Dinner Theater: Home Edition

It's fitting that this cheese grater appears to be floating in space, since a similar one flew across our kitchen recently.

On a recent evening, during dinner, our hand-crank cheese grater soared across our kitchen and landed with a cringe-inducing crash.

It wasn’t thrown by our two year old. But our two year old was the reason the object took flight.

Why? Because like her mother before her – ahem – my daughter Lily is what is called, in polite conversation, a “picky eater.” (In impolite conversations, I believe, we’re referred to as a collective “pain in the tuckus.”)

I can’t help but feel partly responsible. I distinctly remember, at age six or seven, being at a friend’s birthday party and refusing to eat the hot dogs because they had black lines from the grill. I thought they were “dirty.” And despite assurances to the contrary from my friend’s parents, my lips remained stubbornly closed.

The girl’s dad tried his best to placate me, managing to grill a lukewarm dog that had only a few marks on it; and I DID eat the part that looked like it had come right out of the package. But even then, I was leery, critical, and unappreciative. (Oy – such a brat I was!)

Thinking back on this incident – and all the others, where I’d refused to eat foods that were touching each other; foods that had previously had something on them that I didn’t like (peeling stuff off generally wasn’t good enough for me); and foods that I decided I didn’t like by the look of them (a great deal fell into this category) – makes me chuckle uncomfortably, but mostly, I feel a profound embarrassment.

Of course, when thinking back on your childhood, you have to cut yourself some slack. You were just a kid, and you didn’t know any better or different. And certainly I grew up to be a person who, despite having strong preferences (I’ve seldom tasted a fish, a mushroom, or a beer that I’ve ever liked), enjoys a wide range of foods. So being a picky eater as a kid doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll spend your whole life eating only five items (though this can certainly happen, too – I’m looking at you, Dad).

But this “big picture” notion was hardly at the forefront of our minds when that cheese grater flew across our kitchen. No, that was about dealing with the day-to-day fallout of encouraging your two year old to eat something besides mac and cheese or hot dogs for dinner, and putting effort into creating something you think she’d like – only to see her hold a small piece up to her tongue, make a face, put it down for good, and pronounce, “I don’t like it.” Or worse, chew it for a moment and then stick her tongue out, waiting for the goopy, half-chewed food to fall from her mouth. Ick.

My husband Joe was one of those kids who happily ate everything you put in front of him. (Not surprisingly, he’s pretty much that guy as an adult, too.) So he struggles mightily to comprehend why anyone, young or old, would have such narrow tastes.

But more than that, Joe’s the cook of our house, so he’s the one who – after changing out of his suit at the end of a long day – rolls cut-up pieces of chicken in crushed corn flakes to make chicken nuggets, or makes a tamer version of the spicy spaghetti that he and I are eating, only to have Lily reject it out of turn.

Finally, to add insult to injury, all reports indicate that Lily eats a wide variety of foods at her daycare center; but when we try to feed her some of the things she eats there at home, she turns up her nose (chicken nuggets being but one example). I tell myself that perhaps it’s because she’s surrounded by other kids who are eating the same hot lunch that she is, so in the moment, she’s distracted and not thinking so much about WHAT it is she’s eating. But truthfully, I just don’t know.

What I do know is that between Joe’s frustration at Lily’s rejection of his culinary efforts, and my discomfort at seeing one of my own worst childhood qualities on parade before me daily, we occasionally lose our patience.

We’ve gone the subtle route – Lily’s always gone grocery shopping with Joe and helped pick things out, and he’s included her in making some of the dishes – but these things generally don’t translate into Lily being enthusiastic about eating our meals.

And I’ve skimmed the <strong>Supernanny</strong>’s book on this issue (I confess, I’m a fan of her common sense approaches), and her main advice is to avoid letting this become a melodramatic power struggle between you and your child; to make it clear that the dinner you’re presenting is the dinner the child gets; and to be strict about not letting her snack afterward if she refuses dinner. (This is hard, not surprisingly, but I remind myself that Lily has been off the charts growth-wise since she was born. She’s hardly in danger of being undernourished.)

We’ve done this more lately, emphasizing that Lily can’t eat anything else at night once she leaves the table. But also, when I pick up Lily from daycare, I must try, if at all possible, to put the brakes on her snacking there or on the way home. She’s always reaching into her day bag and pulling stuff out; but I’m slowly changing my habits regarding over-packing.

It’s a hard balance to strike. Usually, at that time of day, she hasn’t eaten a snack in a couple of hours, and it will be another hour or two before Joe is home and dinner is ready. So what snack wouldn’t ruin her appetite for dinner, but would sustain her enough to prevent a sudden, random tantrum about not wanting to wear socks?

Tough call. The whole subject of food and little kids seems a minefield of tough calls (I haven’t even mentioned how Lily refuses nearly every vegetable offered to her, both at home and at daycare). And the cheese grater incident came to a head because Lily got obsessed with grating cheese while absolutely refusing to try the pasta that lay beneath it. Her attention was consumed by the grater – she wouldn’t listen to or see anything else – and when we tried to tell her she’d gotten enough, and that it was for eating, not for playing, she started whining and crying.

So the grater took to the air. After it crashed, she was terrified, and I realized that she probably had no cotton-picking idea what this was about, or why her parents were frazzled. I pulled her onto my lap, stroked her hair and calmed her, and then eventually tried to get her to eat some of the fruit Joe had cut up for her, reminding her that this would be her only food for the night. She ate a little, but wasn’t really that interested, leaving my lap to play happily in the nearby living room.

That’s one saving grace, anyway. Little ones are quick to forgive and forget, even if the adults in the house have a harder time doing the same.

More generally, I tell myself that if she’s hungry, she’ll eat, and if we stay calm and consistent with this “no snacks after dinner” policy, she’ll figure out sooner or later that meals are the time for us all to eat together. (Preferably the same meal, as opposed to the three different meals my mom often found herself making each night.) Until then, we have to adjust our expectations, try to find even more stores of patience, and remember that this, like most things, is probably temporary.

Still, I’m guessing it will be a while before the cheese grater makes another appearance on our dinner table.

4 thoughts on “Dinner Theater: Home Edition

  1. Erik Kuszynski says:

    We were blessed with two kids who are not picky eaters. I’m sure some of that is by nature, but we also encouraged them to go grocery shopping with us and pick out what they want to eat, then help in the preparation of the meal, even if it’s just something simple like adding an ingredient or two. We were amazed at the things our kids would eat if they got to choose and help. Octopus, Alligator, ribs, and pulled pork have all appeared on our table at their request.
    Maybe it’s time to take Lily to the grocery store and steer clear of the mac and cheese aisle.

    • Jenn McKee says:

      I’m afraid Lily’s gone to the grocery store and helped pick out stuff all along, and Joe has had her help him make things a number of times. Her involvement doesn’t seem to make any difference when the food is put in front of her…

  2. Elli says:

    I read somewhere that it’s the weekly, not the daily, variety and quantity of food that should be looked at with the young ones. Some days they eat less, some days more and by the end of the week it kind off balances out.

  3. Sheila says:

    Jenn, we have a picky eater too, in Rudy. I know the frustration of which you speak, believe me. Don’t know if this is helpful or not, but the absolute BEST thing that happened to me during those first struggles was that Julia loaned me a book called _Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense__by Ellyn Satter. It was the only parenting book I ever read that made me feel better about my parenting rather than worse. Anyway, glad to talk more about the specifics in there if you ever want to, but meantime, hang in there. We’re only a few years beyond where you are, but it has gotten better.

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