As I believe I may have mentioned before, the lot of a freelancer is a painful one! Work is frequently produced that has meaning for the writer, but not so much for the editors of the world. Just before I finally gave up on maintaining an active commentary-writing career (roughly a year ago), I wrote the following, about my son’s struggle with/fear of new food. I submitted it to one outlet and then gave up, but I feel bad about that, because I was singing the praises of my boy here, and he deserves to have his praises sung. At any rate, I found myself thinking about it last night, because in just this last year, he has simply become a different person. He will try (almost) anything, and while he still doesn’t like a lot of it, I actually heard him recommend the red peppers to his sister the other day: “They’re really good!” It is just astonishing to me to see the change.
Anyway, enjoy the following! A snapshot of the unexpected bravery of a little boy.
Picky? You Have No Idea.
Oh look! Here’s another article on the mistakes parents make with picky eaters. This time, six blunders are listed; sometimes, it’s ten, or five. Often there’s an effort to corral the bullet-points into a philosophy, always presented with an air of wisdom: “Parents need to understand….”
It’s been several years since I last thought such articles would actually help me and mine; today, I skim them more to see how much they repeat each other. “Get kids into the kitchen,” they say. “Make food fun!” Or, my favorite: “It’s not your job to get them to eat. It’s your job to provide a variety of healthy foods.”
I’m sorry – I’ve seen picky. I gave birth to picky. And these people don’t know what picky is.
As a long-time babysitter and nanny, I came into parenthood with some real life experience – and my eldest, now nine, spent years confounding every single piece of collective and individual wisdom I ever gathered about kids and diet.
Model good habits? Check. Offer bites of everything? You got it. Don’t bribe with dessert? Heaven forbid! “When he gets hungry enough, he’ll eat”? Well, not really.
On that last one, my husband and I had to choose our battles. When my son gets too hungry, he (like his mom) loses it. He loses it, and he loses his ability to understand that he has lost it. At nine, I will say that he’s begun to recognize this in himself, and is learning to take appropriate steps – but when he was two, his parents had to make a decision: Avoid the meltdown, or slog toward good eating habits? We generally went with the former.
The thing is, we were dealing with something not often acknowledged in all those helpful articles: a true neophobe, a person quite genuinely afraid of new food. I trace my son’s fear to the time when, at eleven months, he had a mild allergic reaction to peanuts, but the truth is that it almost doesn’t matter how it started. The fear was a fact, and it was visible on him.
Presented with something he couldn’t remember eating before, my little boy would literally quake with fear, often weeping at the notion of putting, say, a grain of rice, or a bite of chicken into his mouth. It mattered not at all that it was something his parents, favorite babysitter, or best friend ate everyday. It mattered not at all that he’d eaten it as a baby (bananas), or that he was genuinely hungry – he was, truly, terrified.
I cannot say that my husband and I always responded with equanimity to these circumstances. The weeping, shall we say, wasn’t always one-sided.
Neither was I always patient with the endless parade of parents who offered wisdom. “Have you tried avocados? Yogurt? Mashed potatoes?” a certain friend went on, and on, and on, threatening our very friendship.
And in spite of the limitations, his nutrition didn’t suffer too badly – it actually is true that whatever food kids fixate on, it’s what was in the house when the fixation began. They don’t veer into Cheetos territory all on their own.
So my son ate soynut butter sandwiches on whole-grain bread day in, day out; fruit leather from organic fruit; homemade whole-grain muffins with zucchini and carrots. We carried these things with us everywhere, literally across the globe.
When he was six, in a fit of not-so-quiet desperation, we tried flower essences, on the theory that it couldn’t hurt – and, joy of joys, it worked! A little. Within days, the door to experimentation was cracked just enough that we could occasionally get a little something in. Salsa, for instance, on his quesadillas. Dry cereal.
We talked about all this with him, probably too much. We acknowledged his fears, praised every advance, and encouraged (read: urged rather vigorously) that he dig deep and find the courage to try again. How about a tater tot?
Finally, the real miracle, at age eight. He had seen, often enough, that new foods needn’t be terrifying. He and I determined that he could make the effort to find one fruit or vegetable that he could eat in an entirely unprocessed form – and here’s the crazy thing: It was broccoli.
Then it was green apples. And grapes. Pineapple, strawberries, and cherries. Three bites (never more) of asparagus.
Meat still won’t cross his lips, nor milk, nor pasta. But a few times a week, he tries something he knows he’ll hate, and about every other month, is surprised to find he doesn’t.
And so the one piece of advice that seems accurate in cases such as ours is this: don’t give up. But when I see him eat these things, that’s not what I’m thinking. I am, quite simply, filled with pride.
My little boy met a demon, and slew it. Because he chose to be brave. And that matters far more to me than that he ever try cauliflower, parenting advice be damned.
Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer and mother of two gorgeous children. She lives outside of Chicago.