I was a picky eater. According to some books, picky eating is evidence that something is terribly wrong. But I think that the person who wrote that simply doesn’t have as discerning and sensitive a palate as I do. I think the person who wrote that is an agreeable tool. I mean, I have to think that. Otherwise, I’d need more therapy than I’m already getting.
So, I understand it when little kids don’t want to eat even the seemingly straightforward foods, like bananas, for example, because bananas are mushy and unnervingly sweet and they never refresh you the way a good piece of fruit should. Are they even actually a fruit? I’ll just say it: I think bananas are best made unrecognizable in bread and smoothies or, better yet, painted into still lifes.
Pickiness, while nothing to be ashamed of, is inconvenient and irritating to authority figures, particularly those who go food shopping. I had become such a figure. And, as it turned out, I was actually hoping he wasn’t like me. Parents talk such shit about picky eaters, they complain about them, they take the rejections personally, they forget how much a plain frozen pea really sucks. By parents, of course, I mean ME. I did these things. I JUST did these things.
I gave Sly hunks of banana to eat when he first started eating hunks of things. And he ate them! And I thought, “You know what? Bananas are pretty great, huh?” I didn’t say it out loud though because I read that you’re not supposed to comment on the food your kid is eating; just let them eat it. So, I just let him eat it. I was being a model mother. I was doing nothing wrong at all. We were buying five bananas a week.
Then Sly stopped eating banana. At first, I thought, “What a stupid food! Thanks for tolerating it as long as you did, kid, but I’m glad we’re done with that bland GARBAGE.” Other babies around us scarfed down hunks of banana like morons. But honestly, I didn’t think they were morons. I was really jealous. The fallen foods were multiplying, among them bananas of varying ripeness, sweet potato, avocado, eggs, toast (TOAST?!), strawberries, and, naturally, peas. (Aside from the toast and strawberries, I would have had nothing to do with any of these foods until late in high school at the earliest.)
A few months later, Sly caught on to how grown-ups eat bananas and he was intrigued. I know he was intrigued because, when he was 10 months old, he stole a banana from an actor named Jimmy at a rehearsal to which I’d brought him. Jimmy was very nice about it. Sly ate almost the whole thing and I don’t think Jimmy had any other snacks. So after the Jimmy debacle, I started peeling bananas and let Sly take bites. He was so proud of himself. Those five minutes he’d spend gingerly eating one of my least favorite foods were filled with joy and wonder for me. I’d equate it to watching your child pop wheelies or crest a wave on a surfboard, but scaled back a bit. This went on for a few weeks.
One day, I offered a banana, Sly took a bite, spit it on the floor and walked away. Either the banana was tainted or he was confused. Or maybe concussed. He must’ve been concussed! I tried again, chasing after him with the non-fruit flapping in my hand. “Do you want to try it again?” I asked, smiling. “It’s really good,” I said, doing the thing that I’d read I wasn’t supposed to do, and also lying. “Look, I’m eating it!” I shouted, and then I took a bite. It was horrible. The banana, my desperation, all the feeding rules I was breaking.
So important had it become to me that my son consume all of the foods he once entertained but now would firmly not that, two days ago on the playground, I gestured to his friend who was eating a mozzarella cheese stick and said, “Sly, do you see Maya eating her cheese?” Sly didn’t see Maya because he was already halfway to the metal horse twenty feet from us. “Neigh, neigh,” he yelled. The horse wasn’t going to make him eat anything. The horse let Sly pet his cold metal side.
I was madly pinballing between what I’d read in books and online about HOW TO FEED YOUR CHILD SUCCESSFULLY AND EASILY AND HEALTHFULLY and what my son actually wanted to eat and my own depths of eating empathy (these depths are, in fact, profound - I didn’t put milk in my cereal until college). Who had I become? I can’t blame Instagram and all the photos of stainless steel lunch box compartments artfully filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables and rare grains. When you find yourself getting angry at Instagram or Pinterest or parenting blogs, you probably need a nap or snack. You probably, if you are like me, need to fling your phone halfway across the room and forget where it went for several hours.
I swore off lima beans the first time I tasted them, no matter the sauce or the salting. But I’ve always loved broccoli and grapefruits. I’ve even grown to adore marinara sauce, though I once politely asked my friend’s mother to wash it off my pasta before resuming our Golden Girls viewing on her waterbed. If young, picky Katie was here for all this mishegas, I think she’d call me buster and tell me to back off. She’d tell me that I didn’t actually know everything and that she did know some things! She’d ask me to boil water for pasta and make sure we had Parmesan cheese. She’d disappear into my son’s room and I’d overhear him laughing really hard at some old lady voice she was doing, probably making fun of me.
When I look at my son, I can’t connect him not wanting to eat certain foods with him struggling in life in general. Pickiness is, for a lot of kids, just an assertion of independence and a phase. But if, like me, he’s a picky eater for a long time, then may he always have a compatriot in a world that doesn’t give him a break. May that person be me and may I respond to yet another person asking, “Is he a good eater?”, with kindness, good will, and the words, “Who fucking cares?”