Friday, 12 October 2007

Picky Eaters

The other day I read an interesting article in the New York Times entitled Picky Eaters? They Get It From You. According to the writers, a finicky appetite is something your kids have probably inherited and nothing to do with your cooking. Which means it's still your fault, of course, even if it isn't something you can help.

There has got to be something to this. I wouldn't eat peppers or avocadoes when I was a kid, which was a shame because my father grew them both in job lots, and I turned my nose up at squash and cucumbers and wouldn't have touched a raw tomato with a barge pole. No doubt about it: as I sowed, so have I reaped, even if it was completely unintentional. Here then, owing to my -- or my husband's -- crappy DNA, is just a sampling of our kids' obnoxious food habits:

If I make a pizza, they pick out every single piece of mushroom, green pepper, or tomato. The youngest will eat mushrooms if they are pulverized beyond recognition; the eldest will not knowingly remain in a room where mushrooms are in evidence. Both kids will eat tomatoes if they are made into sauce; if, however, even a particle of a cooked tomato in its original unblended state is showing, they remove it from their plates for all the world as if they've found a cockroach. Uncooked tomatoes are fine, they insist: it is the 'hot' ones they cannot cope with unless they are liquidized. Are you dizzy yet? No? Good for you.

Onions must be chopped so fine that just thinking about the process makes my eyes water and my fingers ache. (Unless they happen to be doing the chopping, in which case they throw down the knife at the first tingle.) Chopped onions must then be cooked until limp and brown; if even the tiniest fragment is left "rubbery," it will produce gags.

Believe me, I could go on, but I won't. Because the other day I happened to whine about all of this to a friend, and once I'd heard her complaints, I shut right up. Here is a list of what her two boys will eat:

Noodles, mashed potatoes, chips (French fries), catsup, butter, white bread, bacon, cucumber (bless her heart, she can't get over her good luck with this), popcorn, donuts, candy, cake, pie (if filling is not fruit), and Cheerios. And that's it!

Compared to this woman, I clearly have nothing to complain about, and for the first several days after I heard her story, I cut my kids some slack. But then I watched my sixteen-year-old prissily removing tiny bits of zucchini from her soup and plastering them to the side of her plate and, later, my youngest turning up her nose at muesli -- and I forgot all about my friend and her two truly finicky brats and my resolution not to complain.

What annoys me about my kids and their food peccadillos is that I enjoy cooking and go to some pains to make tasty meals. My mother thought cooking was the biggest waste of time in the world. Although she really could cook, she just didn't see the point of going to the trouble. Once in a while she could be prevailed upon to bake cornbread, but her idea of the perfect meal was a can of beans, perhaps a sliced turnip (always served raw), a (coarsely) chopped onion, and burnt cabbage. (I'm not kidding: my mother was the only person I've ever met who actually burnt cabbage on purpose.) She also had a penchant for concocting weird taste sensations, peanut butter and mustard sandwiches are one memorable example.

She also practiced economy to a distressing degree. We were the only family I knew that bought imitation ice-milk instead of ice cream; that purchased not only T.V. dinners, but the cheapest, tackiest, ickiest ones. And I still blush to remember her Chef Boyardee instant pizzas, the Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners, and -- worst of all -- her leftover salads, well browned and reeking of the refrigerator. I'm one of the thriftiest, save-it-all cooks I know, but in one week I probably throw out more than she did in a month.

After I left home, my food habits changed drastically. I like to think that I retained all the good habits my parents tried to instill in me: economical nutrition, plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, etc., but minus the burnt cabbage and peanut butter and mustard sandwiches. No doubt my kids' eating habits will change too, as they mature, and I would love to see what kind of eaters my grandchildren will end up being, if I ever have any. How will they drive my children insane? What will they pick off their plates and exclaim Ewww over?

Sadly, I'll probably never find out. Having children late in life also runs in our family.


DaviMack said...

Do they read your blog? ;)

I'm certain that their tastes will change later in life - yours certainly did, and about everybody I know has undergone some sort of revelation about their food habits. It will happen, but just not when you're looking, I'm sure. Or, if it does, be prepared for a raw-foods-vegan or something along those lines.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Maybe the answer is never to make any special food for children. As soon as they have teeth, let them eat whatever you are eating or go hungry. Hunger is a good remedy for the finicky eater.

debra said...

When my kids were little, my mother-in-law had them over for lunch. "Your mother didn't teach you to play with your food!" she intoned.
"Oh yes she did," they grinned. We put olives on our fingers, piled up mashed potatoes and made ditched for the peas and gravy to roll down. We made little trees with snow (broccoli with parmesan cheese) and a host of other things. Sandwiches cut into shapes became puzzles and animals.
I chose not to fuss about a few things, food being one of them. Something is prepared for a meal. No alternatives are made;however anyone can make something else if he/she chooses--as long as I don't have to buy more stuff or clean it up.
My mother used to make liver and onions in a variety of ways. I can still smell it, and gag when I think about it. yuck.

Kim Ayres said...

When I was a kid I was one of the fussiest, pickiest, most finicky eaters imaginable. There were few things I would eat and they had to be brand name versions.

When I first left home, I set up with a girlfriend at the time and I was still just as fussy, other than I would happily accept supermarket brands of the foods as now I was paying for it.

When my girlfriend & I split up and I ended up on my own, I didn't cook much because it never seemed worth the effort for just one person, but I delighted in getting invited round to someone else's for dinner, in which case I would eat anything that was put in front of me.

As GB says hunger is a good remedy for the finicky eater - at least once you've left home anyway

Sara said...

Your mom! Burned cabbage? Hoo-boy. I feel like an ingrate because my mom was a wonderful cook and we had a humongous garden and she even baked her own bread. What did I want? Soda and Ho-Ho's, of course! When my parents went away on a trip, we begged to be left with frozen pot pies. And I remember despising salad, meat, and yogurt.

I don't remember exactly how I grew out of all that, but I did. I'm watching my kids, and they are getting less picky, too. I think the trick is not to invest emotionally in their food choices. THAT can leave them a picky eater forever.

Mary Witzl said...

Davimack -- The youngest has already tried to be a vegetarian, and I was impressed with her efforts. But she seems to be a real carnivore and is now happy to polish off all the greasy things that carnivores delight in.

No, the kids don't generally read my blog, but that's okay. I'm not quite sure what my legal position would be if they decided to sue me.

GB -- I agree with you wholeheartedly, though in my own case the burnt cabbage would have had me waiting at least a week. But my husband is more tenderhearted and tends to give in very quickly.

Debra -- I happily played with my food and could never understand why this was seen as a bad thing. Why do they make those neat little holes in olives if not so they can fit onto kids' fingers? Only an idiot wouldn't figure that one out! And parsley and broccoli are trees, no doubt about it. I still sculpt my mashed potatoes into the hill made famous on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the kids always join in singing with me when I do. I do ask that they refrain from more creative play when we go out -- and that they always eat their playthings.

And I thank God that my mother never cooked liver. What she could have done with it hardly bears thinking about.

Kim -- I love hearing stories about reformed picky eaters. They really cheer me up.

One of my greatest joys is cooking for people who enjoy what I prepare. I had a colleague in Tokyo who ate crap food and started getting ill. I started giving him half my sandwiches (homemade seven grain bread, hummous, tomato, organic Romaine lettuce -- a tree-hugger's dream) just because he actually enjoyed them. We were a great combination, he and I: he got a lot healthier and I lost quite a bit of weight.

I struck out on my own at age 17 and quickly learned to economize, given the fact that I was paying for groceries. I'm a great believer in kids learning to buy their own food. When mine request special treats, I ask them to pay for the difference in price between the economy brand and their choice. That usually sorts them out...

Sara -- My kids are just the same: frozen pot pies thrill them no end, and if they could get their hands on Ho-hos,I'm sure they'd be a firm favorite.

I can sympathize with your mother. I bake my own bread almost every day, make my own mustard, cookies, muffins, cakes, jam, pies -- just about everything. My mother, who was in fact an excellent parent, grew her own vegetables and fruit too, but generally ended up eating much of it herself, right there in the garden. She was crazy about fresh stuff right off the vine or tree.

A Paperback Writer said...

You may be onto something here:
my parents both grew up during the depression; they were not picky about food.
The rule at my house was: you eat what Mom puts on your plate. If you don't like it, too bad; you eat it. The rule applied also to visiting friends or cousins.
Now, Mom could cook well, so this usually wasn't a problem. But I recall having to eat asparagus (I still think they're nasty little things) and a few other items I didn't like.
Anyway, as a result, my brother and I were never particularly picky about food.
Now, my brother's kids, on the other hand, were allowed by their mother to be picky. One boy didn't eat anything but cheerios until he was about 6. The other boy would only eat mayonaise on bread for about 3 years -- and he's still a bad eater and unhealthy for it. My sister-in-law complains about it, but she's the one who let them eat like that in the first place, so I don't really listen to her on this matter.
I think gorilla bananas is right. At least it worked in our family.

Carolie said...

Interesting topic! We grew up in the sort of family described by GB and APW. Dinner was dinner, and if you didn't like it, too bad. Sometimes, if dinner was particularly exotic or spicy, peanut butter on plain wheat bread was offered as an alternative, but since I despised peanut butter at the time, it was not a viable choice for me.

Though a good cook, Mom went through phases. We three offspring still talk about the Earth Mother wheat germ phase -- wheat germ on EVERYTHING, including ice cream! Although, the up side to that phase was really fantastic homemade wheat bread and homemade yoghurt with honey. We also had the vegetarian phase, the Malaysian phase(Mom had a Malaysian friend, and the curries, though wonderful, were extreeeeemely fiery...I still remember my little brother weeping over his flaming-hot sesame rice and perplexingly not-sweet-though-cold-and-creamy banana raita. He just wanted some plain white rice, dammit!), and the very odd and out of place "every-dinner-is-a-casserole-made-with-Campbell's-Cream-of-Something-soup".

I will never forget the first time lobster made an appearance at our house. Someone gave my father four of the beasts, which we three had never tried. My middle brother was given something coveted, as he did not eat seafood, and giant red bugs were placed on plates in front of my littlest brother and me. We looked at the monsters with curled lips...until Dad suggested that if we didn't want them, he'd be happy to fetch McDonald's for us. Littlest brother and I looked at one another, in shock...and immediately began to try to break into our crustaceans. If Dad was willing to offer us the forbidden McDonald's in exchange for these things, there must be something REALLY, REALLY good inside! Much to Dad's disappointment, we both ate every scrap.

Though this will certainly not work with teenagers, during my stint as a live-in nanny, I found that younger kids can sometimes be manipulated in to eating foods otherwise turned down.

"Here are your fish fingers *shudder*...these are for little children. What I am I having? Oh, just some nicely broiled SHARK. Yes, I said SHARK. No, this is for adults only. You won't like this SHARK meat, you aren't clever enough yet. You are? You would? No, I don't think so. Really? Well, just one bite..."

Ha ha!

Brian said...

I often walk past outdoor seatings for restaurants ,and am almost guaranteed to pass at least one table where half of the food has been left.
It varies in type--sometimes the salad, sometimes other portions. If people don't want to eat the stuff, why order it ? What anorexic wants to leave what she feels could be *fattening * ? And I say she because scrawny teenaged females seem to be the worst offenders.
It is the absolute waste that bothers me, in a world where so many starve. Depression mentality ,I guess .
So, eat or go hungry ,I say.
Thank goodness my kids were not in any way picky eaters, or my wrath would have descended on them. They ate healthily and well and were never hungry ,perhaps a tribute to the quality and cooking of the food they were served. I trust so.


Mary Witzl said...

APW -- We also had cousins with appalling food habits. My aunt would give them Wonder bread (we always had wholemeal) spread thickly with lard or marjorine. In her garage, she kept a huge bottle of pickled pigs' feet that I still have nightmares about, and in her refrigerator was a bottle of 'drippings' from any meat she fried, whether pork, chicken or beef. My sisters and I watched glumly while our cousins were allowed extras of forbidden (to us) things like banana pudding and pie, and excused from eating vegetables. No prizes for guessing who's healthier now.

I now cook what my husband and I want to eat with only occasional concessions to what I think the kids will enjoy. It drives me wild when my husband points out that 'the kids won't touch that.' I feel that I've spent long enough coddling their tricky palates.

I give visitors three free shots at not eating what we've got. After that, they can still turn up their noses, but they go hungry. Happily, a lot of parents have told me that their kids come back from our house with new favorite foods. Wish our kids would return the favor...

Carolie -- My parents were huge fans of wheat germ too, especially my father, who dusted it on everything.

My mother also went through phases, and borrowed food ideas from friends. One of her best friends was Puerto Rican, and thanks to her influence my mother would occasionally make me chicken and rice, though she herself would not touch meat if she could help it.

I have tried that 'This is too good for you' trick on my kids, but they are either too savvy or stubborn to fall for it, or I haven't managed it cleverly enough. It almost never works; the only time we were able to trick them was when we occasionally bought an all-fruit sugar-free jam that was more expensive than the regular stuff and convinced our eldest that this was spinach because the label happened to be green. But that was to get her NOT to eat it; she will go for any fruit or fruit derivative the way Popeye will go for spinach.

She now has a part-time waiting job at which she usually gets fed excellent food, and there she has learned to eat things she regularly scorns at home. So it seems as though my influence is somewhat limited, but the influence of friends and acquaintances is huge. I really don't care -- too much -- as long as she stops picking out bits of zucchini, etc. in such a fussy way!

Brian -- I could no more walk away from food on my plate than I could run a marathon or get into a size 7. And throwing away food drives me wild, so I have learned every trick in the book about recycling leftovers. If I don't eat them, I use them in a creative way. Mashed potatoes make great pancakes and wonderful bread; leftover vegetables get put into soup; leftover bread gets popped into the freezer and used to make stuffing. And leftover salad gets eaten -- by me, usually -- so I seldom put dressing on it. The last time I visited my sisters, I was amused to see that they did the same thing; none of us can walk away from uneaten food -- it just goes against the grain. It may not solve poverty and famine, but cleaning our plates makes us feel less like spoiled shites.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh, Carolie, what a tale! I am amused!

Merry Jelinek said...

I seem to remember seeing the article, though I'm not sure how true it is. I have three children with three entirely different appetites.

I also grew up in a household where dinner was dinner and if you didn't like it you were out of luck... I still wouldn't eat it and I was about the weirdest picky eater ever invented - I adored shrimp and fish and broccoli (still do) but would not touch steak (still won't) ribs, or fried chicken, actually any kind of chicken on a bone, cut up or deboned was debatable.

Now adays I'll try about anything once (though I'm still not overly fond of most meats, depending on how they're prepared and never steak) and I really enjoy cooking. However, cooking for my three is a bit difficult. The oldest eats like an adult - loves steak, chinese food, roasts of any type, Italian beef, salads... the list goes on and on... however, when I cook sugo (pasta with sauce and meatballs) she won't eat the pasta, only the meatballs...any type of melon, fruit and most veggies, except broccoli of course, because it's my favorite... she even likes brussel sprouts!

the second won't eat a damn thing - seriously, the whole eat what's there or starve doesn't work, he'll actually skip dinner entirely and not eat at all. He likes eggs or any type of breakfast food (though no syrup on his pancakes or waffles and no breakfast meat or bacon), he'll eat cheese, balogna, or pb&j and no other type of sandwich. Hotdogs, mac and cheese, chicken nuggets (the frozen kind, he won't eat mine no matter how many different ways I think to prepare it) and dumplings or any type of bread or pasta (but no meatballs)He likes apples and bananas and no other fruit and I swear I've tried them all - for veggies, raw carrots and that's it.

The littlest guy has a sweet tooth... if you left him alone near a cookie jar or anything chocolate, it's going to turn up missing and he doesn't care if he gets in trouble over it (we have a rule about sweets - you can't just take them they're a treat for after dinner or on special occasions) If you let him pick dinner he will almost always say one of two things - McDonald's (for the toy and because I hate getting them food there) or pork, saurkraut, and dumplings - don't ask me, he's the only five year old I know of that requests this... on the bright side, both boys will eat the polish sausage I cook in the saurkraut, my oldest and youngest will eat the pork, and all three will devour dumplings, so I can actually eat this meal without holding my head or screaming.

So, I don't know about the whole inherited thing... personally I think they pick and choose just to annoy me ;-)

allrileyedup said...

My kids (ages 3 and 4-almost-5) have fairly good eating habits and will eat all fruits, grains, meats, and beans I put in front of them. However, when it comes to veggies, they only eat it if I feed it to them. It's a habit I hope to break them of, but on the bright side, they'll eat cooked chard, roasted eggplant, and cauliflower soup (those are three separate dishes, lest you think I make the world's grossest soup).

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I first found Carolie's blog while I was doing research on the Japanese system of trash dividing and recycling. She has a great eye for detail and some absolutely marvelous stories, and I heartily recommend her blog -- she just needs to write MORE!

Merry -- You've just cheered me up! Sometimes I think it isn't just what kids will and won't eat, it's the ridiculous and picky nature of their quibbles that drives an adult mad. And of course, if you've got more than one, they can't have the same likes and dislikes, which would make it easier for the cook, but must have entirely different preferences. I too have gone through many a meal with gritted teeth and one hand on my forehead. Do your children change? For instance, will your eldest suddenly decide that he doesn't really like something -- and then deny that he ever liked it in the first place? Mine do this all the time! I know I should be grateful that they will eat things like broccoli and sweet potatoes, but the fact that they keep go off things -- and insist that they never willingly ate them -- irritates me no end.

You must find mealtimes a headache and a half, though, and I do sympathize with you over your middle child. One of my oldest friends had two of the pickiest boys imaginable. One day she lost it and decided to try the Eat-it-or-starve thing with them. They held out for THREE DAYS and she lost her nerve; she went out and came back with Cheerios and Coco Puffs.

Riley -- I have to warn you that at your kids' age, I could say the same thing. The youngest started getting picky very early, but the eldest hoovered almost everything but lettuce up until she was ten. Then things got rough.

Actually, chard, roasted eggplant and cauliflower soup sounds pretty good! I ought to make it, just to watch my kids' expressions. Chard, eggplant and cauliflower aren't big favorites of theirs, but my husband and I love them.

kathie said...

OH MY GOD, MARY, we share the same mother. Economy was the name of the game in our household as well and like your mom, mine made fabulous Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners but never saw the bother in the rest of the meals for the other 363 days (yes, three meals a day) of the year!!! I can one-up you on the ice milk...brace yourself...hang on to your seat...POWDERED MILK!!! My parents fed us that lumpy yuck until we went to school and made the discovery that there was milk in the world that didn't eat like a meal. Then I think we (four kids) revolted and they had to give in. God bless them, they did a lot on one teacher's salary, but the food stuff sticks with you forever! oh, and we never threw out anything, nothing, there's a leaf of lettuce from 1987 in their refrigerator.Tell me this...were your parents hoarders? If so, let's do dualing posts--you present your hoarding legacy here and I'll present on my site.See whose parents were really wackier...

Christy said...

I'm convinced that dislike of mushrooms is an evolutionary advantage given the large number of poisonous varieties out there. If one never eats mushrooms, one can never eat a toxic one. (Guess who dislikes mushrooms?) Really, though, I've taken to constructing little gene charts like the ones we did for eye color in freshman biology, and it has to be a recessive genetic trait. It just has to be.

I read an article that children eat what their fathers eat. In my family, that is true. My children's diets are almost identical to my husband's diet, much to my irritation.

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- Boy oh boy, were my parents hoarders. And if you want to do dueling posts, I will take you up on it! Here's my first exhibit: my father kept every textbook he used at university, including the oldest organic gardening book you've ever seen, an Avocado Grower's magazine from 1919, and a huge tome on plant pathology. My mother used to beg him to get rid of these, but I know for a fact that she preserved a piece of her wedding cake from 1949. I was with her on the day she discovered that cockroaches had gotten to it...

You've topped me on the powdered milk, but we did go through a few weeks of this. And allow me to point out that it wasn't ice milk my mother favored, but IMITATION ice milk. The brand name was Dutch Pride, and believe me, it was nothing to be proud of.

Christy -- You may be right about mushroom dislike, but could this be due to paranoia rather than aversion? A Czech-Canadian friend of ours brought us a lovely bunch of wild mushrooms she'd collected, but I was too paranoid to eat them. I'm still ashamed of myself.

My kids pretty much eat what my husband eats, but I'm a lot more finicky than my father was. He once ate pancakes made from powdered insects, and claimed that rattlesnake tasted like chicken. I would only eat these under conditions I hope I never have to experience.

A Paperback Writer said...

Today on Channel One, the nationwide newsbroadcast aimed at teens which our school watches daily, there was a very brief newsclip about some study in some university (I've forgotten where now) that somehow determined that being a picky eater was something like 78% genetic. I thought it was bizarre. I'd have to see tons of evidence, because to me it seems completely environmental. My nephews, for example, as described above, have long been poor eaters, but neither of their parents is.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- Ah, but WERE their parents picky eaters? Even though you know your brother and his food habits, you have only your sister-in-law's word for it that she was not picky as a child. And a lot of us tend to forget what we were like as children. There is also the chance that even if both parents weren't picky, one or more of their kids will be; the parents themselves may be throwbacks!

I suspect that nurture is largely responsible myself, but I'm willing to believe that nature has more to do with it than we might know. My friend (who I have mentioned in my comment to Merry above) was one of six children and ate everything on her plate. Her husband was one of four and swore that he too ate all his vegetables, etc. But their two sons take some seeing to believe -- the list of what they would not eat looks like most people's grocery list.

One thing is for sure: finickiness is hard to bear -- or understand -- for those who've lived through poverty or famine.

Kim Ayres said...

Mary, are you checking your email? I haven't heard back from you regarding the Storytellers Blog.

kathie said...

Okay, Mary, let me know when you want to go dualing "hoarder posts..." I'll start formulating mine now. I have to say, you might take the cake--literally--for the wedding cake from 1949. I'm not sure I can beat that for longevity, but I just might be able to beat you in volume and breadth of items hoarded...prepare yourself.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I've e-mailed you! We're trying to find the microphone, and it may take some time.

Kathie -- You're on! I'll write that post and have it on in an hour or so, God willing and kids amenable.