Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kids Are Picky Eaters

Kids are picky eaters.

You may ask how I can make such a bold, confident statement. I have two impeccable qualifications: I was a kid, and I have four kids.

When I was a kid, I didn’t feel like I was an especially picky eater. It seemed that my few requirements wouldn’t be hard to meet. Number 1: No cooked carrots. Raw was fine; cooked was absolutely out of the question. Number 2: No cooked squash. I’m sure it would have been no raw squash either if I’d had an inkling something like that was actually consumed. We are talking about the zucchini type. I don’t think my mom ever graced the table with winter squash. Number 3: No food on the plate was ever allowed to touch another food that happened to be on the same plate. If that ever happened, then the contaminated ring of food was left alone, leaving my plate looking like a tropical sea with coral atolls surrounding melamine lagoons.

I still remember a rare test of wills at the table when I was probably 7 yrs old. My mom had placed a serving of cooked carrots on my plate and insisted that I eat at least some. I stood there looking at those carrots (for some reason I remember standing…) for a good half hour, knowing there was no way on God’s Green Earth I could eat even one piece. She did not harangue me; it wasn’t her way, but eventually let me go.

Ironically, I now really enjoy cooked carrots and barely tolerate raw ones.

When I was little, I loved Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and could actually tolerate a “mess of greens.” But squash was absolutely out of the question. No, never, no way. My very favorite vegetable was fried okra, only we called it “okrey.” We would cut it off the stalk, Mom would slice it, roll it in Albers yellow cornmeal, and fry it in a cast iron skillet with Crisco. It would end up as crunchy green/black morsels flecked with cornmeal and glistening with grease. I adored fried okrey! Coming to the dinner table one evening, I was met by a strange platter of food in the middle. Some vegetable had been sliced long-ways into quarter-inch thick pieces, dredged in flour, fried, and laid out on a paper towel on the platter. It had green edges and a cream colored center. Mom always cut squash cross-ways, so I knew it couldn’t be that.

“What is this?” I asked, suspiciously.
“Fried okrey,” Mom said, calmly.

I cannot explain why I believed that, but I must have, because I ate it. And I liked it. I still didn’t like “squash” for another fifteen years, but now it shows up in my cooking almost every day during the season; steamed, stir-fried, casseroled, raw, etc.

Somehow, in the last 40 years, I have abandoned my “food no touch” rule. In fact, my favorite way to eat a meal is in a shallow bowl, where I can enjoy each serving as it mingles with the one next to it.

You’d think I’d be more tolerant of my own kids’ peculiar food notions. And maybe I was, a little. But one daughter has a story about where I made her eat carrots even though she pleaded she would throw up, which she remembers doing. We did make spaghetti accommodations for the other daughter by not mixing the sauce with the noodles so she could just have the noodles and parmesan cheese.

I don’t know the perfect way to handle a kid’s likes and dislikes, but my best guess would be a regular habit of offering, but not forcing, offering again, not forcing all through the growing up years. My son, the most picky eater of the bunch is now 18 years old. He used to enjoy about seven things: white bread (wheat bread had “shards” in it), peanut butter (but not on the bread—on a spoon), Tillamook medium cheddar cheese, broccoli (well-cooked), milk, dill pickles, and Spoon-sized Frosted Mini-Wheats, eaten dry. Over time, and without pressure, he has added many things to his preferred diet: bloody-rare steak, coffee, dried cranberries, Chinese Hot and Sour soup, tomatoes, Garlic Chicken pizza, and Honey Bunches of Oats, still eaten dry.

There are many things that we, the parents, thoroughly enjoy and believe our kids ought to also. Along with good food, we want them to like good music; Bluegrass, Mozart, The Chieftans, Old Time. We want them to consider choosing an occupation that pleases us. We want to share tastes in art, in cars.

But I think we should continue to follow the “food” model. Face it, have you ever really been able to make your kid eat anything? It is a battle that will always be won by the kid. And really, it would be a horrible thing to press your kids to join in a career that they didn’t like and only did to please the folks. I believe it is a real gift to give your kids the feeling that they are free to explore, enjoy and be what they want to be.

If you do want to encourage a preference, be patient; offer, don’t force. In time, you might be surprised at how the kids will come around to enjoying horseradish and Cezanne. And the kid who had no use for his parent’s music while young just might change his mind as time goes by.