“Hungry Monkey”

November 2, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

Picky eaters and those who are trying to raise them will adore this book.  Matthew Amster-Burton is an engagingly funny writer who makes you want to call him and offer to babysit his adorable young daughter.

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I’m not really going to review the book, though.  I’ll tell you that it’s full of recipes which, as a vegan, I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot fork.  If you’re an omnivore and a foodie, this book would probably give you some great ideas about introducing your kid to the kitchen.

What I do want to talk about is the subject of picky eating, since anyone searching out this book may very well have a problem eater at home.

First, I have to address Amster-Burton and The Tightwad Gazette, because I’m a huge Dacyzyn fan.  There’s a notorious article on picky eaters, and A-B mentions it.  He’s in the “cruel and unusual” camp, in response to the Dacyzyn family “you’ll eat it and you’ll like it” policy.  Dacyzyn comments extensively on the negative response to this article, saying that meals are a happy time for her family and that the older kids influence the younger ones before they’ve even had a chance to taste something.  I agree with Dacyzyn wholeheartedly, and I think the picky eater problem revolves around this family culture issue.

I’m a stepmom, and my new teenager was the ultimate picky eater.  I understand that everyone has different tastes, because a close friend of mine is, at 30, still incredibly squeamish about a wide variety of foods.  It’s painful and a picky eater misses out on a lot of great stuff.  I want to offer my perspective, because I’m an adventurous eater raised by a picky eater, and because I think non-parents have a really different take on parenting issues.  (No kidding, huh?)

Why am I not a picky eater like my mom?  Simple:  We were too poor and hungry to be picky.  I remember clearly having to fight my gag reflex on a routine basis because there was nothing but tuna casserole or whatever food bogey I had to confront at dinner that night.  If we didn’t like something, the response was, “I’m sorry, but it’s that or nothing.”  By the time I reached adulthood, I was overwhelmed with sensory bliss every time I tried a new food.  Most of the picky eater preferences, like mac ‘n’ cheese or PBJ, never make it into my kitchen. 

My nephews grew up on Indian food and I’ve never known them to refuse so much as a bite of any cuisine.  Since toddler age, they’ve both gravitated to the kitchen and insisted on being a part of any and all meal preparation.  Their dream jobs were “pizza man” because “you get to cook the pizza!”  Maybe they’re just missing the gene that makes a kid extra-sensitive and easily grossed out.  I don’t know.  The only time I’ve seen a near-tantrum out of either boy (now 13 and 11) is when the younger one was about four, we ate late at a restaurant, and they were out of his favorite soup.  Tears streamed down his little face, and I confess that I’ve felt the same way!  All I can say about raising these two young eaters is that we didn’t have a family culture of squeamishness, we always eat a wide variety of ethnic foods, they started dining in restaurants when they were still in high chairs, and they’ve always been encouraged to help cook.  (The latter three all seem to be true of Amster-Burton’s family, as well, so go figure).

So, I inherited this kid.  When we met she was 10 years old.  I watched in horror as she refused foods, picked things out of her plate, and gasped out “Eww” and “Gross” at the contents of others’ plates.  (A favorite family story had her at age four saying, “It’s all ucky!” to much adoration).  As Amster-Burton addresses his own childhood pickiness, Sweetie Junior was at the right age for a little peer pressure.  I just told her that if she didn’t like something, she should keep her opinions to herself.  When, five years later, I found myself her half-time mother surrogate, I pointed out that if she continued to pick things out of her food as an adult, people would think it was immature and they would look down on her.

The results were nothing short of astounding!  Take mushrooms.  You either love mushrooms or you hate them, right?  SJ was a hater.  A few months after the “don’t pick things out of your food” lecture, we had the following conversation.

Me: “I’m trying to do the meal plan for next week, but I’m trying to avoid focusing on mushrooms every night.”

SJ: “That’s okay.  I have to make up for all the mushrooms I missed out on all those years.”

In nearly six months, I haven’t seen a single morsel of food left behind on this kid’s dinner plate.  Now, I’m no Julia Child.  I’m also a blatant vegetable pusher:  I’ve introduced celery root, fennel bulb, bok choy, kale, and chard, not to mention tofu and tempeh, and she’s eaten them all.  I don’t hide stuff in creamy sauces, either; the kale dish consisted of kale, baked tofu, udon noodles, and sesame seeds.  Left to herself, she will still live off plain pasta, breakfast cereal, candy, and canned chili.  But now we can share the table with her like a civilized person.

As a non-parent, I’ll tell you what anyone else who has never had kids will tell you.  Nobody knows your kid like you do.  But nobody else will put up with the kind of nonsense that you do, either.  There’s no need to force-feed your kid; my mom is still a picky eater partly because she was so traumatized by her parents’ force-feeding techniques.  On the other hand, there is no excuse for tolerating rudeness, either.  Your kid should not be allowed to make nasty comments about the food, especially something someone else is eating.  It’s just not a good preparation for adulthood.  Likewise, if there’s something too revolting to eat, the correct response is to work around it and make polite excuses if the hostess should make an inquiry.  As a vegan I frequently find that I have to smile and say, “No, thank you” to donuts, birthday cake, hot dogs, and all sorts of office party foods.  It’s rare for anyone to keep pushing as to why you’re not eating something – because they don’t really care.  Nobody needs to know if you think something is “icky.”  Write it in your diary and move on.

The other consideration is that you are responsible for feeding your child a nutritious diet.  If your kid won’t eat vegetables, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he or she will eat only junk food.  Just – don’t buy the junk food!  We have custody alternate weeks.  During custody weeks, there is no ice cream.  There are no chips.  There are no cookies.  The pediatrician says she needs to lose 10-20 pounds; therefore it’s not fair to torment her by eating forbidden foods in front of her.  Parental hypocrisy is the hardest thing for kids to deal with.

In our house, we take it for granted that there are “power vegetables” at every meal.  There’s a wide variety of stuff in the fridge and freezer.  Everyone takes turns cooking (though I’m the default meal planner).  Everyone cleans up.  We eat meals at the table together, we socialize and we expect pleasant behavior and conversation.  We explain that this is because there are no situations in adult life where unpleasant behavior at the table is acceptable.  Don’t allow behavior from your kids that you wouldn’t allow from a roommate, and it will do all of society a favor.

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