The author with her veggie-hating son. Photo: Libby Williams
If hunger is the best sauce, tears are the worst spice. That’s what I was thinking as I sat through yet another family dinner full of sniffles. “I can’t do it. I’ll try it next year,” my four-year-old son sobbed as he stared at his meal. You would have thought I’d placed a bowl of steamed salamanders before him.
It was much worse. It was broccoli.
Welcome to my personal hell. A nightly routine in which my son summons the fires of Hades to rage against the injustices of vegetables. Carrots. Yuck! Peas. Bleh! Cauliflower. Hard no! The only vegetal item he occasionally deems worthy of his digestion are those smiley face frozen potatoes, so that what were once spuds look like circles of third-degree burned children grimacing up from his plate.
It wasn’t always like this. I have flashes, legume-laced fever dreams of happier days, when diapered and wholly dependent on me for sustenance, my child would eat vegetables. Or at least I think that happened. I spent one recent afternoon obsessively searching my photo archives looking for proof of my son consuming anything containing chlorophyll. I found one image of him eating green bean baby food. It was taken in 2015.
“Jeez, it’s been that long?” I shuddered.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine have recently suggested that “a gene that makes some compounds taste bitter may make it harder for some people to add heart-healthy vegetables to their diet.” And I’m sure, once he learns to annotate his anti-veg ideology into a proper manifesto, my son will cite that source. Until then, I gotta feed this persnickety kid, which is almost as maddening as the side-eye mom-shaming I’ve gotten from some of my friends.
“He doesn’t eat any vegetables?” they ask, agog.
“My parents served me what they ate and I didn’t have any other choice and it worked for me,” said a friend who doesn’t have children.
“Have you tried hiding vegetables in other foods?” suggested another.
To which it took everything in me not to respond, “Hide the vegetables?! What a revolutionary concept! How did you possibly come up with that? Have you considered becoming a parenting expert? Or patenting that idea? Get Dr. Oz on the phone, he’s gonna freak when he hears this miracle cure.”
Uhh, yeah, girl. I’ve def tried hiding them. I’ve snuck spinach in smoothies, put peppers in scrambled eggs, baked pumpkin muffins, and tried to pass off zucchini bread as a “magical green loaf.” All to which my stubborn boy responded with a resounding “It tastes gross!”
Adding insult to injury? My work is food. When I gave birth to my son, I was the cuisine editor for an alternative weekly newspaper. My job was to report on dining trends, food and beverage news, and deliver chef profiles. Now I write about food and culture as a freelance writer. But it doesn’t end there. My hobbies? Trying new restaurants and cooking new recipes. So imagine creating a tiny human whose idea of a four star meal is PB&J, “White bread only, please, mom. That other bread you bought had weird brown things on top.”
“Yeah, sammy seeds. Yuck.”
The struggle isn’t just “real.” It’s next level should we be concerned about scurvy real. It’s how did the British Royal Navy deal with this real. It’s can I be arrested for making my son drink lime-laced rum real.
And it’s getting old real fast.
This past summer, embarrassed following a visit to see our close friends whose four-year-old chomped on carrots and celery sticks like an underfed rabbit, we staged an intervention. Said friend gave me a copy of Getting to Yum, a French approach to encouraging healthy eating habits in children. And that’s when our daily Battles of the Veg began.
My husband and I tried pepped-up encouragement: “You can do it, kiddo! It’s just a cherry tomato! Give it a try.”
We tried bribery: “If you take one bite of the mashed potatoes we’ll let you watch an episode of Paw Patrol.”
“I don’t like Paw Patrol anymore,” my son scowled.
We tried dares: “I bet you’re too scared to eat those snap peas.”
“No, I’m not. They just look icky.”
We tried intimidation: “If you don’t eat those green beans, Santa’s going to skip our house.”
Cue: All of the tears.
Our dinners made Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo look like a good time. And, frankly, I didn’t have the willpower to fight another day. So we called a cease fire this fall and in recent weeks I’ve accepted defeat.
Parenting is a minefield and after examining my wish list of traits I want my child to have, well, eating vegetables just isn’t as high as being kind, empathetic, and having good manners. And as it turns, on those counts, my boy is doing great. He’s a loving, caring, sensitive carb-atarian. Sure, it sucks that he won’t eat Brussels sprouts or asparagus, but at least when he's asked, he sweetly demures, “No thank you, I’m fine with PB&J.”
This article was originally published online in November 2019.