring of the pediatrician whether it was alright for toddlers to eat raw fish. This being Manhattan, he shrugged and told us his children ate sushi all the time.
So, as a result of parental blundering, I enjoy freedom from mealtime battles. But there are drawbacks. If you have adventurous gourmet eaters, they’re going to reject the ordinary food eventually. Remember all that sushi? For a year or so my kids stopped eating cooked fish. This was agonizing, because fish is healthy, and I’m no sushi chef. Toddlers eating expensive restaurant sushi is cute. Two growing school-aged boys wolfing down sushi after a soccer double header is a pricey splurge. And then there’s the snob factor. Imagine your round-faced three year old looking up at an overworked waitress in a diner somewhere off the highway and asking her “what are the specials?”
Sometimes, it just isn’t cute. Not at all.
But because I’ve had it easy at the dinner table, there are certain vantages I can see. When one of my kids says he doesn’t like something, you can bet I don’t say a word. It isn’t that I have terrific restraint, it’s just that I really don’t care. If a kid who eats rutabaga and salmon Provencal and split pea soup and stuffed peppers informs you that today he doesn’t like the capers in the pasta sauce, color me underwhelmed.
I can’t tell you how to have adventurous eaters, because I realize I don’t deserve credit for the two I have. But what I can offer you is the first-hand knowledge that not talking about eating your vegetables is really nice.
So I hereby give you permission, the next time you’re having one of those moments, to just let it go. Let’s say you’ve ordered Chinese because sometimes your three year old really grooves on chicken & broccoli, and he hasn’t eaten anything green in weeks except for a lime popsicle, yet tonight he won’t touch it. This time, I want you to close your eyes and imagine that he usually eats like a Michelin rated French chef. Pretend that just yesterday he polished off fresh root vegetables dipped in spicy hummus, miso soup with tofu and bean shoots in sesame oil.
I insist that you take the night off from caring. Pass your child that bag of weird little fried noodles that the restaurant threw in as an afterthought, and let him dine on those. As for the chicken and broccoli? Say: “more for me!” and pour yourself a glass of wine. Enjoy the truce. And you never know—perhaps your silence will turn the tide.