All the Fruit

raspberriesIn the winter of 2006, when our youngest daughter Sammi was just over a year old, our neighbors invited us to their Christmas Eve party. We knew they’d always had a huge gathering of friends and family, and so that afternoon, we arranged to have a huge and elaborate fruit bouquet delivered. Later that evening, when our host greeted us, he said his young grandson had been staring longingly at it all day.

“Fruit is his favorite thing,” he said. “We wouldn’t let him have any until the party started. When the first people rang the bell, he raced for the fruit!”

I remember very clearly thinking that this little boy had been raised right. If fruit was his favorite food, then he had chosen it over sweets, chips, and other junk. I secretly had always admired people like that — people who really preferred healthier food. Those people would have an uncomplicated relationship with their favorite foods; those people would be lucky.

In a few short months, however, I would learn what it meant when a child preferred fruit over everything else, and sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. Sammi’s love affair with blueberries wasn’t exclusive — it was part of a larger issue with swallowing anything that wasn’t wet and cold, even though we didn’t know it until she was much older. From her early years of eating blueberries soaked in cream or drenched in warmed coconut oil, to the infuriating meals where we made her eat some calorie-dense dessert before she was allowed to have her beloved bowl of raspberries, to the months of restricted diets during which I would be grateful that she saw fruit as a delicious treat, I would spend the next years wishing I’d never had a jealous thought about that neighbor’s grandson and his love of fruit.

Practically, there were benefits to this pickiness. Had she preferred candy or pork rinds or something generally considered to be “junk,” we would have let her have it anyway, desperate as we always were to get calories in her body however we could. On her last day of preschool — which coincided with the first week of her intensive elimination diet for eosinophilic esophagitis — I took her to pick out some treats to share with her friends. The only candies available at that time that had no dairy, egg, soy, nuts, or wheat — and were not prepared on the same equipment as those things — were DumDums and Smarties. I let her get a bag of each.

“All that sugar isn’t good for a girl her age,” an old lady spat at us as we walked past her toward the register.

I didn’t say anything. Anything I could say would be too long and too ugly to say in front of Sammi.

But fruit! Well, fruit was never questioned. When she brought raspberries for her kindergarten class for snack — fifteen dollars worth of raspberries because that’s how much it costs to feed raspberries to twenty kids — I received nothing but praise. When her snacks at camp were bowls of strawberries and grapes I had to prepare at home because I didn’t know what would be on the cutting boards and colanders of other people, I was hailed as brilliant for convincing my child to like fruit. When she ran squealing to the farmer’s market stand every week to choose anything she wanted, people smiled with approval.

A cup of raspberries is 65 calories.

A cup of Cheezit crackers is 312 calories.

When you are trying to grow a child — to grow her brain, to grow her skinny legs and her sunken eyes and her ribs you can see and the top of her sweet head, which is a foot below the heads of her friends, the choice of raspberries seems less saintly.

Picky eaters are usually the ones at which that the world points a judgmental finger and whispers, how can that child’s mom let her eat only chicken nuggets and sliced apples every night? or I can’t believe he will only eat bagels and cream cheese for lunch — isn’t this the fourth year of that? Picky eaters are sometimes fat, sometimes skinny, sometimes indulged, sometimes not — but no one noticed my picky eater’s choices as picky because they were so universally held up as healthy. Meanwhile, she was anemic, underweight, failing to thrive, and, as it turns out, struggling to swallow.

We all love fruit in this house: berries, grapes, melon, stone fruits, apples, pears, all of it. But now, after years of my mother teasing me in my youth about not liking fruit and calling it “the F word,” and then years of my daughter’s childhood using fruit as a bribe to eat one more cookie, one more bite of pizza, one more slice of cheese, my relationship with fruit is complicated.

And who ever says that?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailby feather
twitterby feather

Pink and Smooth

Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable. -Jane Austen

In early June of 2011, my daughter Sammi had the final endoscopy in a series of eight, each one marking a phase of her six-food-elimination diet for eosinophilic esophagitis. Each scope after the first one — the one that provided the diagnosis — was to test for the effect that a food had on the surface of her esophagus. A negative reaction would look like eczema in that muscular tube running from her throat to her stomach — patches of white, clustered cells, sometimes so thoroughly irritated that long, deep ridges would form, as though the disease itself had run a fingernail down the tissues there. That was the state of things when she had been diagnosed in June of 2010. Continue Reading…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailby feather
twitterby feather

One Food at a Time

Five years oldThe words “elimination diet” implied, when I first heard them, the opposite of the process through which we put our five-year-old daughter. I thought an elimination meant taking things out of the diet, one by one, until Sammi felt better and her esophagus ceased to have eosinophils coating its walls. In reality, the process worked in reverse. This was what her fifth year looked like: Continue Reading…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailby feather
twitterby feather

Mother Blessing

tostados

More than ten years ago, I attended a mother-blessing, also known sometimes as a blessingway, for one of my closest friends. Andrea was due shortly thereafter with her second child, a daughter. Surrounded by a small group of powerful, loving women, Andrea and her still-gestating daughter were touched by healing hands and given tokens of energy and affection in the form of beads to make a bracelet Andrea could use as a focus in labor.

Mid-way through the evening, we gathered in the kitchen of the host, Andrea’s friend, for food and drink. She bustled around in front of the stove and returned with a steaming ceramic bowl of refried black beans, smelling strongly of garlic, and a platter of corn tostados. We all slathered the crunchy, oversized tortilla chips with the savory beans, and I knew that, perhaps in small part due to the circumstances heavy with love and support, I’d fallen in love with a food. Continue Reading…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailby feather
twitterby feather

Endless Meals

Sit down and finish your dinner.

Are you done or are you just distracted?

All the rest of us are done. Could you please eat your dinner?

Just FINISH. If you want that food, then EAT IT.

For CRYING OUT LOUD, Sammi, FINISH YOUR DINNER!

I can’t sit here with you anymore. Eat what you want and then bring your dish in.

My husband and I had decided early in our children’s lives that we would eat together as a family whenever possible. We had both grown up that way, largely, and especially given the research that showed how valuable a family meal is to raising connected families, we’ve maintained this policy even as our children have gotten older and busier. Seated at the end of the dining room table closest to the kitchen, the four of us have always used the time together in the traditional manner — catching up on our days, joking around, planning family events together.

But when we were done, there was Sammi. Still sitting there. Still eating.

Unlike other families I knew who struggled with a picky child at mealtime, Sammi’s issues were seldom that she was refusing to eat what was on the plate in front of her. In fact, if we suggested that she might be finished, she would often tell us that she was still eating. Then she would take a bite, chew it slowly, and begin a conversation. Five or six minutes later, we’d realize that she was not using the time when someone else was talking to take another bite — instead, she was watching, nodding, interacting, but not eating any more.

Pick up your fork and put some food on it, we’d say, rolling our eyes. You know how to eat. Just eat your dinner!

Thirty minutes would pass, and the other three people at the table would be long done with their meals. We’d linger, chatting. Maybe one of us would get up to switch a load of laundry, rifle through the mail, answer the phone. Those left at the table with Sammi would keep chatting, fussing with our dishes, maybe having another helping of something, just to pass the time.

An hour after sitting down, Sammi would still be spearing pieces of food, now long-cold. By now, her sister Ronni would be off and playing, or reading a book in a chair nearby. Either David or I would have lost the ability to sit at that table a moment more, and would be in the kitchen doing dishes or hanging out with Ronni. The parent left at the table might start reading to Sammi or to him or herself in an effort to stave off the frustration and boredom of still being at the dinner table.

After ninety minutes, it would be nearly bedtime. If Sammi was still sitting at the table with her food, we often began a countdown to the end of the meal.

In ten minutes you need to get ready for bed. Eat whatever you can finish by then.

Bedtime is coming in five minutes. Finish.

It’s almost time to go upstairs!

Dinner time edged right up to bedtime for years and years. There were never, ever any family board game nights. We seldom had dinners in front of a movie, lest the adults lose our focus or vigilance over the state of Sammi’s plate. A summer walk at sunset? Never — we were still at the dinner table.

It helped to know that Sammi’s slow eating was likely a symptom of eosinophilic esophagitis, or reflux, or both. It helped, but not enough. I kept feeling that nagging, nagging sensation in my own belly — something else was wrong. This was nearly her only symptom. Why did the problem of slowness persist even with drinking? She drank like a toddler even at age 8, puffing her cheeks out to fill them with water and letting it down a tiny bit at a time. It seemed wrong. It seemed strange. I sat there, night after night, staring at Sammi eating in slow motion, musing and, despite myself, fuming.

We watched her, the sound of doctors labeling her “failure to thrive” whispering through our heads as she delicately balanced four peas on her spoon. Feed her more calories, they told us. She needs more nutrition, they insisted.

Let THEM try, I thought, over and over, waiting for the end of another interminable meal.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailby feather
twitterby feather