Of the many things I never imagined I’d do as a mother, I’m fairly certain that somewhere in the top three was begging my child to eat more French fries. First of all, no good parent would ever encourage a child to eat extra junk food, right? Secondly – and this is the real mind-blower – who on Earth doesn’t leap at the chance to eat French fries?
The answer to that question is my older son. He scorns a cupcake if he doesn’t like the look of it, has never tried a hamburger, and would happily survive on yogurt and bread. (And candy, of course.) He’s five now, but he’s always been this way. We never had that happy phase where he ate from our plates as a baby. He was never the slightest bit interested in food of any kind and that included picky-eater standbys like pizza, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pasta. And so, though we went into parenting with the idea that we’d feed our baby the same healthy, fresh, organic-when-possible food we eat, at a certain point, the issue of whether or not we were feeding him really “good” food became moot; we just wanted him to eat any food at all.
I remember that point quite clearly, as it happens. It came at around five in the morning on a raw midwinter day when he was about eight months old. He was an extremely early riser, a trait he definitely did not inherit from me. True to form that morning, I was lying just this side of comatose on the kitchen floor in my bathrobe, watching him crawl around happily after the Cheerios I had scattered all over the room. This setup was one of my main parenting accomplishments to date. I had discovered that if I set him free on this mission, he would be both fed and occupied without my having to move much at all. Occasionally he would crawl over to me, offer me a Cheerio, and then stuff it gleefully into his own mouth before scrambling off to find the next one. (When I described this scenario to an acquaintance whose son was a bit older than mine, instead of the sympathetic smile I expected, she gave me an odd, sideways look and then, obviously choosing her words with the utmost care, said slowly, “That’s a funny story.” It was clear she didn’t think it was funny at all and was possibly considering calling Child Protective Services.)
So there I was, mustering up the effort to press the “brew” button on the coffeemaker as he scuttled around, when the knowing, recent words of a friend popped, unbidden, into my mind: “The organic Cheerios are best.”
All of a sudden, my morning routine, so elegant in its energy-saving simplicity, was blown to bits. My Cheerios, naturally, were not organic; my child would only eat the villainous, regular ones, and I knew enough about him to be grateful for even that. And yet I was still able, somehow, to feel bad about it, too. (As for the issue of whether or not my floor was clean enough to lie on, much less eat off of, well, let’s just say this is a story about food, not hygiene. And also that I was more than willing to trade a certain amount of risk in one area for a certain amount of rest in another.)
This feeling is one of the hallmarks of 21st-century parenting. Are we doing it – whatever it is – right? Are we doing it enough? Or too little? When it comes to food especially, the variations of guilt, denial, and, in my case, total bafflement are endless. Fortunately, I had a plan: I started working on a book that explored the choices we make when it comes to eating. I thought it would serve as the antidote to everything that was happening at my dinner table; if I surrounded myself with food and the people who make it, maybe I would finally learn how to whet my child’s appetite.
I started doing shifts in the kitchen of a small restaurant in Brooklyn called Applewood, which gets all its ingredients locally, and then I did stints on a number of their purveyors’ farms. I milked goats and fed sheep. I made cheese. I picked kale in the blinding sun and I was violently ill on a fishing boat off the coast of New Jersey. I cooked on the line and burned the hair off my arms more times than I can count, and picked up numerous tricks of the trade.
What I did not do, though, was forget about my non-eater, who would occasionally stop by the Applewood kitchen with his father, inspect the goings-on, and depart, as deeply incurious about food as ever. I learned an enormous amount about food, but I didn’t learn any great tricks for getting my son to eat – and believe me, I tried them all (for the record, I’m still open to suggestions).
But instead, I got something better. As I juggled cooking local, organic, gourmet food for strangers half the week and frozen fish sticks – the first “real” food my son deigned to try at around 20 months old – at home the rest of the time, I learned the fine art of balance. Not only how to balance the physicality of the kitchen with the interior work of writing, or the desire to purchase and eat the best food possible (without the ability to always afford it), but also how to balance the ideals we all bring to raising children with the reality of actually doing it. By the time I was done with my research, I knew deep down that as much as I might wish my son would eat more, or at least more diversely, I had the child I had, and it was time to move on.
Now, several years later, my son’s a better eater, if not exactly an adventurous one. The only credit I can take is for relaxing about the whole issue. By alleviating the pressure at the dinner table, I may have inspired him to cede a little bit of ground. He’ll eat pizza happily now, which I count as a victory even if most people wouldn’t, and I’ve decided to be glad that even if he’ll only eat a few vegetables, and those only raw, at least he eats some. These days, I try to keep this truth in mind whenever I find myself uttering the sentence, “Just a few more French fries, and you can have dessert.” Like many things about being a parent, this new attitude is unexpected, but it also serves as a reminder of how much I’ve grown since I became a mother.