When my kid was six months old and still an exclusive breast-feeder, we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant and ordered just about everything on the menu; holy smokes, does a nursing baby ever make its mom ravenous!
When the dishes arrived, W’s eyes lit up and his chubby hand shot out to scoop up a big handful of guacamole, licking it greedily off his fingers. The refried beans met the same fate; his mom barely got a look in. The look of profound satisfaction on his round and beaming face made me realize two things: 1. This kid was going to be a foodie and 2. I might as well give away the books on infant feeding that recommended starting out with the most bland and pre-digested of mashes, and get right to the point. Even in his food choices, W wanted to be treated like an older person, not an invalid with no teeth and a delicate constitution.
Suffering no ill effects from the gastronomic novelty of avocado and refried beans, W progressed rapidly to eating whatever we ate, sieved through the food mill I kept near my plate at mealtimes. As he got older, grew a few teeth, and showed a marked preference for the salty (olives), the sour (lemon wedges scooped unapologetically from my glass of water and devoured), and the mildly spicy (curry? No problem!) I realized that food needn’t be an area where parents need to act like coaches (“C’mon bud! Eat one more carrot…I know you can do it!”) foreign diplomats negotiating a truce, or short order cooks. What we do need are a few ground rules, and the willingness to apply them.
I love food: growing, cooking, and eating it. Mealtimes for me are a time of gratitude to the earth, the growers, and the food itself for being so damn good. Why spoil all this goodness with the whines and fussiness of a small tyrant who doesn’t share the same appreciation (yet)?
When he was about two years old, W went through a picky period where he refused to eat various foods he had happily consumed only weeks earlier. His health was otherwise excellent, and he showed no allergic reactions to the foods in question: this was definitely just fussiness. He would sit at his place, moving food around on the plate for close to an hour without eating it, leaving his dad and me, our plates long emptied, tapping our toes impatiently and sometimes cajoling him, to no avail.
After an hour-long supper, telling him we wanted him to finish his food in five minutes meant nothing; what two-year-old can tell time? I bought a small hourglass egg timer instead, with brightly coloured sand that poured itself out in five minutes—a measure he could see happening right in front of him. Once the five-minute warning had been officially called and the timer set in motion, it was amazing how fast the last morsels disappeared. If there was still food left on the plate when the sand ran out, the plate left the table for good, often to howls of protest. The tyrant-toddler apparently didn’t like the loss of control this removal represented.
When the whining and wheedling over dinner continue, it’s time to call in the vultures. These large and ravenous creatures (who look a lot like Mom, Dad and whoever else is sitting at the table!) flap their wings and shriek loudly to announce their presence. They indiscriminately grab food off the plates of indignant toddlers and fussy four-year-olds, from the unwanted Brussels sprout to the desirable cheesy noodle. They can also appear at dessert, lifting off with apple crisp, yogurt, and granola bars. Vultures don’t negotiate, and they don’t care how much the fussy eater whines. With their first warning shriek, my kid magically starts eating, fearing the swift disappearance of his favorite foods along with less enjoyable items from his plate. I find their presence at dinner extremely helpful in bypassing intractable kid-parent power struggles with goofy humour. Vultures have helped me keep my cool during times when, if I were not role-playing a bird of prey, I would have lost it as a human.
Still, there are times when even a flock of hungry vultures can’t help a bad situation. During the worst phase of W’s six-month fussy period—he would have been about three years old at the time—he one night refused to eat even a bite of dinner. I issued a warning: if he couldn’t eat at least a bit of what I had prepared, there wouldn’t be another dinner option. I had resolved that I would not be a short-order cook in my own kitchen. He again refused to eat. Calmly, I stood up from the table and removed his plate. In its place, I put a big glass of milk. He looked stunned.
“Drink up,” I said.
“Where’s my supper?” he asked.
“You weren't eating, so I took it away. Maybe you're not hungry tonight because of that big snack you ate this afternoon.”
He started to scream with outrage. “I want my supper!”
“Sorry,” I said. “Dad and I waited and waited, and you didn’t eat it. Drink your milk.”
By this point, he wasn’t listening, in the throes of a full meltdown.
With some difficulty, I picked him up off the floor and carried him upstairs while he thrashed and fumed. I could feel his anger and disbelief that I would dare what I was now attempting. It was an action that I felt I needed to take once, to make it clear we meant business.
Once in his room, he calmed down enough to drink the glass of milk, though we had to endure about 25 minutes of blood-curdling howls that sent my husband to the garage for his construction ear muffs. “Let's just give him his supper,” he said. I refused. Of course I didn’t enjoy hearing him so upset; still, I sensed that this evening’s lesson would not be lost on our bright boy and that we would not have to endure many more repeat performances.
I was right. The next day, W ate his dinner in a reasonable time with no complaints. I am happy to report that we have not had any further displays of extreme fussiness at the table, with the exception of cooked mushrooms and, oddly, melted cheese. The vultures still make their appearance occasionally, but we’ve been able to put away the timer. My recovered fusspot now usually tries new food with a spirit of curiosity and the expectation that all food is yummy. I tell him how easy it will be to travel to new places and experience new cultures via his plate.
And I really can’t ever get enough of his often-repeated, “I love your food, Mommy!”