I am opting out of the national hand-wringing about how our kids eat. This is not to weigh in on kids and poverty and obesity—that is another issue, one that I’m not qualified to comment on, though it certainly has a link to the one I’m talking about: that of middle and upper middle class Americans who worry that their kids are picky.
Let’s review my personal info: I have three kids, ages 7, 5, and 2. I am a food writer and recipe developer and I eat practically everything. A foodie, you might call me. And since the birth of my first, I have adhered more or less to the advice of nutritionist and author Ellyn Satter, which I crudely summarize here: Put food out, only at mealtimes, and let your kids choose to eat it or not eat it. Don’t comment, argue, or make food an issue. Case closed.
So what does it look like, 7 years into this grand experiment? To go by popular imagination, my kids, by virtue of the kinds of foods they’ve been exposed to, should be eating like tiny gourmands, moving from their fish courses to their game courses with joy, clapping their hands with delight when someone brings out a terrine or shaved leeks.
Well, not quite. It looks different for each kid, because the kids are, surprise, different. But a lot of times it means that, unlike with those precocious French kids I keep hearing about, sometimes dinner goes largely untouched by the kids, save for the one or two items on the table that each kid likes. Yes, my kids are familiar with a lot of different kinds of foods, because we are fancypants people who like to eat out occasionally and cook interesting things at home. So I could drop a few examples of the so-called adult foods that my kids eat, like so many food writers seem to like to do, but I’m not going to do that. Why? For one, it paints an incomplete picture, one that ignores that my kids can be hugely neophobic just like everyone else’s, and also, I’m not interested in guilting anyone about how they feed their kids or bragging about my kids’ sophisticated palates to stoke my bourgeois ego. Those both seem part and parcel of the hysterical relationship that many Americans have with food, and I’m just not interested.
And when the kids don’t eat, or when they don’t taste much on their plates at friends’ houses, I don’t stress about it. How can I get away with this? Well, in our land of plenty, my kids are hardly going to starve to death. Besides, Satter certainly made it easy—her very lenient outlines regarding kid nutrition have taught me that it’s quite alright for my son to eat his weight in cantaloupe and then not touch another fruit for weeks.
But honestly, the main reason? Because I have a long memory. Wasn’t anyone else a picky kid growing up? I was about as picky as they come, one of those kids who people joke lived on air. Actually, worse—I lived not on air but on things like pasta and French fries. Often together in the same meal. And guess what? At some point, I became someone who eats everything, because I saw my family doing so. Gradually, I seem to remember around puberty, all those foods that I had always thought were disgusting started to taste good to me—indeed, started to become my very favorites. I am guessing that watching your family enjoy lots of different kinds of foods, and watching them politely eat everything served at friends’ houses, is the key, but maybe I would have gotten there anyway. So if you want some sort of takeaway, it’s that maybe you shouldn’t share your food phobias with your kids, and be a polite guest when you dine away from home.
I can’t believe I’m the only one out there who started out picky and ended up a gourmand—was everyone else gulping down bone marrow and beets when they were 8? But my parent friends often seem relieved when I mention my past, as if they’ve never heard of such a turnaround—I swear I have seen the occasional tear of relief well up.
And this is the real reason not to care: Because I love food. If I’m not stressing about what the kids are eating at dinnertime, I’m free to enjoy my own meal. But maybe the reasons are twofold. It seems to me this might be a great lesson in parenthood in general—to let kids be who they are going to be, and not get all caught up in whether they’re doing something exactly the right way or not. I’m free to enjoy my kids, and them me.