Leah Rumack, mom of one
“Wow,” said my friend, impressed, as I spooned Moroccan-flavoured chickpea stew into my then 10-month-old son’s cooperative little bird mouth. “My baby would never eat that.”
“That’s OK,” I assured her, feeling smug while attempting to appear benevolent and kind. “Ben just came this way!”
My baby gourmand would eat pretty much everything I put in front of him, and that—I was sure—was because I was Following The Rules. I was exposing him to a variety of flavours. He nibbled on crab when we went for Pho, he munched on injera when we went for Ethiopian, he gobbled tuna and squashed veggies. I was never going to be that type of pushover who made a separate meal for my kid. He was going to be a cool, cosmopolitan, tagine-eating machine.
And then, as the famous saying goes, everything turned to sh*t.
We enrolled Ben at a home daycare when he was one. Sure, his caregiver didn’t provide catered meals like the “real” daycares, but she fed the kids what seemed like a reasonably healthy menu. At some point between age one and two, however, Ben’s food preferences shrank…and shrank…and shrank, until there were only about 10 things he would go anywhere near.
“He’ll grow out of it,” my friends assured me, feeling superior as they fed their kids stinky cheese and smoked salmon.
He didn’t. For almost three years now, he’s eaten the same handful of foods—hummus, yogurt, milk, peanut butter, bread, cereal, fruit, chicken fingers—no matter how many times we place new dishes in front of him. He recoils, sobbing, until we remove the offending plate from his presence.
“When I was growing up,” my father-in-law said, “you got what you were offered or you didn’t eat.”
“Kids won’t starve themselves!” helpful experts in stupid magazines chirp. Oh, yeah? When we tried to crack down, only offering him what we were having, he didn’t eat for five days straight.
When Ben was three, we moved him to a daycare with catering, thinking this would broaden his culinary horizons as he saw all his little buddies tucking into fish curry and chicken stew.
It did not. He refused to eat lunch for a year and a half. Even the daycare workers were impressed by his steadfastness. “I’ve never seen anything like,” said one amazed, battle-hardened daycare worker. Do you hear that, stinky cheese parents? SHE’D NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT.
And so, every night, we make two dinners—one for my husband and myself, and one for Ben, who is now five. It’s not what I wanted, but my budding conscientious objector gives me no choice. Feed him what he wants, or let him go hungry indefinitely. I do fret about his nutrition, and I wonder sometimes if there’s something more serious going on, like a sensory issue, or maybe he’s a “super taster” (he will flee across the room to avoid the smell of our meals). But he doesn’t seem to be suffering. He’s energetic, his height and weight are right on track, and he’s at the top of his class and the star of his soccer team. Frankly, I have better things to do with my kid than have a fight about food every single night.
Claire Tansey, mom of one
When I was a kid, my family ate dinner together every single night. My mother never made a separate meal for the kids, even though one of us was a jerk who ate no meat or eggs. (PS: Sorry, Mom.)
Now I’m a mom and a professional chef. (Funny how these things work out.) I cook, think and write about food all day. Meals at my house aren’t exactly restaurant-worthy, but dinner is always homemade.
Sadly, my four-year-old, Thomas, couldn’t care less. The baby who cheerfully ate fistfuls of spicy Indian dal became a fusspot at age three. He snubbed tiny meatballs I spent a day rolling and freezing. He wailed “I don’t like that!” at everything from peanut butter toast to fish sticks.
Almost all children do this, and if you have one who didn’t, please be quiet. I suspect it’s a mix of testing their independence and an evolutionary instinct to eat safe, familiar foods.
My response? Meh. We still eat dinner together, and the rules are simple: You can eat or not eat, but you must be polite. Thomas gets a portion of whatever we are eating, and I always put out bread and raw veggies. There’s no “you must try one bite” requirement. If you don’t eat what’s on the table, you’re not eating anything.
I try to be realistic, like pre-emptively separating the onions and cilantro from the tomatoes and corn in a fresh salsa. But Thomas happily eats salad, roast chicken, rare steak and lots of other “grown-up” things.
It’s not always easy. The mama bear in me struggles to see my slim little guy eat just bread and raw carrots on the nights we’re enjoying our roasted salmon. But it’s worth it, because dinner isn’t a power struggle. No whining, no arguments, no endless jumping up from the table. Instead, it’s pleasant family time that demonstrates food isn’t something to use as a manipulation tool. It is our fuel, but it can also be our joy. Take it from a former picky eater: My mom simply ignored me, and I turned out OK.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue with the headline “Do you make separate meals for your kids and for yourself?” p. 112.