You Don’t Have to Eat It

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It’s maddening enough when your kid won’t eat anything unless it’s white or orange. It’s even more maddening when, once upon a time, you were that kid.

In Serious Eats, Irina Dumitrescu continues to confess to imperfections that so many adults have in common, yet so often refuse to admit. (She did this last year, too, in an endearing Longreads essay about learning beginner ballet as an adult.)

Despite their inexperience with mealtime negotiations, parents of adventurous eaters are long on advice for the parents of picky eaters, but short on understanding. Experienced parents tend not to understand their child’s eating habits, either — sometimes forgetting or denying whether they themselves ever struggled with growing out of a childhood food aversion.

Do picky children never age? If they do age, did they all refuse to procreate? So many adult hands are still going up in frustration, as though each individual kid invented this monochromatic conspiracy. Dumitrescu proves that at least one parent out there actually remembers being one of these kids, and gets what it feels like on the other side of all those shame-ridden battles around what she would and wouldn’t eat.

Here Dumitrescu embraces her son’s habits with the same warmth and understanding she brings to her own adult flaws, admitting that she, too, once had a hard time stomaching food that was unfamiliar or unappetizing.

Watching my son refuse food sometimes feels like payback for the trouble I caused my family. He is not polite in letting us know how revolting he finds a dish he has not even deigned to taste. I have lost much of the pleasure I used to take in cooking, frustrated by having my efforts in the kitchen treated with reliable disdain. His kindergarten teachers rave about his creativity and kindness, but then, with a lowering of the voice, remark on how poorly he eats compared with the other children. His grandparents prepare him meals out of special children’s cookbooks, and look on with barely disguised concern as he rejects the spinach lasagna or broccoli bake the author assured them would be a hit. My husband and I have taken to opening kids’ cookbooks, staring at the photos of Things That Are Not Plain Pasta, and laughing the hollow laugh of the defeated.

Still, the boy grows. He has boundless energy. He is clever and fun and loving. There is nothing visibly wrong with him. His doctor is unconcerned. When I see people try to cajole him into acting like a normal hungry child, I feel like I am the only person who really understands him, his one ally in a world of robust and unquestioning eaters. I know the frustration of being browbeaten into eating something with a texture or smell I couldn’t bear, of staring down a plate of unfinished food for hours. I recognize his stubbornness, the way he turns down even a food he loves if he feels he is being coerced. I resent that his eating habits so often overshadow his many good qualities, as though this one flaw weighed heavier in the balance than his curiosity, empathy, or devilish grin.

I, too, was defined by what I didn’t eat, by the one area in life in which I was not perfectly obedient. I, too, was encouraged to ignore my instincts and preferences at the table, urged to continue stuffing myself even when I felt full. I was taught to feel guilty about what I didn’t put in my mouth, and now I often feel guilty about what I do. As hard as it is to see my son turn down the food I want to share with him, I do not want the family table to be a battleground for his bodily autonomy.

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