A lot of money has been spent, cookbooks amassed, recipes carried out, and meals left untouched by unimpressed little hands in an attempt to nourish finicky eaters. A whole industry has been built upon the idea that children, throughout their many stages of food exploration, require special meals embellished with all manner of bells and whistles while surreptitiously burying the more nutritious pabulum under successive layers of fat, salt, and sugar. Books like Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, The Sneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine, and Toddler Café by Jennifer Carden all give a cautionary sense that something has gone horribly wrong with the way parents feed their chronically picky children.
Everyone seems to hold the singular silver bullet that will slay the selective eater and give birth to a child who willingly eats heartily and healthily. In the past week there have been two reports on National Public Radio concerning feeding picky children, in addition to the near 200 stories over the past 6 months (by my count) that have run in major media publications on the subject of nourishing/feeding difficult eaters. Judging from this, it appears parents have lost control of their children and are in need of a nutritional bailout.
I am certainly not making light of the very real obesity problems, along with all of the other nutritional shortcomings that are currently impacting young people throughout the country. Parents and children alike need to assume a greater responsibility for what they are eating and how it nourishes or malnourishes their bodies. However, speaking to parents here, I think we need to stop fretting and learn to love food, and engage with food, all over again.
Children go through countless cycles of preference and favor throughout their development, as yesterday’s favorite meal will no doubt be tomorrow’s bore. The trick (as if there really is a trick) is to cultivate a genuine love and enjoyment of food (ideally food that is wholesome and nourishing) and have that set an example for your child. A child that witnesses a parent’s love affair with a spinach salad will no doubt have some curiosity about such unknown pleasures.
If you have some kitchen skills, invite your child into the kitchen with you and put them to work. Give them a sense of involvement in what they eat, and don’t hesitate to make it meaningful by talking about the food at hand; giving some context or even a bit of personal history (i.e. “I remember hating spinach when I was a child too.”).
Ultimately, your relationship with food will inform your children’s comprehensive notion of what food is and should be.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.