A few weeks ago, my family stayed with friends in D.C. The wife, a great cook, had prepared dinner for us on the night we arrived and as she led us all over to the table she said to me, “I hope it’s OK that I didn’t make any ‘kid food’ — I figured, these are your children [i.e., children of a health-conscious food blogger], so it will be fine!”
Now, if you’re a regular TLT reader, you know all about my struggles with a steadfastly vegetable-avoiding son and how even my “non-picky” daughter can drive me crazy sometimes with her occasional selectivity. But a lot of people understandably assume that, because I do what I do, my kids must be model eaters. And when I saw the particular dinner laid out for us (a wild mushroom tart, roasted brussels sprouts, salad and sausage) — and the concerned looks on my kids’ faces — I knew that misconception was about to fly right out the window.
I was about to say something reassuring to my son (though I’m not sure what — “Um, you can just eat the tart’s crust, honey?”), when some better instinct told me to just shut up and mind my own business. And then I watched as he took the tiniest nibble of the mushroom tart, considered it for a second, and then tucked in happily. (He’s since announced that he likes mushrooms and has asked me to make the same dish at home.) And my daughter, who always spurns Brussels sprouts at home, ate a plate of them and asked for seconds.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Whether due to peer pressure or timidity or a desire to please, we’ve all seen our kids rise to the occasion in other people’s homes in a way they never would with us. So this past Sunday I was horrified to see this question submitted to the New York Times‘ Social Q’s advice column:
It was our turn to host Thanksgiving this year. My brother asked if he could bring chili for one of his children, who is a picky eater (and 20 years old). My sister-in-law routinely brings bananas and pizza for her 11-year-old son. Is this crazy, or am I wrong?
(The Social Q’s writer agreed these kids were too old for this coddling but advised the reader to let the parents bring the food anyway.)
Writing The Lunch Tray for almost four years, and being a parent for 13 years, has sensitized me to a lot of issues. I used to pooh-pooh food allergies and now I totally empathize with the plight of parents of the food-allergic. I used to think artificial food dyes were no big deal and now I feel we have legitimate reason to worry. And I used to think picky* eating could only be caused by bad feeding practices and, at any rate, should be quickly outgrown.
My own son has certainly disabused me of the latter two notions. I’ve also since shared with you stories of adult picky eaters who are crippled by their food selectivity, even actively avoiding social situations where a meal might be served, and I’ve reviewed a book written by a recovered, lifelong picky eater. It seems clear from these people’s experiences that, at least in some cases, pickiness is hardwired.
In fact, just yesterday, writer Kristin Wartman had an interesting piece in the Times entitled, “Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb.” While Wartman was focused how poor maternal diet can affect a child’s propensity for obesity and related diseases, the findings she cites have implications for lifelong, deeply ingrained pickiness as well:
Researchers . . . have found that babies born to mothers who eat a diverse and varied diet while pregnant and breast-feeding are more open to a wide range of flavors. They’ve also found that babies who follow that diet after weaning carry those preferences into childhood and adulthood. Researchers believe that the taste preferences that develop at crucial periods in infancy have lasting effects for life. In fact, changing food preferences beyond toddlerhood appears to be extremely difficult.
So if you’re a fellow POP (parent of the picky), my heart goes out to you and no stones will ever be thrown from my glass house. That said, I think members of our select club need to constantly remind ourselves that our kids can and will surprise us — but only if they’re given the opportunity to do so. Moreover, even the pickiest children have to learn how to sit at someone’s table and get through a meal gracefully and politely. It goes without saying that neither of those things can happen if you’re toting chili, bananas and pizza to someone’s home.
Last year I shared my best advice, learned over many years, for dealing with pickiness, and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
* I’ve always disliked the term “picky” - here’s why - but I use it here for the sake of brevity.
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