Emilia is the world’s pickiest eater. You probably think that I’m exaggerating. I’m not. There might be a child somewhere in Germany who will only eat bratwurst and cherries, but I’d be willing to bet that that child would eat a whole chocolate chip muffin if coaxed. Not Emilia. She’d remove the muffin top and pick three or four chocolate chips from around its edges and then discard it, saying that she didn’t like how it felt in her mouth. And that would be on a good day.
Emilia prefers to stick the basics: bread, cheese, pickles, tofu, spaghetti noodles (only spaghetti) with butter, chick peas, corn on the cob, yogurt, cheese pizza (only cheese), hard-boiled eggs, ketchup, strawberries, cake icing (not the cake itself) and candy. And watermelon, but only outside, and only if it’s seedless. That’s it. Sometimes, she’ll eat only one or two of those things for days, and then reject those same things for weeks – “I don’t like them anymore, Mommy” – only to return to them once she has us convinced that the only thing she’ll eat is chick peas and ketchup. She once shocked us by eating a poached egg and declaring it delicious, but that was only once, and she never did it again. And she went through a brief Vietnamese noodle soup phase when she was a baby, but all babies do that and we didn’t think much of it at the time. She does not like macaroni and cheese or fries or chicken fingers or hamburgers, unless by ‘hamburger’ you mean ‘ketchup on a bun.’ I’d say that she was a vegetarian, except that she doesn’t like most vegetables. Feeding her is – what’s the scientific term for this? – a pain in the ass.
Some people would probably say that we’re not trying hard enough, that we should be able to get Emilia to eat anything. That seems to be the argument of New York restaurateur Nicola Marzovilla, who, in speaking out against the pernicious evil of children’s menus at restaurants, says that he has always forced – yes, forced – his kids to try a variety of foods because “I’m their parent, I’m not their best friend… I have a duty to mold and teach.” Right. Because friends don’t force friends to eat rabbit ragout.
I could care less about whether or not a restaurant has a children’s menu, although I admit that it makes life a little easier when they do. Smaller portions, simpler menu items – sometimes I want to order from a kids’ menu. But it’s not necessary: as long as we can order a small plate of spaghetti noodles, plain, with a side of bread, we’re good. But I do take issue with this idea that if you aren’t forcing your kids to eat whatever is on their plate, you’re doing parenting wrong. We should encourage them to eat a variety of foods, sure, but force? I’m not even inclined to argue strenuously about whether Emilia should try foods that she’s not interested in, never mind force her. Even if I thought that I could – and I’m about 115% certain that I couldn’t – I don’t see the point. If a little enthusiastic encouragement doesn’t get her to try a piece of California roll, I’m not going to push the issue. Attempting to force her to try something that she doesn’t want to isn’t going to make mealtime a more pleasant experience for either of us. That, and there’s one more piece of California roll for me.
I was a picky eater as a child. I didn’t like red meat and would only eat pasta with butter and cheese and went through a long and happy lima bean phase during which the only non-dairy protein I would eat was – you guessed it – lima beans. My parents encouraged me to try a variety of foods, and sometimes they were successful – clam chowder! – but mostly they weren’t and this never got in the way of us having happy mealtimes together because I was never stressed about what I ate. Mom would make sure that there were always at least a few things on the table that I would happily eat if, say, I developed a sudden aversion to creamed corn or refused to try the pan-fried trout, and so mealtime was always a relaxed and happy time during which I could focus on explaining my theories on why Barbie could run faster than Holly Hobby (stronger legs and aerodynamic hair) rather than on worrying whether I’d be forced to clean my plate.
Of course, I didn’t eat my first mushroom until I was twenty years old and living in Spain and didn’t know how to say ‘what’s in this paella?‘ in Spanish, and I suppose that there’s an argument to made that my life would been more fulfilling if I’d eaten more than just cucumber and mayonnaise sandwiches during seventh grade, but still – I never got scurvy and I eventually came to love such strange and fascinating foods as raw oysters and pico de gallo and ceviche and asparagus and tuna sashimi and apple pie (I never once touched apple pie during childhood. Fruit-based desserts seemed to me to be a travesty against the dessert gods, who, everyone knows, are gods of chocolate and caramel, with some exceptions made for desserts involving meringue. I am still a patron of this church, but have been known to enjoy a heretical slice of apple pie, but only if warm and served with ice cream, which makes it less offensive in the eyes of those gods.)
Being a picky eater as a child didn’t prevent me from developing more adventurous tastes later in life, and I like to think that my parents’ refusal to fight food battles made all the difference in me growing up loving the social aspects of dining – the fun of dinner-table conversation, the excitement of going out to restaurants and spending the evening together, the joy of lingering over our plates and caring more about the words coming out of our mouths than the food going in. I grew up a foodie who didn’t care all that much about food, and, apart from missing a decade or so of quality sashimi-eating time, I think that it did me more good than harm.
I’d love it if Emilia discovered the joys of curry and the pleasures of tempura and the bliss of creme brulee earlier rather than later, but I’m not going to force the issue. I’ll limit my anxiety to worrying about whether what she does eat is healthy enough and in sufficient quantities and that – most importantly – sitting down at the table with people she loves is always a pleasurable experience.
And I’ll enjoy, for now, the extra pieces of California roll.
(I’m not the only one with an insanely picky eater, right? How do you cope? Do you fight it, or just roll with it, or what? Also, would you ever boycott a restaurant without a kids’ menu, or does that seem a little fascist to you?) (NOT JUDGING.)