It’s been a while since I opened Use Your Words by Kate Hopper, which is unfortunate because it really is full of great ideas. Today’s post was inspired by one of the writing exercises in that book.
The other day my six-year-old announced that he was a vegetarian. Actually, though, that’s not exactly right. We were doing his home reading, and the story he brought home from school featured a bunch of animals going fishing. His response? “Fishing isn’t nice. Fishing kills living creatures.” I asked him if he was becoming a vegetarian and he replied, “No, mom, I’m a scientist. Scientists know that all animals are alive, and we shouldn’t hurt them because that’s not taking good care of the earth.”
Flash back to my son the baby. One of his first solid foods was pureed beef, which he loved. Because I am a hippie mama it was pureed grass-fed, free range, hormone-and-antibiotic-and-chemical-free, purchased straight from the rancher at the farmers’ market. While my son no longer eats with the full-bodied gusto of a six-month-old discovering a whole new world of tastes and textures, meat is still one of his favourite foods. And given how picky he’s become about what he puts in his mouth, I’m not sure what his diet would look like without it. I’m guessing it would be comprised almost entirely of nachos (without any vegetables) and breakfast cereal, with, perhaps, the occasional serving of fries thrown in for good measure.
I’m sure this is all my fault, of course. If I’d fed him like a French child, he would eat anything. If I’d offered him nothing but beans and rice and vegetables until he ate them all eagerly he wouldn’t turn his nose up at them today. If I’d offered him the right foods, in the right quantities, in the right order, there’s no way he’d refuse to even taste something because it “looked weird”. After all, I’m his mother. It’s my job to establish good eating habits.
Before it all went wrong
I remember reading an old copy of Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child that a co-worker gave me when my daughter was born. The book actually claimed that babies who weren’t started on the right purees at four months of age would become “problem eaters”. I didn’t start my son on solids until he was almost six months, and then it wasn’t purees but mashed banana. I should have anticipated that he would turn into the world’s choosiest vegetarian by the time he was in first grade. It was all there right in front of me 10 years ago, but I ignored the warning.
I also heard, back in my new parent days, that if a child refused a food the first time it probably meant they were just getting used to the taste. So you should offer it again. And again. And again. Until, eventually, that child would learn to love the food in question. I tried this with my daughter, who turned her nose up at avocado. She refused it once. She refused it twice. She refused it five times. She refused it 27 times. And today, with her tenth birthday rapidly approaching, she adores sushi but uses her chopsticks to remove all the avocado before eating it. Clearly, the 112th time would have been the charm, but my persistence faltered and with my son I decided to actually respect his decisions about what he did and didn’t like. I know, I know, I was so very, very wrong.
Of course, there really aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for what foods to introduce and when to introduce them. Different cultures have different practices, and still, somehow, all adults grow up to think that food is pretty good and they should eat it. Not everyone likes the same foods, but I’m living proof that you can turn up your nose at corn on the cob or sweet potatoes and still live a full and happy life. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any 40 year olds out there that are still subsisting on milk because their mothers didn’t give them pureed green beans at exactly the right time. Or at all. And speaking of pureed green beans, I’m living proof that you can live a full and happy life without ever touching those, either.
As for my son, we talked more about his food choices. He’s decided that for now, he’s avoiding fish, but he’ll eat other meat because it’s “already dead”. My guess is that this choice is mostly about what foods he actually likes. He’s six, so that fact that he enjoys meatballs and passes over salmon isn’t exactly shocking. I’m not going to insist on logical consistency from a kid who is still learning to tie his shoes. And later on, if he sticks to his decision not to eat meat and decides to go completely vegetarian, or vegan, or what-have-you, I will support him as best I can.
For now, though, I’m really glad that my picky eater will consume the foods I’ve come to depend on to keep dinnertime running smoothly. Because I didn’t have the foresight to shove pureed green beans down his throat until he liked them.