Zanthe Taylor M.F.A.

A Million Meals

Raising a Tolerant Eater: Please Don’t Yuck My Yum

How do you deal with your child's picky eating?

Posted Oct 14, 2010

It's amazingly difficult, as a parent, to achieve those moments when you feel like an unqualified success. I could easily count my all-out parenting success stories on two hands, and that's after working this motherhood beat for seven years. It can be especially difficult to feel like a successful parent when it comes to food, since children are inexplicably pre-programmed to drive us crazy with their food habits. Even the most voracious toddlers seem to have an internal timer that at age two or three suddenly shifts them into white-foods only mode, or that transforms a previously loved vegetable into something odious. So imagine having a child who never deigned to let even one spoonful of baby food pass her tiny lips. It was, to say the least, a challenge.

I vividly remember the day we tried to feed my first daughter her first solid food. We lived in California at the time, and I was under the sway of a charismatic lactation consultant who ran a new mothers' group and was a huge proponent of attachment parenting. Which is a long way of saying that I wasn't going to let that first meal come out of a jar. Oh no! Nothing but organic, home-puréed pears for my first-born. I even bought the DIY food bible "Super Baby Food," which weighed down my shelf for a couple of years before I heaved it (are there really babies out there who will eat food sprinkled with flaxseed?!).

Also, obedient rule-follower that I am, I duly waited until she was six months old, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. So there she is, looking sweet in her tiny bib, and here comes the first spoonful of lovely pear purée...and, nope, her little rosebud mouth closes up. Tightly. We try and try, but there's just no way this little girl is going for it. And that's pretty much the end of the story, until she was ten months old and could pick up peas and cheerios herself. By one year, she branched out into cheese and bits of soft bread. But eating has always, always been on her terms.

Whether it was the mushy texture or the process of being fed that turned her off that whole baby food experience, I'd be lying if I said I didn't hate those mothers whose babies sucked down seemingly endless bowls of whatever mush was put in front of them. I was bitter and jealous; I was missing out on an essential rite of motherhood. And worst of all, I was no longer in charge, which was the one of the first times I had to face up to that painful truth of parenting (in hindsight, of course, I can count that as a valuable lesson). I didn't get to be the spoon-feeding mommy of my dreams until my second, more compliant child came along a few years later and happily gobbled up jars and jars of whatever I chose to give her (yes, jars; she was a second child, after all).

Aside from some speed bumps--like the highly unpleasant pediatrician who informed me that her refusal to eat baby food was my fault for waiting until she was six months old, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends--I managed to come to terms with my older daughter's preference for doing things her way when it came to food. I swallowed my disappointment, recalibrated my imaginary picture of myself as a mommy-feeder, and got on with it (ok, well, except for those nights I raged and cried because she just wouldn't eat...).

So I am pleased to report that now she's seven, and she eats all kinds of things (except in school--see my previous post). Her favorite food, immortalized in ceramic for a first-grade art project, is...drum roll, please...abalone! She sucks down ramen with shredded pork and bamboo shoots, asks for seconds of kale-and-lentil pasta and begs for nori as a snack. Of course, not everything has changed--it's still on her terms only. A simple ham and cheese sandwich must obviously be deconstructed before eating, and many seemingly innocuous tastes and textures are still utterly suspect.

Perhaps my happiest victory, though, is having taught her something that has more to do with attitude than appetite. She will try almost any food (unlike my younger daughter, who is a steadier but much less adventurous eater). And when she doesn't like it, rather than making a face or saying "Yuck!" she says, "Well, I see why you like it, Mommy, but it's not my favorite." I can't fully explain why this makes me so proud. Maybe it goes back to my first-grade experience of being scared to eat tuna because the most popular girl in the class had deemed it revolting. Or maybe it's just that she can understand, really empathize with how different people's tastes are, well, different. But really, it all comes down to that lesson she began to teach me when she pressed those baby lips together and refused that lovingly offered spoonful of pear mush: it's up to her what she eats, just like it's up to each of us what we choose to eat. And isn't not judging others' tastes a wonderful way to teach others how to respect your own?

What have been your greatest food victories or defeats as a parent?

What I cooked this week:
Butternut Squash Gratin with Onions and Sage (Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone")
Pasta with Tomato and Sautéed Vegetable Sauce (Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking")
Polenta-Crusted Chicken with Balsamic Caper Pan Sauce and Green Beans with Preserved Lemon (Madhur Jaffrey's "World Vegetarian")
Penne with Sautéed Cabbage, Garlic, and Fried Chickpeas

About the Author

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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