I remember the moment when the war was lost. It was a late Sunday afternoon in the spring of 2015; our son, Ellis, had just turned two, and we had invited a friend and her boy over for a playdate. Chili was on the menu, because chili is easy—there’s minimal prep and it’s something parents and kids could enjoy together. And it was Ellis’s favourite. But not on this day. Maybe he just isn’t hungry, I thought. But when we tried to serve him leftovers, he gave us the screwface. And with that, my wife and I were forced to retire the last remaining covert vegetable-delivery system in our arsenal.
When your kid starts solids at six months, it’s easy to become deluded into thinking you’re having some sort of positive impact on their future eating habits. Spoon-feeding him puréed carrots, broccoli and cauliflower from the get-go means he’ll naturally crave those nutritious veggies for the rest of his life and never develop a taste for chicken nuggets, right?
The thing is, your infant is just grateful to experience something that’s not breastmilk or formulaic approximations thereof. But as he’s gradually introduced to new foods—partly through your premeditated choices; partly because you were too lazy to clean the food processor so you fork some of your spaghetti onto his plate—his palate naturally changes. Suddenly, minced veggies no longer hold the same appeal as a bowl of delicious, nutritionally negligible carbs.
The first food I remember Ellis consciously rejecting was ratatouille—fine, he was grossed out by the texture of the eggplant. (Who isn’t?) Next, broccoli and carrots were out, despite our swiftest airplane-spoon manoeuvres. Then avocado (a.k.a. nature’s ice cream), his go-to favourite, joined the no-fly list. Chili was our last hope, as the richness and heartiness of the beef masked all the tomatoes, carrots, celery and beans we were secretly pumping into his system. Without chili, we were powerless.
Fast-forward to Ellis’s current eating habits. His dinners mostly consist of the primary food groups: mac and cheese—the more fluorescent orange, the better. Attempts to diversify have yielded mixed results; a hamburger may get half-eaten, but a chicken breast—once his preferred protein—now elicits the merest nibble. Hard-boiled eggs are stripped of their whites (while bits of discarded yolk inevitably get mashed into the living room carpet). The closest he comes to eating a salad these days is an onion ring.
Compounding the frustration is the fact that our child’s narrowing tastes neatly coincide with tantrum season (the Terrible Twos ain’t got nothin’ on the Throttlin’ Threes). Two years ago, if Ellis rejected food, we’d just have to clean up the spittle from his chin. Now rejection takes the form of tossed bowls, flailing fists and 30-minute meltdowns. So in our weaker moments (after a long day of work, there is no other kind), we just put a pot on the stove and bust open the powder packet.
Yes, we’ve tried the usual ruses: swapping pasta for spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles; plating foods he likes with the ones we want him to try. Most of it winds up in the green bin. For now, our one saving grace is that Ellis’s emergent sweet tooth can be satisfied by fruit. Bananas, pears, cantaloupe and blueberries are currently keeping him from turning into a simple starch. And his taste for smoothies and homemade frozen-fruit ice-pops means we can stealthily pulverize bits of kale in the mix.
As the old saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. So by that logic, parenting is perpetual insanity—because teaching your toddler anything requires demonstrating it 1,000 times and praying it’ll finally click on the 1,001st. Practice and persistence are key. So we’ll keep throwing him the occasional carrot in the hope that, one day, he’ll think it’s a cheese stick.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2016 issue, titled “Give peas a chance,” pp. 86-92.