Saturday, December 22, 2012

and I say the hell with it

Here's another article on how to deal with children who are picky eaters. Really, I wonder if the people who write these articles ever were children, because they invariably have no idea how children think, or feel, or react.

As a child, I was not the extreme kind of picky eater who refuses to subsist on anything but macaroni and cheese, or hamburgers and french fries. I ate a good variety of healthy foods, and from the moment I could take solids would devour as much broccoli or spinach - two of the vegetables classically most hated by children - as you would give me. I liked other veggies, too, but there were others I totally detested, including beets, peas, lima beans, brussel sprouts, and cooked carrots. (I liked raw ones.) My particular curse was potato. In any form other than fried to death, like potato chips, something about the mix of mealy texture and taste just repels me.

Another problem was certain combinations. I liked fish and I liked corn, but if the sauce from one got into the other, the combined taste was literally nauseating. Cold meat sandwiches, I'd take apart and eat all the ingredients separately.

Except for the one about potato, which was unique to me, my brothers shared most of these dislikes. And another thing: most of what I disliked as a child, I still dislike today.1 The difference is that now I can stomach them down if I have to. The taste is still the same, it's just less hideously intense. (I know this because of attempts at politeness as a guest in people's homes for dinner.) Correlate that with a developed taste as an adult for spicy foods, which never attracted me as a child (not that I had much opportunity to try them in those days), it seems crystally obvious to me that children's taste buds are simply younger, more vigorous, and more intense than adults', same as are their eyesight, their hearing, their emotions, and just about everything else.

But what does the article say? It says, eat the food yourself and show how good it is. Good lord, I had the rebuttal to that when I was five. "Fine, you eat it, then. If you like it so much, you can have mine, too." You're not going to convince me by example that my taste buds are lying to me about how something tastes, any more than by taking something down off a high shelf you can convince me that I could reach it, too.

It says, "When your kid says of the perfectly delicious pasta you raced home from work to cook for him, But I don’t like the way it tastes, she may not be lying."2 May not be lying? MAY not be lying? I NEVER lied when I said food tasted bad, though in the opposite direction I eventually learned to be polite to the cook. Never, nor did my brothers. As my most analytic brother repeatedly pointed out, he'd be delighted if his tastes changed and he liked everything on the plate and thus avoid these endless squabbles. We didn't like hating foods; we hated it. We hated not getting enough to eat, we hated displeasing our parents through no fault of our own, we hated arguing over it, we hated the implication that we were lying for some unfathomable reason.

It says, don't threaten to revoke privileges. OK, that one I'll go along with. That's not going to make food taste better.

It says, offer small rewards, as long as they aren't preferred foods. No, that's the flip side of revoking privileges. If offering cookies as a reward for eating lima beans only reinforces that cookies are good and lima beans are bad, offering stickers as a reward for eating lima beans also only reinforces that stickers are good and lima beans are bad. It doesn't change how lima beans taste.

Oh, but the article says it does. It says, make the child try the food 15 to 20 times. Isn't that the definition of insanity, trying something over and over and expecting a different result? And saying that if it doesn't work, you haven't tried it often enough? Maybe by the time you've offered the food 20 times, the child has gotten older and the taste buds have matured, i.e. faded. We had some of those foods 20 times and they never got any better. Some were worse than others, but for the worst, every meal of it, every bite, was torture. We're not talking "ehhh, I don't wanna try something new, I don't like the look of it," we're talking hard-earned experience of vile, unspeakable awfulness.

The article doesn't discuss dislike of combinations, but I've seen that absurdly psychoanalyzed as a deep-seated need to sort life into distinct compartments. No, it was because we hated the combined taste, which is what we said was the reason. My father thought it the height of wit to say, "It all gets mixed up in your stomach anyway," which has nothing to do with the taste, as we repeatedly pointed out to no avail. Such irrelevant logic did not impress us.

So, while I don't know what to say to the parents of mono-eaters, the kids who won't touch anything, except to note that I never knew any such children in my own childhood, the same way I never heard of anyone allergic to peanuts in those days either,3 for the ordinary picky eater I say: trust your children. If they say they hate a food, for god's sake feed them something equally nutritious that they do like. If you're bored by it, eat something else yourself, or just put up with it. Isn't that less bad than endless complaints from tortured children?

1. One exception: pizza. Yes, I was the only child in the world who hated pizza. It was the combo of cheese and bread that got me. Sometime when I was about 17 it suddenly ceased to bother me.

2. The way the child's sex mutates in the middle of the meal is also a disconcerting feature of this story.

3. I'm not saying these things don't exist now. I'm saying that they used to be very rare. And not just unnoticed, rare. Peanut butter was so ubiquitous in children's lunches in my childhood that, if allergies to the mere presence of peanuts were anywhere near as severe and common as they're claimed to be today, children would have been dying like flies. What I'm saying is that something has changed in the way children are reared. In the case of peanut allergies, it's claimed that it's something to do with early exposure to peanuts. What it may be in the case of children who'll only eat macaroni, I don't know. I know two adult men my own age who subsist on the plain hamburger and french fries diet, and always have. That's two, but I didn't know any as a child, and I hear of it a lot more among children today, even though I now know fewer children.

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