Sophia has a thing for pomegranate seeds, which are tart and juicy and about $4.00/box at Trader Joes. The other day she bit into a seed and looked like she had a epiphany, “MOMMY! We should plant this and grow our own pomegranate tree! Then we wouldn’t have to buy them anymore. We could just pick them and eat them!”
I love that this occurred to her: that she knows where her food comes from, that she appreciates this whole food, that she has a desire to produce it herself. It feels like a battle hard won.
I am doing my best to teach Sophie to love good food.
Sophie was a picky eater from day one. My doctor had warned me that if I delayed solids this might happen. I will never know if it was because I waited until she was eight months to give her a mushed-up banana, or if its simply in her genes (as new research suggests). But she started rejecting food as soon as I began introducing it.
The only thing she loved was carbs. Carbs in any form: crunchy crackers, cheerios, slabs of bread. There is a good reason for this, as your saliva starts to digest carbohydrates they break down into yummy sugars in your mouth.
I know, like many picky eaters, she could have gone the route of only eating beige test tube products made exclusively of corn, soy and multisyllabic chemicals, so I never let them be a choice. It’s a slippery slope, I’ve watched many a child luge down. Instead, I have always offered her the same thing we were eating, making sure there is something familiar and liked as part of the meal. My rule is you must taste the novel food once, before getting the preferred food. I don’t care if she spits it out. I just want her to try.
This has been far from easy. Dinners often take an hour or more. Generally, there is a big reaction when Sophie first spies something alien on the table. “THAT’S DISGUSTING! I’m not eating those!” she hurls in the direction of the brussel sprouts tossed with butter and almonds sitting in a glass bowl. With great dramatic flair, she falls on the floor and bursts into tears. I have learned that it is best to say nothing. To simply proceed with dinner, commenting on how delicious it is. If Sophia continues tantrum, I give her the option of going to her room or joining us at the table. Typically she opts for the former.
If Sophia tantrums in her room and nobody is there to hear it, she generally ceases to make a sound.
Eventually Sophia re-emerges, walking the razor’s edge between compliance and rebellion. “I’ll sit at the table, but I am not eating those brussel sprouts.”
“All you have to do is try it.” I remind her. “One bite.”
She pouts. I’m not giving in. “Alright!” she says, reluctantly. She tastes it, gives me a thumbs up, and refuses to have any more.
So be it.
Many times Sophia has put something in her mouth and said “Yummy!” and eaten it. Many other times she has taken a bite and said “Yucky!” and spat it out. When she does it, I bring it back again. And again. And again. Not in a Mommy Dearest—you will-get-nothing-else-until-you-eat-this-rancid-raw-meat kind of way, but in a, “Look who came to visit us again! Brussel sprouts!” kind of way. Eventually she does incorporate the new food into her repertoire. Well, except spinach.
But hey. I figure everyone is allowed a hated food. For me it is slimy old lima beans.
They are just gross.
I know there are many experts who would suggest that you don’t “force” a child to eat—that you present the food, but make no demands. In fact, you display very little investment in the outcome at all. If they don’t eat, they don’t eat. They will eat when they are hungry. I understand this philosophy, and I imagine there are many kids for whom this works.
For me, this method feels almost, but not quite, right. This devil-may-care attitude just isn’t me. I believe sometimes it is necessary to make a little push. To take a firm stance. To have convictions:
We are fortunate to have this good food. We eat what is on our table. We stop when we are full.
Part of passing these convictions on to Sophie is to incorporate her in our food decisions. She helps me decide what’s for dinner. We shop together. We talk about what’s healthy and what’s not. If she shows interest in new food, I buy it and prepare it: Star fruit, artichokes, pistachio nuts. And now, joy of joys, she helps me prepare it, cutting with a butter knife, pouring and stirring, sprinkling and spreading, watching it transform from ingredient to meal. She is so much more inclined to take that bite when she is invested in it.
I feel like I am up against the very seductive forces of peers and the media, trying to lure her to the other side. She needs to hear my less popular views.
We are in the grocery store when she asks:
“Mommy, why can’t I have the kind of yogurt with oreo cookies on top for lunch, like Brady? I like those.” [She’s never had them.]
“Because, Sophie, that has a ton of sugar in it. We eat organic yogurt with delicious fresh fruit. It’s better for our bodies.”
“So I can be healthy and run!” she tells me, taking off down the aisle. I watch her beautiful form, muscles expanding and contracting, powered by all the good stuff she takes in, and feel gratified. That is, until I see her on a crash course with a shopping card.
I have but a brief window to make a lasting impression. To form life-long habits. To deliver a clear message that rises above all others. Who knows if I’ll succeed—maybe she’ll be the kid scarfing down as much junk food as she can the minute she’s out of my sight. But just this week she had a piñata party in her Spanish class, and collected a fistful of candy. “I didn’t have any,” she told me proudly when I came to pick her up. “For that,” I said, “You can have one piece—whatever you want.” After all, I believe in a solid foundation, not complete deprivation. Sophie smiled and picked out a box of nerds. She didn’t ask about the candy again.
Now about that pomegranate tree…I wonder if one could grow in this climate….
This post is inspired by the novel Julia's Child by Sarah Pinneo. Worried about what her kids eat, Julia Bailey starts a prepared organic toddler meals business. With names like Gentil Lentil, can Julia balance work and family and still save the world? Join From Left to Write on May 24 as we discuss Julia's Child. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.