Revenge of the Picky Eaters


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I don't care for fancy restaurants, but my wife loves them. An occasional night out has always given her the illusion that her life is more pleasant than it really is - especially when our kids were small.

As we lingered over dessert on one of those outings, she gazed into my eyes and said, "Dear, it's wonderful eating dinner with somebody who doesn't throw food on the floor."

"Shucks," I said, gratified to have one of my finer qualities recognized. But it would have been small of me not to mention that our 18-month-old food-thrower, Wendy, was also our best eater.

Our older kids, Marie and Sally, started out as excellent eaters like Wendy, but every couple of months something else would fall off each girl's dwindling menu of tolerated foods. It was a sad week when spaghetti and hamburgers were both renounced by those girls.

Part of Marie's motivation was ethical. "I wish there was no such thing as meat," she told me one day. "Then all the animals would be friendly, and you could snuggle with a tiger or a bear just like a stuffed animal." Both girls were slowly becoming vegetarians, but without a corresponding interest in eating vegetables.

Although both kids were picky, they differed in approach. Marie would bargain to determine how little she could eat and still qualify for dessert. However, Sally figured that if she could discredit the food as being "sour" or "rotten" she wouldn't have to eat it. This hurt my wife's feelings. She sees food as an expression of her love for her family.

As finicky as my kids were, I've seen worse. My niece had to be sent to her room when, at her fourth birthday party, the hinge on her hot-dog roll broke and she became hysterical.

Once we had a 6-year-old visitor who wouldn't eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We had the right kind of bread (whole wheat), but the wrong kind of peanut butter (chunky) and the wrong kind of jelly (grape). Her father, after taking inventory of our other provisions, knelt beside her chair and, putting forth a lawyerly line of reasoning, tried to guide her into a selection: "...OK, we've established that you like this kind of bread, and yesterday I saw you eating ham..." But his child, sensing where he was leading her, began shaking her head "no" without even waiting to hear his summation.

Basic logic is a crude tool for this kind of work. You might as well try to cut the crusts off a sandwich with a lawnmower.

But given enough years and the freedom to make their own choices, kids can change their eating habits.

Wendy, now 19, spends very little time at home and never sits down to eat with us except at Thanksgiving. As far as I can tell, she only eats turkey and yams.

But her two older sisters have become "foodies," a word that didn't exist when they were breaking their mother's heart at the dinner table.

Marie, 26, is a waitress at the hippest restaurant in town, and at home she loves to make things happen with squash, eggplant, chard, kale and other strange life forms that my mom never served me. Rice is a big item when Marie cooks, but it's a food that I never enjoyed once I found out that the really elegant people don't pour sugar on it.

When Sally became a vegetarian at age 10, we were unwilling to let her make it our problem, so we just fed her table scraps. She later went to a college with a focus on sustainability and ethical living. So at age 23, she makes sure that we only buy organic milk and vegetables. And if she sees regular, cheap eggs in the refrigerator instead of high-priced, cage-free eggs, she looks at us as though we had been eating kittens. Sometimes Sally helps Marie in the kitchen, pleased to be making a meatless meal that she can allow herself to eat.

When those two are around, I could just as soon enjoy a shamefully delicious hot dog as I could sip champagne out of a chorus girl's slipper. So Marie serves up one of her ornate vegetable entrees, and I love her for making it, and I'm glad that my wife likes that stuff, too. But when the latest creation arrives in front of me, my face gives me away and everyone laughs.

It slowly occurs to me that picky eaters are not merely willful brats; some of us just know what we like.

Rick Epstein can be reached at rickepstein@yahoo.com.

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