Let me cut right to the chase and tell you that my children — the offspring of two professional chefs — are not only picky eaters, but picky eaters who are obviously engaging in an intricately planned conspiracy meant to break me into submission so they can spend their lives sustaining themselves on Cherry Coke and Doritos. Now you know my dirty secret, and hopefully it makes you all feel a bit less alone? No one is immune from the psychological torture that our children are so effortlessly able to inflict upon us at the dinner table, not even the pros.
Food is my life. When I was eight years old I entered an essay contest for writing about the person I admire the most: the dude who invented lasagna. I read cookbooks the way other girls read Sweet Valley High. By high school I was exploring my native New York City to feed my insatiable desire for all things edible and exotic. By my early 20s, I was working in the food business, trying to learn everything I could from anyone willing to teach me. Since then, I’ve managed to start a bakery, write two cookbooks, make some television appearances, and work as a food writer. You’d think my children would respect this, right?
OF COURSE THEY DON’T.
The whole trying-to-break-me thing, remember?
Do you have any idea how awful this feels? I know many of you out there relate to the struggle. Picky eaters lurk in many a household. But can you imagine how hard this is for a person whose entire identity revolves around the very thing your children vehemently reject? The craft you have spent your life loving and honing?
My kids have told me that I “make things we don’t like on purpose,” that they won’t try foods I make because I “cannot be trusted.” I have made them a macaroni and cheese which I have spent years perfecting, only to be rebuffed with the claim that the one from a box is better. Not even the name brand stuff, mind you — we’re talking the crap from the dollar store.
I, like many parents, have read countless articles on ways to deal with picky eaters. Hell, I’ve been asked to write a few of these articles myself, as it is assumed that my children must be spending their days nibbling on truffles and lobster. It’s all bullshit. I’m sure you’ve come across these same pieces of advice:
Patience is key! They’ll come around eventually, just you wait!
Yeah, my kids are 9 and 10. Still waiting.
Make fruits and veggies fun by arranging them into smiley faces!
Have you ever looked at someone smiling at you and thought “Man, I’d really like to eat your face”? Kids don’t think this either, and you really don’t want to train them to start.
Sneak shredded vegetables and purees into foods they already like!
Now you’ve made them hate the only foods they were willing it eat. Good job.
Make “fun fries” using healthy veggies like beets, turnips and even avocado!
Do you really think your kids are stupid enough to fall for this? Do you want them to be?
Recruit your kids to help in the kitchen, and they’ll be proud to eat what they made!
No. Here’s what will happen:
- You will spend twice the time it would actually spend making dinner trying to teach them how to pick the leaves off a bunch of parsley.
- They will get bored within the first two minutes and drop the parsley on the floor.
- They will wait until you are using a sharp knife, then start running around the kitchen like feral cats. After you cut yourself you will put them in a corner with their iPad and beg for quiet.
- They will come back during the last thirty seconds to stir the parsley (that you chopped) into the dish, then proceed to tell everyone that they helped.
- They will not eat dinner because it has parsley in it.
After years of trying, I quit. I couldn’t take another family dinner spent begging and pleading. I couldn’t bring myself to cook three separate meals every night — a necessity, since both kids refuse to eat the foods the other one likes. You want frozen pizza instead of the authentic Neapolitan-style pies I make? Fine. You want string cheese and microwaved (never toasted) waffles? You got it.
They were happy, and I suppose I should have been, too. There was no longer any confrontation. There was barely any work to do, and few dishes to wash afterwards. I had a lot more time to sit on the couch and read magazines. So that was good.
But I was depressed. Like probably a lot of moms, every day I feel like I’m fumbling through adulthood, trying to master basic competence and praying to God that I’m not screwing everything up too badly. Every bit of me is a hot mess, but the one thing I know for sure is that I am really good behind the stove. That is where I have control, where I can create order from chaos. And it’s where I’m happy.
So, after a few months of this, I began to cook again — not because of any great a-ha moment or parenting breakthrough, but because my therapist told me I had to. And she was right.
So I stopped buying snacks for my kids to fill up on. No more making a box of mac and cheese or microwaving a few hot dogs so they’d have a second option. Their doctor said that they wouldn’t starve, that they’d eventually relent when they got hungry enough, so with her sign-off, I didn’t feel a single iota of guilt over this.
I went back to the kitchen to come back to myself. I let my imagination guide me, incorporating the few foods my kids actually like, hoping to coax them. I made things that excited me, like homemade ramen with crisped braised pork and snow peas, Vietnamese caramel-shellacked roasted tofu with pickled carrots, yellow squash pappardelle with marinara sauce and grated Pecorino. And you know what happened?
Well, nothing much. Yet. And somehow they still have the energy to wrestle like lion cubs, climb trees like orangutans, and trash my house every single day. I don’t understand how this is even biologically possible, but it’s happening.
I have realized, dear reader, that perhaps this isn’t an issue of picky eating at all but rather a battle of wills. If they can break me at the table, then it’s only a short jump to making up their own bedtimes and skipping their chores, until eventually the household descends into a hostage situation where my husband and I cower in our bedroom while they play Minecraft for eight hours a day while living off of Saltine crackers and 7-11 pizza.
In the meantime, I shall not yield! I shall not lay down and die! I stand tall and proud with my husband by my side as we fight not just for our culinary freedom, but for the institution of parenthood at large. I fight for every single one of us who have been pushed to the edge of sanity. Today we declare that we shall not live on frozen waffles and string cheese alone!
We shall cook our food, full of care and flavor, and our children can eventually join. It may not happen today, it could be tomorrow. And, if tomorrow isn’t good for them, well… no problem. We can wait.
Don’t come for your mom, boys. I can hold out for a long, long time.