“What are you doing?” my husband asks me.
“I’m taking the red berries out of Juliet’s cereal,” I tell him.
“But isn’t that Special K Red Berries cereal?” he asks, not unreasonably.
“Yes. She likes the flavor of the red berries, but she doesn’t like biting into the dried strawberries.”
“So you’re picking them out?”
“I don’t mind.”
And I don’t. I also don’t think it’s weird to want to eat Special K Red Berries cereal without the red berries, because I like to eat mushroom sauce without the mushrooms. I get it completely.
My daughter is 7, and unlike her big brother, who will eat anything, taste anything, try anything even if he didn’t like it the first time, she’s THAT kid: the quintessential fussy eater all the experts talk about.
I’ve heard all the parental arguments against facilitating habits like hers: I don’t want to be a short-order cook. My kids need to develop a proper palate. I don’t want them to think everything revolves around them. Blah blah blah blah. It all makes sense and it’s all true, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not fighting her on it, and I’m not going to make her feel bad about it. You know why? Because being a picky eater sucks enough all by itself.
I know, because I’ve been there. I’m still there. Yes, I have a deep love of food and the people who prepare it. I look forward to meals and snacks for hours, sometimes days in advance, and if I could make one thing from any movie in the world come true, it would be the restaurants in Defending Your Life, where people can eat all they want and never gain an ounce. But I don’t want nine pies, like Albert Brooks got, because — surprise! — I don’t like pie, unless it’s chocolate, peanut butter, or that crazy Shoo-fly pie we get once a year in Pennsylvania.
Juliet also doesn’t like pie (except for peanut butter and Shoo-fly). And she doesn’t want whipped cream on it, or any kind of garnish. Vanilla ice cream is okay, but not chocolate. Sprinkles, but no sauce. I know the deal, and someone has to look out for my daughter’s pie preferences. If not me, who?
I’ve seen dozens of articles about how to deal with picky eaters, full of strategies and tricks, but I never see articles offering sympathy and understanding. Parents get frustrated, and I get that. I’m frustrated, too. But I don’t just look at it through the eyes of a parent, because I remember the challenging life of being a picky kid.
When I was Juliet’s age, I loved going to my friends’ houses. But then sometimes, they’d invite me to stay for dinner, and my heart would fill with terror. What would they serve? What if I didn’t like it? What if they served — oh god — cooked vegetables? I’m 49, and I STILL don’t eat cooked vegetables.
There are dishes that still make me quiver in fear. Beef stew ( so gloppy and brown). Lasagna (because I hate ricotta cheese). Chicken can be a delight (wings! breasts!) or a nightmare (drumsticks and thighs).
So when my daughter looks at me with her big sad eyes, seeing nothing on a table full of food that she can eat, I feel her pain. I remember it vividly, that conflicting combination of hunger and panic, yearning and dread. The fear of biting into something that might be too squishy, or fruity, or have raisins in it. Because of that, it’s payback time.
Payback for the help I didn’t get, for the sympathy that didn’t come. I got eyerolls in its place, frustration, desperation, and sometimes even physical force. My daughter gets none of that. I stop my husband from saying, “She just likes to not like things.” She doesn’t like it, trust me. Nobody likes it. We want to help ourselves to side dishes and seconds, we want to be as excited as everyone else is about food, and we experience sublime disappointment when the plate comes out and we see something on it we hate that’s touching the food we like, tainting it forever.
To this day, if a roasted pepper, or any pepper that has been treated in any way other than being taken straight out of the fridge, touches my food, it’s game over. Cooked peppers are disgusting, and if you put one in my sandwich, the sandwich is unsalvageable. (Not so a tomato, which can be removed safely.)
I had dozens more issues than that as a kid, so many more than I have now. Everyone gave me a hard time about it, and nobody understood. So for my daughter, I will be there, straining celery out of soup and splitting the cookie dough in half so she doesn’t have to eat chocolate chips. We will not have food wars in our house, and I will not turn the dinner table into a battleground. Instead there will be sympathy and understanding. Along the way, I will gently encourage her to try new foods without making her feel like a jerk about it if she’s not ready. Food should be a delight, not a trial. And I know my girl … she’ll get there. She just told me she’s interested in broccoli tops! There’s hope for her yet.
Photo: Laurie Ulster