The jury at our house is still deliberating over whether or not it’s okay for a 5-year-old to decide he doesn’t like onions. Is he old enough to make that decision? Is this a fight we really want to fight?
Let me set the scene for you: The Blakes are gathered around the lunchtime table, and the children are contemplating with great misery the little bowls of cauliflower soup before them. Their faces twisted with frowns, they sip at the soup, and sigh heavily, and roll their eyes back in their heads, and sigh again.
The 5-year-old uses his spoon to fish a tiny onion out of his soup. “What is this silver thing in my food?” he asks with disdain in his voice, knowing full well it is an onion. You see, about a year ago he decided he doesn’t like onions, and he has been on the prowl for them ever since, declaring any food that even came within shouting distance of an onion to be impure and inedible.
And yet, because I don’t condone the dislike and also because almost every recipe in the world calls for onions, I added onions to this homemade soup I’ve made for the family. I slaved over a hot stove fixing yet another meal for this unappreciative herd of miniature ingrates. Is that a double negative back there? Well, good.
About the time the 5-year-old is digging onions out of the soup, I am attempting to force-feed the 3-year-old with her spoon. The 3-year-old who enjoys eating raw onions, yet is turning her nose up at my creation. She bites down when I have the spoon halfway in, causing the soup to spill down her chin, over her shirt, and onto the table.
That’s when I half-rise and slap both my palms onto the table.
“THAT. IS. IT!” I roar. I don’t often raise my voice, so when I do, I command great fear in my children. “I WORK HARD TRYING TO KEEP YOU PEOPLE FED, AND BY GOLLY YOU ARE GOING TO EAT WHAT I’VE MADE FOR YOU!”
My husband half-rises too, ready to be called to action, and the children tremble as they eye me over their bowls. But I have to say, my outburst alone has scared them into at least pretending to eat. They struggle through several slurps… and then the 5-year-old gags on an onion (presumably) and throws up on the table.
We send him to his bed, because clearly he’s not feeling well. Next, the 3-year-old reverts to her favorite coping mechanism, which is reinforcing how good she is whenever her brother is in trouble.
“Mommy, I love this soup,” she grins at me, licking her lips. “Yum. And I love the color of your shirt.”
Before I had kids, a friend who’d already entered the realm of motherhood related to me that she thought life would be much easier if we didn’t need to eat. “I mean, we invest so much of our time into food,” she said. “First you have to figure out something that’s healthy and which everyone will probably like. You have to shop — but you can’t spend too much money on groceries. You have to cook and that takes a lot of time. You hope that what you make will sustain your family even if they don’t enjoy it. You have to clean up when you’re done. And you have to start all over again in a few hours.”
A childless lover of food at the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. But now, five years into this motherhood gig, I’m experiencing the sort of burnout from which she suffered. I have worked hard at balancing the whole healthy/delicious/economical routine in the kitchen… and more often than not, I have failed with what I’ve served them. It would be much easier — and the kids would be just as happy if not happier — if I cracked open a carton of strawberry yogurt for each meal. Why am I spending my life hitting my head against the kitchen counter? Will these children of ours thank me in the future? Or is it all for nought?
I grew up in a house where you ate what was on the table and you liked it. Dad never said it in so many words, but I just had a real good notion that my opinion didn’t count when it came to anything, food included. I had a healthy fear in me, and respect was best shown with a silent mouth. My parents never made a big deal out of food, and so neither did I: we didn’t complain about bad food, we didn’t rave over good food, we didn’t discuss food sensitivities, and we didn’t worry if there were too many carbs on the plate. I think Mom and Dad figured there were more important things to worry about; we just ate and we moved on with the day. Consequently, I’ve never had a lot of patience for picky eaters or food snobs — the way I was raised, to express a negative opinion over what someone served to you was akin to homemade sin — and my own kids have no faster path to make the bile rise in my throat than to turn their noses up at something we’ve put on the table for them to eat.
In the interest of my bile staying put, my husband and I need to make a Food Game Plan, and fast. Here are some topics our court is considering (and some good hints we’ve picked up from smart friends):
#1. Snacks. This is as much about me disciplining myself as it is about me disciplining my kids. You see, my husband and I have always kept a very flexible eating schedule. We are not noon-and-six-o-clockers. So I’ve also been very flexible on the kids’ snacking. Which I think is fine, as long as the snacks I offer are healthy snacks — carrots, cheese sticks, oranges, jerky, etc. Too often they’ll run to me and ask for a couple marshmallows at 11 o’clock, and too often I’ll hand them over because I want one, too. Then the kids don’t want to eat good food at mealtime. Which wouldn’t be so bad if I’d given them fruit instead of marshmallows at snack time. Smart Mom vows to keep healthy snacks on hand.
#5. Finishing what’s on your plate. I’m not saying we should force the kids to sit at the table until they’ve cleaned their plates. But I am saying they should finish that plate before they get a snack. Say they don’t finish their lunch at 1 p.m. but come to me wanting marshmallows at 2:30. Smart Mom says, “Sure you can have a marshmallow, honey, as soon as you finish your plate from lunchtime. It’s right there on the table where you left it.” I’d guess just a few days of this response would fix ’em right up.
#c: On vomit. My kids are gaggers and, it would seem, on-demand pukers. I have made my daughter eat foods that made her shiver with every bite. And I have forced my son to eat something that came right back up. (See story above.) I certainly do not want my kids to associate eating with puking. I would rather we all enjoy mealtime together. So why do I get myself into these tangles wherein I’ve started a fight I can’t finish? Smart Mom decides she will not use physical prowess to make her children eat; instead, she will outsmart them to make them eat. As one of our favorite authors, Dr. Kevin Leman, instructs, it is never a good idea for an adult to make a fool of herself trying to make a kid eat (airplane trick included). The kid will eat when the kid is hungry. Good advice, Doc.
#a. Pick ONE THING you hate. We must entertain the concept that this son of ours simply cannot handle onions. I mean, I have my own issue with fish. (In fact, I recall attending an adult dinner party, as a kid, with my parents, where I complained without ceasing about the smell of the fish someone had ordered, no doubt much to my parents’ humiliation. These days I still struggle with fish… though I have learned to enjoy shrimp on behalf of my Alabama-born-and-bred husband.) One of our close friends relates that, as he was growing up, his Smart Mom allowed him to pick one thing he couldn’t stand to eat. And he never ever had to eat that one thing. So, following yesterday’s lunchtime vomit, I made a deal with our son: I will no longer cook anything I expect him to eat using onions.
#3. Excluding that ONE THING you don’t like, your opinion doesn’t count until you’re… what, 25? Speaking of courts, the courts in this country are becoming increasingly liberal… both on the federal level and in the home. These days we let our kids voice half-formed opinions instead of telling them what they are allowed to think (gender identity issues in elementary schools, anyone?). Along these lines, I have overheard many of my kids’ peers express an opinion on foods they like or don’t like. Wasn’t there a time in the history of our country when saying such a thing was the fast road to a whippin’ — from any adult near enough to hear you say it? Last I checked, pickiness is an extreme privilege. If we didn’t have too darn much of everything in this country — food included — we wouldn’t be so darn picky, would we? I don’t want my children to wade right into the Frivolous River our society seems to be flowing with these days. And goodness knows I’ve discovered that kids aren’t just born with a respect for the cook who slaves all day; that respect needs to be instilled in them. So, with the help of my husband, I will instill good manners in my own kids at home, manners which we can only hope they’ll remember when they fly out of our nest and to another table. The main message I hope they get? A compliment is fine. Other than that, Zip it at the table… or Smart Mom’s bile is gonna get all weird again.
#2. Actually, no matter your age, if you can’t say anything nice… don’t say anything at all. You know what? Food isn’t simple anymore like it was in Belva’s Kitchen in the 1980s. There’s more than just pickiness coming into play here. The days of good ol’ cow’s milk and homemade cookies for everyone are gone. Many of my kids’ peers — in fact, many of my own peers — deal with food sensitivies and allergies, organic concerns, and weight concerns (both under and over). In fact, it’s getting hard to share food with other families, period, because of so many food options and so many food preferences floating around. Maybe the days of communing over food have passed us by. Maybe Smart Moms just eat at home and then find other ways to spend time with friends. Because breaking the bread isn’t much fun when nobody eats bread anymore.
#4. Mama, don’t invest in what you cook for your 5-year-old. If you think your 5-year-old is going to give you an award for creating a from-scratch, award-worthy masterpiece with expensive ingredients and hours of TLC, think again. Smart Mom knows you don’t make homemade noodles or prime rib and then throw it to the pigs. ‘Nuf said.
#d. The no-thank-you bite. We have always tried to make our kids take at least one bite of each food offered at a meal. This works well with the “your taste buds are changing” mantra. Studies really do show that you might have to try a food dozens of times before you figure out you like it. “Tastes change,” Smart Mom tells her kids. “I didn’t like tomatoes when I was a kid, but I sure like ’em now.” The only trouble with the no-thank-you bite is that if you fill your kid’s plate, then let her take no-thank-you bites of everything on it, you’re left without a dog in the fight when it comes to the “finish your plate” trick (see #5, above). Maybe the solution is to only put foods you know they like on their plates, then let them try everything else off of your own plate. Which leads us to…
#g. Our kids don’t like anything consistently. Say we fixed Exhibit A for them last week and they refused to eat one bite willingly. Then we made Exhibit A again today for lunch and they licked their plates clean and asked for more. I tell ya, Smart Mom just never can predict what these little shysters will do next.
#9. Which brings us back to the age-old question: What if they don’t like anything that’s on the table? Well, now I’m totally stumped. So Smart Mom is gonna take a line from Grandpa’s table and stick with this:
You’ll eat it and you’ll like it! Dammit!
© Tami Blake