I’ll never forget an essay I read many years ago by a professional foodie in which he described the highlight of both his parental and culinary careers: his young daughter, while dining with him in a restaurant, turned to him and said, “Daddy, this chicken tastes just like frog legs.” I wish now I had noted the author’s name, so I could track him down and chew him out for creating what I now understand was a wildly unrealistic set of expectations.
It was all so promising at the beginning. My oldest son, Jonah, was a wonderful eater when he was a baby. At one, it seemed there was nothing he didn’t like: dim sum, asparagus, guacamole. Then he began to refuse things he had previously savored. My husband Andy and I joked about which foods had been “voted off the island” that week. After Jonah was diagnosed with autism, we assumed his extremely limited food preferences were part of his disorder. While it’s true that many children on the autistic spectrum have restricted diets, our next two daughters followed the same pattern of acceptance then rejection as they grew from babies into toddlers. By the time my sister Keri, her husband Matt and their two young sons moved in with us a year and a half ago, I had fallen into the habit of feeding my children some permutation of chicken, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and fruit almost every night. Later, I would eat a late, grown-up dinner with Andy when he came home from work.
I wasn’t proud of it. I never thought I’d be one of those moms who bought a little peace with over-processed, unnaturally colored fare. But what were my options? Force the kids to eat the “adult” dinner I’d prepared? Send them to bed hungry? Neither choice particularly appealed to me. So I consulted my pediatrician, who told us that the kids could meet many nutritional needs through fruit. And instead of dwelling on all the nitrates and refined flour my children were consuming, I focused on the critical protein and fat, which I had read were especially important for developing brains.
Still, I could guess what Keri and Matt, both chefs by training, thought of this diet: Not our boys. I’m sure they assumed Declan and Ronan would be of the frog-legs-eating ilk – I certainly did. If ever children were bred to have broad palates, it’s them. Their parents have a combined twenty years of restaurant experience. They make their own sushi, and they made their own baby food. When we go out to dinner, Matt can be counted on to order the most exotic dish on the menu, from sweetbreads to blood sausage to fried crickets.
And we felt their influence immediately. Our refrigerator was suddenly stocked with organic milk, yogurt and eggs. We joined a farm cooperative in search of the best locally grown produce. We also started sitting down to dinner as a family. We gathered around the dining room table for braised oxtails, coq au vin, leg of lamb – and the fights I had so desperately tried to avoid. We read somewhere that children need to try new foods an average of nineteen times before they accept them, so we instituted a new rule: the kids had to take at least one taste of everything on their plates. One bite! It didn’t seem that draconian to us. But every night there were tears: “I’ve had broccoli a million times, I already know I hate it!” “That smells disgusting!” “How big a bite?” “If I take a bite, can I have something else?” I freely admit that my six-year-old daughter, Erika, was often the instigator in these confrontations, but none of the kids – not even my culinarily advantaged nephews – embraced the risotto or the roasted parsnips. In the end, it always seemed to come down to a negotiation (okay, a bribe) for dessert.
We gathered around the dining room table for braised oxtails, coq au vin, leg of lamb – and fights.That was eighteen months ago. Although we never sat down and explicitly talked about it, things have changed since then. Now, when Matt makes shortribs and noodles, the kids have noodles and hot dogs. Raw carrots, celery and peppers – which the kids vastly prefer to cooked vegetables – are featured frequently on the menu. And our dinners are much more peaceful as a result. I know Keri has relaxed her standards with some reluctance, assuming her sons’ palates would be greatly expanded were it not for their cousins’ influence, but I’m not so sure. A recent article in The New York Times on picky eaters confirmed that children as a group are pickiest between the ages of two and five, and further explained that this phenomenon has its roots in evolutionary biology, as a defense mechanism to protect increasingly mobile toddlers from ingesting the countless new and potentially hazardous substances they encounter over the course of their daily explorations. And this makes sense to me. After all, I know many kids who eat only chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. But I don’t know one adult who does.
Not that we’ve completely given up. We still have our family dinners, and we set a positive example every day by exclaiming over the curried cauliflower, the turkey pot pie, and the vegetable stir fry that Matt and Keri prepare. We invite the kids to help in cooking projects of all kinds, from mixing pancake batter to shaping challah. Given how much effort and pleasure goes into the preparation and consumption of food in our house, I think – I hope it will be impossible for the kids to maintain their resistance for long.