I am seeing a trend in many of the reviews I’ve begun to receive for my forthcoming book, Kitchen Medicine: How I Fed My Daughter out of Failure to Thrive. I’m not completely surprised by it — after all, I included this theme in some of the synopses I wrote both in my book proposal and in the promotional writing I provided for my publisher — but it has been fascinating to see how insidiously we have absorbed this concept. Mostly written by parents who are reading my book via Advanced Reader Copies (aka ARCs), I am seeing these two words come up again and again:
I may be projecting when I read these words as surrounded by a sickening kind of shame. As much as “failure to thrive” seemed to me to be a nicer way of pointing the finger at me, as a mother, and saying “failure to feed!,” the idea that I had somehow raised — of all horrible things! — a “picky eater” made me tighten my jaw and clench my fists. It’s not my fault, I remember thinking. I tried. I offered her everything. She just only likes fruit!
The truth is that there is goo-gobs of evidence out there that children are mostly supposed to be picky eaters. Certainly in toddlers, being highly selective about what foods to eat is totally normal, developmentally. The world is scary and unpredictable, and graham crackers are safe, sweet, and familiar. As a child gets older, having preferences about food is something they see as normal, even if they may have more preferences than the adults around them do.
This is what I’ve been thinking about when it comes to food and “picky eating” lately: I’m pretty sure that, if I was a child, you’d call me a picky eater, but almost no one who has ever had a meal with me as an adult would label me this way. I’m a vegetarian (so I don’t eat meat) with pretty intense lactose intolerance (so I don’t eat cheese, drink cow’s milk, or eat cow’s milk-based yogurt). I don’t like avocados and I absolutely despise cilantro. If you eat in my house or invite me to bring a dish to a potluck, you’ll see my plate full of all kinds of things, but they’re all things I chose.
Does the fact that there are more things that I like than things that I don’t like make me whatever the opposite of picky is? Or is it because my adult sense of agency over what I eat hides my inherent “pickiness?” What if we applied this model to children? If they could get the food they liked themselves, would we care about how picky they were?
All this is to say that if I could change one thing about how I handled my daughter Sammi’s years of failure-to-thrive, it would have been to reframe my thinking about her “pickiness.” In the end, we learned that her textual aversions were mostly a survival skill (you can read more on this blog to find out what was wrong with her esophagus, or you can pre-order my book and get the whole story as the medical mystery it was). If I had been able to step back and make sense of what she liked and didn’t, I could have saved myself both the judgement I’m sure she felt and the guilt and shame that I KNOW I felt.
If your child is getting labeled a “picky eater,” take a moment to think about your own food preferences. Will you drink whatever coffee you can find or do you have a favorite brand? Does it matter to you whether you have a burger or a salad or a bowl of noodles for lunch? Do you prefer a certain variety of apple and, if so, will the “wrong” variety sit in your fridge until it rots? Does the generic version of your favorite breakfast cereal hit just like the brand name? Do you care what kind of salad dressing goes on your salad? Would you be completely fine eating whatever someone else wanted to make you for every single meal and snack of your day, or would you rather have a say in it?
Well? Are you a “picky eater?” Does that label even matter? I think you know by now how I feel.
(By the way, the tofu dish in the picture above is one I made with my older daughter, who doesn’t like things too spicy. The tofu was cooked in sriracha, which was pretty spicy, but the peanut sauce was sweet and tangy and made it all better. My younger daughter asked us to leave off the scallions. I ate every last bite and very nearly licked the bowl. You can find the recipe for this in the cookbook The Weekday Vegetarians by Jenny Rosenstrach.)