“Why?” I asked.
“It’s the only thing his friend will eat.”
“Really, it’s the only thing he’ll eat?”
“He’s very picky,” she explained. I picked up my keys. Just before leaving she called out, “And not the good organic stuff. Get the Kraft stuff. That’s the only kind he’ll eat.”
My wife and I are blessed with a son who’s a good eater. He’s adventurous and will try almost any food. I’m sure part of it’s his temperament, but it’s also his upbringing. He never had foods that were any different from what my wife and I ate. Even when venturing into solid foods as a baby, he’d eat peas, or steamed zucchini, or cucumbers, or cut-up grapes. All foods that he saw us eating too. So, when he started eating full meals, there was never anything special offered to him. He needed to eat what we were all eating. No special kid foods, no alternatives, no choices. Here is your food, now eat it.
He’s so amicable that we haven’t had many problems. He very rarely puts up a fight. I’d even say that he holds a sense of pride in the fact that he eats just like the grown ups. His recent challenge is spicy foods, and so he’s been adding Sriracha or Frank’s Red Hot Sauce to his meals. There are a few times when he’ll pick around his mushrooms or onions, but he sits and eats regardless. The only other kids we know who eat well are his cousins, and I’d guess that he has the most fun eating with them.
But unlike family, all his friends are picky eaters. Nearly every time we go out to eat with families, they order buttered pasta for their kids, while the adults eat more exciting foods. Or, if kids come over, we always have to consider whether they’ll eat what we’re eating. Typically, we won’t hold our son’s friends to our expectations. Instead, we usually circumvent the problem by making something “kid-friendly” if a friend is coming over.
I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man for writing this, but I think that (in most instances) the problem is with choice. Each time I see a parent of a picky eater feed his or her child, the kid is presented with options. The kids can choose to opt out of eating what everyone else is eating. He’s given the option of mac ‘n cheese, or pb&j, or some other carby, cheesy, sugary option. The kid goes for that option every time. When the meal consists of something healthy or somewhat unappealing to the child, there’s rarely an expectation to eat it or, at the very least, try it before rejecting it. So, when we go out to eat with these families, and the only things the kids consume are buttered pasta or bread, I’m not surprised. When they reject things like vegetables and their parents laments that they won’t eat anything but pizza, burgers, or grilled cheese, I’m not surprised.
One particular exception I’d note is kids with sensory issues. I work with many students with sensory issues, and smells, textures, and tastes are very triggering for them. It makes sense that these kids (and their parents) are faced with significant hurdles when it comes to diversifying their pallets. However, sensory issues are very rare, and I would guess don’t affect many of the kids in my son’s social circle.
I think our relationship with food starts from day one. There is a culture around eating that gets ingrained at a very early age. For instance, growing up, my family was very territorial about food. We each had our own plate and no one touched your food and you didn’t touch anyone else’s. My wife grew up in a family where everyone shared food from+9*the middle of the table. To this day, she and I are very much influenced by our own food cultures. I think the message we send to kids when they’re given choices around food is that they get to eat what they want, and that food is theirs. Food is not a family decision, but an individual one. The option to choose offers the child a lot of autonomy around what they’ll elect to eat. Probably too much autonomy.
The problem is that kids can’t recognize what’s healthy. They go for taste. So, in many ways, just like discipline or boundaries or rules, parents need to set parameters around food just like anything else. As parents, we need to be the models for how and what to eat, and not abdicate responsibility just to make our children happy (in the moment).
Rereading this, I sound like some goddamn saint. There are certainly times when my son has said he “isn’t hungry” and pushes the food around his plate, and he has to get multiple reminders of his expectation to eat. There have also been times when we’ve left him at the dinner table to finish food that he was ignoring. I realize it’s a struggle at times, but parents wield a lot of power, and they need to exert it early to set a good example for future habits. Plus, it’ll save me runs to Stop ‘n Shop for Kraft products.