He has just turned ten. He walks into the dining room like a Baptist busting up a poker game. He’s miles past simple disapproval; it’s like he’s afraid of being sullied through proximity. He’s got this special voice he uses, somewhere between holding-the-nose disgust and lump-in-the-throat disappointment: “What is this supposed to be? Oh my gosh, what’s this beige stuff in here?” And the tears! For a kid who grimaced his way dry-eyed through thirteen stitches to the knee last summer, this is quite a performance: “It’s just that you never give us anything good, even for special.”
I always imagined it was something he’d grow out of. Toddlers, they say (and by “they” I mean the 47 parenting books on my bookshelf), are attempting to determine the boundaries of their world and the extent of their own power within it. Since the only three actions over which they have any real control are eating, sleeping, and toileting, all three can become arenas of bitter combat unless parents know when to back off.
I was hip to that wisdom. I provided several nutritionally-sound options each meal and bit my tongue when he demanded rice crackers three times a day for nine days in a row. Then I heard he ate lasagna one day at daycare, so I photocopied the whole Healthy Tots menu and attempted to reproduce it. Then I set up a sticker-reward system for Trying Some of Everything. Then I had him tested for allergies. Then I made him sit there till his plate was clean. Then I tried to plan the meals with him, took him grocery shopping, and put him on a stool to chop carrots while I cooked.
There’s a complex choreography to fussy eating. His favorite dinnertime pose is on his haunches in the chair, knees splayed to either side, rocking contemplatively over the placemat like a vulture. This position makes it easy to tip his chair backwards onto two legs and hover in midair. It also gives him the option either to lever food mouthward with two fingers or “accidentally” to let it slip to the floor, where, helpfully, it will be dispatched by the dog. Cheeks puffed out, eyes watering, eyebrows raised in a rictus of martyrdom: he’s mastered the acrobatics of chewing without allowing the food to make contact with any of the mouth’s interior surfaces.
Picky eating is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. His quiche is undeniably disgusting once he’s finished with it. There it sits, stone cold, flayed from its crust, all the carmelized onions picked out and plopped on the napkin in a flaccid pile.
Meanwhile, I’ve gulped mine down without tasting it, and it’s ulcerating around at the sound of my own, ongoing, litany: “Cutlery in each hand, please! Pull your chair in! A shirt is not a serviette! I don’t want to see your hands anywhere near your food again, got it? No, no– DO use your hands to drink your milk–.”
But it’s too late, he’s pincered the glass between fork and knife, and his little brother has attempted to imitate. I lunge for the paper towels, but never mind–the dog has beaten me to the spill, dutifully licking the underside of the dining table.
From the comfort of my midday solitude, I’ll admit there’s a boys-will-be-boys aspect to all this. And I’m not one of those mothers who equates cooking with love and feels personally rejected when a recipe doesn’t fly. But still, it’s a rotten feeling to have planned and prepared a meal and then to watch it get insulted, mocked, tortured, and tossed out. I think most restaurateurs in the world would agree with me on that.