The Mouths of Babes

As a homeschooling family, we eat at home a lot. Almost all of the time. And so, what my kids are and are not willing to eat is a central concern for me. It’s something that’s easy (maybe too easy?) for me to monitor. The oldest, Ms 10yo A, has always been a really big eater, or, at least, that’s how I’ve always thought of her. She’s always been big and tall and so she just seems to need a lot of calories. If anything, the biggest “problem” around food is that she can crunk pretty hard if she doesn’t have enough to eat.

6 yo Ms Z has always been more “average” sized with an appetite to match. But she’s always been willing to eat and try new things. Still, for me, lately, I have felt like there’s just more of a struggle. Or at least, it’s been the source of worry for me. Is she eating enough? Is she getting the “right” amounts of different vitamins and nutrients? Am I being too forceful with food with her? Is she healthy? Is her diet healthful? While her older sister seems to devour everything put in front of her, it seems like she is sometimes just picking and not really eating. I feel like I always have to remind her to eat her vegetables at dinner.

A few weeks ago, she came to me while I was cooking and asked if she could help with anything. I turned her away. I regretted saying “no” to her about this and told her as much later on. I realized, eventually, that this was one of her ways, which are myriad, of reaching out to me — both from an earnest desire to help but also because she enjoys the time with me and she wants to learn about food and cooking. But, sometimes, in the midst of our cramped kitchen, and while I’m rushing to get something on the table before a seemingly imminent bedtime, the “easiest” thing to do is to just say “no”, to do it myself. And part of me thinks: surely she would rather just go and play and do something else? I need to learn to say “yes” to help, especially when it comes from my kids.

Our tastes and appetites are not just a matter of size and biology but they are wound up in our relationships with people and, most particularly, with those who provide our food. I started thinking that part of what I needed to do was to invite Ms Z to participate more in preparing the food. To invite her to be involved even with the shopping. To give her more control and ownership of the food she was eating.

I had already picked out a recipe for Friday night dinner. This time of year, for some reason, I romanticize a Minnesota winter and so I had reached for my Birchwood Cafe cook book. The Birchwood is a charming, sunny cafe not too far from where we used to live (and my sister and her family currently live) in Minneapolis. The cafe focuses on farm to table, seasonal and local fare, which is ambitious in a Minnesota winter. Before making it my goal to involve Ms Z, I had already picked out the winter root vegetable hand pies with a blood orange gastrique to have with the sun choke puree. (I thought the pear chutney they recommended was more than we could handle on a Friday night.) So my first mistake was not including her in the process of picking out the meal. My second was going ahead and making the dough for the hand pies ahead of time and without her. She loves dough. She always has. Putty. Slime. Kinetic sand. Clay. You name it. If it’s malleable and squishy, she loves it. It was the most obvious entry point for her to enjoy this process: to have her participate in something that I already know that she enjoys. But I missed that. I never claimed to be the brightest bulb.

At the grocery story, I tried to involve all of them in the shopping in a more thoughtful way than I have before. I talked to them about the different ingredients, asked them to help pick out the turnip and beet. We tried to figure out which root was which root (turmeric? ginger? sun choke?) on some mis-labelled shelves. I thought I was doing a pretty good job.

Her older sister, Ms 10yo A, turned to me suddenly as we were heading towards the cash registers and said, “Mom, I think my changing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“Like, I like things that I didn’t care for before.”

“Like what things?”

“Mushrooms. Bok choy. I think my palette is growing.”

Huh. I thought to myself. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.

“Tell your sister she has something to look forward to.”

In spite of these words of wisdom from my oldest daughter, I clung to this “solution” I had committed myself to. If I just involve Ms Z in the process of shopping and cooking and preparing, she will just start to like, well, everything. I had already built up this idea in my head that we would have a magical evening of cooking together and at dinner that night she would eat with gusto and enthusiasm and enjoy everything. And also be proud of herself and her accomplishments.

So while her older sister was at basketball practice that evening and her little brother emptied out all the floor-level cabinets at our feet in the kitchen, Ms Z and I prepared dinner. She juiced oranges and measured and poured ingredients for the blood orange gastrique. She listened attentively as I told her measurements and how we had to use red balsamic because we didn’t have white balsamic as the recipe called for but that I didn’t think it would make much of a difference. She turned on the stove herself. It’s pretty great that she has the coordination and strength to do a lot of these things these days. I asked her to taste things here and there and decide what needed more salt or pepper. After my initial feeling of “I’ll just do this myself, it will go faster and be less messy that way”, I calmed down enough to let her roll out the pastry dough with the French rolling pin. The first ones she did were a little rough and she was frustrated that they were uneven. By the fourth, hers were as good as I could have done.

At some point, she turned to me and said, “Mom, I think I’m growing.”

“How do you mean?” I asked her.

“Well, I used to not like green beans. But now I like some of them.” She went on to explain how she preferred crispy ones to the mushy ones.

When her sister and dad arrived home, she proudly explained everything she had done to prepare dinner. She was chatty, as she always is during meal-time. She loves the socializing and story-telling and interaction that goes on over a meal. While her sister will mostly hunker down to eat; she likes to linger. Everything seemed to be lining up: she had been engaged in all different parts of the process of cooking, she was proud of what she had done, she had been already tasting and trying and taking control over what she was eating. My plan was coming to fruition. This would be the moment of break through. A major reversal from being a tepid eater to being adventurous and bold.

Did she hate the meal? Well, hate would be too strong of a word. Tepid might be more apt. There was a lot of new flavors to try. Root vegetables are, well, tough going, especially the first time around and for a young palette. (She picked out the beets, which she has already had a number of times, to eat without the turnips and parsnips.) She tried everything, but by the end of the meal it was clear that there hadn’t been some big turn around borne out of a lovely meal prep with her mother.

I ended up having an honest conversation with her (well, probably more with myself) about how we needed to makes some changes around food and diet in the house. The candy stash would be thrown out (some friends had just recently dropped off the last of their Halloween candy from their house). No more snacking after five. Homemade treats and fruit are fine and, of course, around holidays there will be candy. She seemed amenable and, perhaps, even a little relieved to have guidance and limits. And I think we all needed the “reset”.

And I got a much needed “reset” in my thinking about how she eats and her diet. Like any sort of physical growth and as her older sister reminded me, her taste and palette is something that will change and expand. And it’s something that can’t and shouldn’t be rushed along just to allay my fears and worries. She’s started to like green beans after all. Crispy. Not mushy.

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