Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When Adventurous Eating is Really Just Picky Eating in Sheep's Clothing

When people compliment me on what good eaters my kids are, I tell them this story:

I was invited to a wonderful brunch for bloggers at Loews Hotel here in NYC by my well-connected and good friend Carol Caine. The food was terrific. There was a station with short rib eggs benedict that I still remember. I remember it in my mouth. It was that good. And I had seconds. Maybe thirds. And I made googley eyes at the chef and then he told me his secret short rib technique, which involved an absurdly long cooking time and juicing up the Hollandaise with short rib braising liquid.

And there were other stations, omelettes made fresh and at the direction of the diner, pancakes like they had been pumped with air, thick slabs of brioche french toast smothered in berry compote, buckets of beautiful fruit and yogurt and granola. And there were lunch stations, too. The room was littered with stations. Lucy ate eggs, made especially to her liking by some young chef who probably owed $150,000 in culinary school loans and wondered why the hell he was taking direction from a 6 year old. But he did, and he made her eggs just the way she liked them - whites only, over easy, fried in butter, just a little salt, no pepper.

I carried Edie around the room, looking at all the food, asking her what she might like to eat, pointing out this scrumptious sandwich or that panko-breaded, asian-inspired, crunchy fried chicken. Nothing. Just lots of head shaking. She didn't want any of it. Not breakfast. Not lunch. We went round the stations again. Nothing. I gave up. I knew we were headed for a meltdown if we didn't get something in her stomach and Lucy was having too much fun with the other kids to leave.

I quietly asked someone from the kitchen to get me a chocolate milk. I could get through the event if she had chocolate milk. A little pick me up. It was survival parenting. There was no shame in that. I could feed her something wholesome and nourishing later. For now, it was about getting by.

And then we saw it - there was a room just off the side with a whole new undiscovered station in it. Why hadn't we seen it before? Sushi! We rushed to the station, almost no one was there. Maybe it was too early, maybe it was off to the side, but that sushi chef was our bitch for the rest of the brunch. He made her california rolls, eel avocado rolls, and spider rolls. She sat at my lap at one of the many little tables, where people mingled and chatted and kids played around us, and stuffed big fat slices of maki into her mouth in between running back to the sushi chef, where he would hold up his sushi rolling mat and slowly, step-by-step show her how he made the sushi. She was in heaven.

That's when it happened. Bloggers, moms, strangers - seduced by the image of my kid with soft shell crab legs hanging out of her mouth - started coming over to me and telling me what a "New York City Kid" I had, what an adventurous eater, how their kids would never eat sushi, how they wish they knew my secret, how they wish their kids would try different foods. It went on.

I stammered a lot, nodded and smiled. It was a lie that I couldn't really explain in a quick 20 second conversation in a loud banquet room after getting drunk on short ribs and mimosas, with my cute kid, who - oh look! - just shoved another piece of raw salmon into her pie hole.

But here's the truth - that's the only thing in the whole room she would eat. Not the plainest eggs, or most barren, syrup-less pancake, or bone-dry piece of French toast. There isn't a sandwich in the world that would pass over her lips unless you put Nutella in between two slices of toasted bagel. The only thing she would eat at Loews was the sushi.

And do you know why?

Because Lucy went to preschool next to a very good neighborhood sushi joint on the Upper West Side. They had a terrific lunch special, very cheap. Two days a week, before we picked up Lucy, Edie and I had a ritual - we stopped at Ozen, ordered spicy tuna hand rolls, and miso soup, and had a little lunch together. I always ordered a secret Diet Pepsi. She was two. Who was she going to tell? Two days a week for two years. We could have gone to McDonalds. That could've been our tradition, but we did this instead. And now, sushi is her comfort. Her special treat. Something we do together. Lucy likes it, but not the way Edie does. I made her love sushi. She really had no choice.

But the point is, some things are not what they seem. A kid who is eating sushi might not be a great eater. She just might love sushi. You never really know what goes on at the dinner table when the front door is closed and no one is watching, no matter what people write on their food blogs or brag about at school functions. In fact, I'll say it: my kid is picky. If what we mean by picky is - she likes what she likes and that sometimes inconveniences the hell out of me and drives me to the brink of insanity.

My daughter will only eat a croissant for lunch at school. That's it. A croissant. Everything else I pack gets returned smushed and uneaten. She could live out her days happily eating only brown-buttered corn, guacamole and tortilla chips, roast chicken, shrimp cocktail, pizza, French fries, hot dogs drowned in ketchup, fish chowder or really, any cream-based soup no matter how weird or obscure, bagels smothered in Nutella and any festival of carbs - dishes that are comprised mainly of noodles or rice. She can eat a half loaf of ciabatta at the playground without swallowing. But she'll pick every bit of veg out of her fried rice, one tiny little bit at a time, using the pointy end of her fork, as if she were a neurosurgeon working a testy brain tumor out of someone's skull. I swear she's in training for med school.

Yesterday, I offered her stuffed shells at a playdate. While Lucy and her friends happily ate, she cried for noodles and then when she got it that the shells were actually noodles, and that she liked them, she inspected every side of the shell for tiny specks of stray spinach and weird, unsavory looking bits of cheese. It took an hour to eat two shells.

But I know this won't last. Lucy just asked if we could go to a French restaurant and eat snails and it made me remember that Lucy wasn't always so adventurous, that she didn't revel in trying and discovering new foods. That's what happened this year. At six. Six is a big food year for us. It's the year they are so in the world that trying new things - trying everything - makes them who they are. Their sense of adventure gives them a purpose and confidence. They've already rebelled and stood their ground against your home-cooking and now they've proven their point - they are rebels, they can drive the grown-ups crazy, they have the real, tangible power to mess with your life, but it's all sort of "been there done that" - now, they just want to experience it all, and if that means trying Grandma's green bean casserole with those weird, crunchy onion-like things on top, just to see what that's all about, well, bring it on.

Edie is turning five next month. We have some time to go before six. Until then, we have croissants and sushi and clam chowder and Nutella. And, I think, that's just where we're supposed to be.

xo YM



debbie koenig said...

I love you for writing this. My Harry turns 5 in August. Man, I can't wait for 6.

Kate Morgan said...

This totally and hilariously captures the preposterousness of picky kids---being carried from one amazing option to the next and rejecting them all, the little kings and queens that they are. And I love your chocolate milk confession and sushi full disclosure;-)

Christina @ Spoonfed said...

Kim, you made the point brilliantly: Kids, just like adults, have likes, dislikes and sorta likes. And that is OK. People are too quick to label kids or write them off, when developing a palate is really no different from any other evolving part of life: reading, writing, riding a bike, wiping their own bums. It all comes with time.

Sing it, sister.

Christine said...

You and your kids are the bees' knees. Also? How awesome is your meal of roast chicken greens and fries served on a ginormous butcher block (cutting board? I can't tell), but it's awesome.

Basia said...

Oh those fun days of picky eating! The turning point for my son was also when he turned 6, and we took a big, long trip to Europe. He never had Indian food and actually devoured an entire order of tandoori chicken at Vama. I'll never forget it, we told him it was like "Daddy's barbecue," and thank God, he ate it. He told the waitress, "I'm kind of a picky eater, but I had your chicken and I liked it." After that, fish cakes, you name it.

The Vanilla Bean Baker said...

I enjoyed this post very much and I totally agree with Christina's comment.
All my life I have been classed as a *picky* eater. From the time I was an infant, out of seven kids I was the only one who had to have a special baby formula. As an adult I still done have an extensive or varied palette but I know what I like and don't like. Just as your girls do now.

Janis said...

My kids are really old so all I can do is recount tales of when they were young. I will never forget the moment when I watched my 3 year old (now 29) take a big mouthful of pickled herring my FIL gave her as I waited for the fallout. Both my kids grew up with tons of sushi (hey, we are from California!) They have gone through stages but imagine how proud I was the last time I saw Annie and gave her my homemade rillet and she asked me to send more. Her comment? "Why didn't you make charcuterie when we lived at home? I think she may be ready for a stuffed pig heart.

Mmm... is for Mommy said...

All I can say is 'Thank You'... about a hundred times. It's nice to know sometimes that I'm not alone :)

~Mom to a Picky Pants.

Kristina said...

Lovely post. I don't have kids but I was a very picky eater myself all the way until I went to college and had to cook for myself. Then I started working in restaurant kitchens and traveling to far flung parts of the globe and I consciously forced myself to be more adventurous. But occasionally, my "comfort food" is still the mac and cheese in the blue box.

Cheryl Arkison said...

My own magic age was about 19, but I'm odd like that.
This is so bang on! I think of it often as my kids will devour sashimi but avoid rice.

trashmaster46 said...

I am a picky eater still. I have some unusual 'likes' (like certain kinds of sushi), and I will cook just about anything for other people, so most of my friends have no idea just how picky I am. I cover it further by inviting people over to my house for dinner and meeting people at restaurants, so I have more control over what I get for eating than if I go to a friend's house for dinner.
At least Edie eats some relatively healthy stuff! :)

Jennifer @ Raisin Questions said...

I already live with a picky eater husband. You just made me realize I have no idea what is in store for me with our future kids!

yarger gal said...

we have a super picky almost 3 year old and it often drives be insane. good to know i only have 3 more years until the exploration phase ;) thanks for sharing!

merry jennifer said...

You've said it all here. This is exactly what I experience with my two. My 4 year old is in a hot dog phase - but sometimes he surprises me and goes for a runny egg yolk or calamari if the rest of us seem to really be enjoying it. My 7 year old was just like that at his age, and now she's grown out of it. She'll try anything now, as long as we don't hesitate and just act enthusiastic about the food item in question.