don’t pick on picky eaters

It might have been a locker room where some well-meaning woman in her 50s(?), with a towel around her hair and a “honey, I’ve been there, done that” tone, offered the sage observation that kids (meaning babies and toddlers) are “either good eaters or good sleepers.” The implication that any wholesome child of healthy parents, especially MY son, would not be both seemed presumptive, and I interpreted it as a challenge. Nursing him as an infant– with all the exhilarating, soothing mind-space that only nursing has afforded me, and which I might have interpreted as boredom before motherhood– I entertained grand visions. Allow me to recount them here: My son in the garden, harvesting ripe cherry tomatoes with his little hands, toddling up to me proudly. Squatting down with me and patiently listening to me explain how beets and chard are basically the same species, or that broccoli and mustard greens are cousins. Helping dig up the garlic in July, and loving the surprise of each carrot popped from its damp disguise of earth. How he would relish our homegrown beets steamed to softness with pink drooly smiles in the high chair, staining his hands, hair, whatever. MY son would eat the same foods I did by the time he was two. He would join our household’s daily challenge of how many ingredients and colors can be crammed into a salad bowl. The most common acronym around here is, after all, BAS (Big Ass Salad).

It’s clear now that these visions were fueled by a naive oxytocin overdose. Fionn can see a fleck of kale emerging from a mini fritatta from a mile away and immediately hurl it to the floor. He disdains even the easiest-to-love vegetables like carrots, sugar snap peas, or lightly steamed broccoli trees in butter. When appropriately inspired, he may slip such things under his butt so that I actually briefly entertain the delusion that he ate a bite. Where I initially thought “hiding” vegetables in foods was a disingenuous rouse that robbed children of the experience of learning to love “green stuff,” I now try anything– burying a nearly microscopic speck of cabbage left on the cutting board in a “bagel ball” (the mushy insides of a whole wheat bagel rolled into a ball) or whirring up smoothies of kale, egg yolk, and other detritus from his tray, masked by apple or banana. Bananas themselves being a tropical food my locavore self eschewed for years. Oh, how the mighty fall.
There are many days that I worry that he’s expending more calories in one hour than he eats all day, and that what he does eat is pretty much limited to milk, “gwapes,” and “marins” (what he calls raisins). How’s that for dietary diversity?

I watch other preschoolers get dropped off at daycare with disposable squeezy pouches and individually wrapped cookies disguised as “wholesome” granola bars, snorting at organic versions of overprocessed, empty calorie crackers and feel any righteous disdain waning, giving way to exhausted empathy. Goodness knows I have made many compromises, grateful for corn chips, white bread when my finicky Fionn would eat nothing else. And he loves to “share” Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, meaning that he helps himself to liberal portions of other kids’ snacks.

Our children have a right to homemade foods prepared with care, even if we don’t always have the time, and even if half or more of the food we offer goes untouched, thrown to the floor, or smeared on the wall. I am already finding that my patience and persistence in exposing him daily to things he dismisses at first is paying off. As long as I am lucky enough to have the energy and time (which isn’t always), I will resign my responsibility for helping forge healthy eating habits to food conglomerates whose products have life spans longer than a dog’s. Helping children learn to eat well is a good fight, and a fun one.

editors note, July 2, 2015: I am proud to note that since this post, Fionn does eat kale, carrots, peas, and beans. Still no dice on beets, broccoli, or cucumbers, or nearly any context where more than one vegetable cohabitates with another one on his plate. He is most interested in vegetables in the context of the garden (ours or the small one at his preschool), where he can pick them himself. Baby steps. 😉