Parent or short order cook?
Time and time again, I have heard parents complaining about how their kids are so picky about food – that they WILL NOT eat this or that or the other, or that they will only eat a select few foods that they trust and are not willing to experiment with anything beyond their range of familiarity. So, the parents moan, when the family goes out to eat, they have to go only to places that will serve what their kids like, and when the family is eating at home, the mom becomes a short-order cook, preparing one thing for one kid, another thing for another kid, separate from what the family as a whole is eating.
Pat and I never allowed Gerald to get picky – if he didn’t want to eat what we were eating, he didn’t eat. Funny thing is, he never really went through a picky stage, ever, and he has since taken not only to eating but also to cooking all sorts of intriguing foods. The gifted program at his elementary school ran a mini-restaurant that prepared a gourmet lunch every Wednesday as an alternative to the school cafeteria. He has also always enjoyed the cooking shows on television and been excited about the cooking techniques he has observed on them – at one point, he even considered being a chef as a career choice. Recently, he has become an expert on Vietnamese cuisine; one of his close friends is Vietnamese, and he’s now dating that friend’s kid sister.
Some years ago, my cousin, his wife and their two boys (then ages 9 and 5) came to visit us at Five O’Clock Somewhere. I tried to get the boys interested in helping in the kitchen – I was preparing chicken Kiev, (baked, not fried) so there were a lot of fun things to do such as pounding the chicken breasts with a mallet and using a rolling pin to smash crackers into crumbs. But they thought that whole idea was boring, especially the older one, opting instead to go to the living room and switch the television from the news that I was listening to, to an episode of Spongebob Squarepants that they had seen so often that they could recite all of the dialog in unison with the characters on the screen. Gerald and I ended up doing most of the work.
Then when we sat down to eat, the boys didn’t want to eat what was served, so their mother went into the kitchen to fix what they wanted – grilled cheese for one, a hot dog for the other. I was astonished that she caved in to their demands and that she would allow them to be so blatantly impolite to their hosts – as well as being somewhat impolite herself by presuming to go to the kitchen without checking in with me first (although that’s a gray area since I welcome people coming into my kitchen to help, and I enjoy what goes on when people who love each other are all cooking together. I have fond memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases when my mom, my aunt, Gerald, and I have all been cooking in harmony.)
Now, maybe my cousin’s wife decided that because we were family, she could go to the kitchen to do the short-order cook thing, and maybe in a more formal situation she would not allow her kids to snub the food that was served or presume to take over the kitchen herself. But I’m not so sure.
But then, I can’t really make my cousin and his wife (now ex, but still close to the family) out to be ultra-lenient, at least in today’s world. It seems that the vast majority of parents cater to their kids’ whims. At least daily, I encounter a parent who expresses frustration about her (or his) kid’s pickiness and laments all the time and trouble she has to go through to keep the kid satisfied. Usually it’s in an impersonal situation, such as a supermarket check-out line, where I can’t reasonably berate the parent for being so much of a wimp that she lets her kids walk all over her.
There was a television commercial that used to run often, featuring a mother and super-cute preschool-age daughter in a supermarket. The girl objected to everything the mother put into the shopping cart: “I don’t like chicken,” “I don’t like broccoli,” and so forth. In the end, the girl’s mother buys a sweet, vitamin-enriched milkshake-type product to make up for the nutrition the girl would miss by refusing to eat broccoli or chicken or anything else she doesn’t like. To me, that’s the ultimate cop-out. It provides a way for parents to say that they are making sure their kids’ nutritional needs are being met without having to make their kids angry with them, and it puts the kids in control of the family’s food-buying decisions.
Bullshit. Study after study has proved that the best way for the human body to absorb nutrients is to eat foods containing those nutrients, not to take a supplement that contains extracts of those nutrients or synthetic versions of them. Essentially, the nutritional milkshakes are simply a vitamin pill in liquid form. Kids may love them because of the flavor, and parents may love them because it keeps them from having to be the bad guy enforcing consumption of broccoli. Sorry, bad idea. Kids need to eat healthful food. It’s not just about the vitamins and minerals – which seems to be where parental concerns seem to reside. It’s about the overall healthfulness of the diet. A really caring parent will make sure his kid consumes healthful foods, no matter how much she protests.
Really, it’s simple. So long as the kid doesn’t have some underlying medical issue, it’s fine to let him refuse to eat what’s served. Eventually, he’s going to get hungry enough that he WILL eat it. Yeah, some highly principled individuals (such as Mahatma Ghandi) will go on hunger strike and risk death to make their point. But that sort of idealism is not what drives the average 9-year-old, so the kid’s determination will fade as the hunger increases. Refusing any food whatsoever may be child abuse, but offering only food that the child finds unpalatable is not.