When I see other parents and kids out to eat, I sometimes feel a bit like a failure as a parent. Now, Parenting 101 says the very first and most important lesson is to never compare your child to another child — you’ll either convince yourself that your kid’s got some of Einstein’s RNA in his cells, or that he’s too stupid to live. These can both happen in the same day. But when I see other kids eating broccoli and tofu, the observation I make is that my kid SUCKS at eating, and it’s totally our fault.
Of course, no four-year old in the world is going to be an adventurous eater. Trying to get one to taste something new is a Battle of Wills that requires a disproportionate expenditure of psychological manipulation. There’s a golden window that lasts less than a year, just a few months, during which young kids happily try whatever you put in front of them. And we did this with Joshua. He tried lots of vegetables, fruits, breads, and whatever I happened to cook for dinner that we thought he could eat without choking on it. For a while, he was into it. But at some point, and I cannot identify that point, he stopped wanting to eat these things.
His pediatrician was and is unconcerned, saying that it’s very normal for kids his age to live on a diet of crackers and air, and that all we need do is continue to offer him healthy choices and he’ll eventually start making those healthy choices. “Kids won’t let themselves starve,” she told me at his 4-year check-up. Still, his diet is truly terrible. His go-to food is noodles of all kinds. He loves Ramen (not just for impoverished college students!), Spaghetti-Os and all their variations, and plain old pasta sprinkled with cheese. This is great, but it’s also as good as it gets, and it gets a lot worse from there. He’ll eat bananas, but almost nothing else that grows in the dirt (takes after me), and most of his calories come from milk. Most of the rest is limited varieties of Goldfish, pretzels, and sandwich crackers/cookies, with the odd dose of french fries when we go out. Right now, one of his favorite foods is a hot dog bun. Not the hot dog. Just the bun. I’m so glad we bought that farm share this year.
Fortunately, being four, his metabolism and activity level give him the ability to eat whatever the hell he wants in ways that would make goats blush. My kid has nary an ounce of fat on him, and his abs are the envy of everyone who sees them.* For some time, both sets of grandparents were concerned about his lean stature, though we’ve all accepted now that he’s a skinny dude and that’s all it is. Given America’s great proliferation of pork and pot-bellies, my own included, there are worse problems to have.
When your kid is a baby, one of your primary concerns is making sure they get enough calories. This is preposterous, when you get right down to it, and everything about the pediatric industry has been geared to make sure that you never hear the word “calorie” from a doctor, nurse, informational literature, or website. The point isn’t subtle — stop counting calories for your baby. On a rational level, it makes sense. The caloric content of breast milk can swing significantly depending on both mother’s diet and baby’s age. Baby’s calorie needs, similarly, are all over the map depending on growth spurts which happen frequently, but not always on schedule. But alas, no one tells the grandparents these things. So an outpouring of anxiety from your own parents about making sure your kid is getting enough calories drives you out of your mind when you can find no information about how many calories he’s eating, nor about how many he even needs in the first place.
I think this sort of concern carries over into a kid’s toddler and pre-school years when eating habits become irregular, and nutrition becomes farcical. Your daily concerns about calories seem even more alarming because your kid went from eating every two hours around the clock to eating some peanut butter crackers and calling it dinner, and then having that be the first and only thing he ate all day.
Ironically, I think our desire to instill good eating habits and attitudes about food have made Joshua such a terrible eater. We vowed that we’d never force him to eat anything he didn’t want to eat, insisting only that he try one bite of a new food before moving on to other foods. We still do this, but those bites of this and that have almost never materialized into a new item added to his liked foods list. Additionally, we don’t force him to eat when he’s not hungry. Instead, we offer food on a regular schedule (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack times), allowing him to eat or not eat as much as he pleases. If he chooses to eat, we’ll provide food until he’s no longer hungry, allowing him to try to read his own internal cues on the subject. If he opts not to eat, we don’t force the issue and just let him know that there won’t be any grazing before the next scheduled meal. So, for the most part, he skips breakfast, eats a decent lunch, a small snack, and usually dinner. I’m pretty sure all our intentions and lessons have only trained him to eat like he’s in prison.
Last night, Joshua very enthusiastically, and of his own initiative, asked to go out to eat. He has never, that I recall, asked for this, so I agreed, happy to get out of the house myself. And, being four, as we were getting ready to head out, he changed his mind and decided that he neither wanted to go out nor eat. In we stayed. He did get hungry enough to eat, though his dinner was pasta. Again.
I was going to include a picture or some clip art*** or something, but as I was searching for the right image, I came across no fewer than a dozen websites devoted to feeding a picky eater. I skimmed a few before recognizing the overriding theme of them. All kids are picky eaters. Some just grow out of it faster than others. It doesn’t make me feel better when I see other kids eating seaweed and kale chips like they live in a hydroponics lab, but I at least can appreciate that Joshua is healthy and energetic.
I also appreciate chewable vitamins more than ever before.
*This is a disturbingly not-zero number as he absent-mindedly lifts his shirt while he’s talking at you.**
**Yeah, “at.” No one has gotten a word in edgewise since this kid figured out how to make sentences.
***No matter how well-produced, all clip art makes its protect seem like office memos or a Power Point presentation for a motivational speaker.