When I was growing up, I was what my frustrated parents referred to most often as a “picky eater.” I was also frequently labeled as a “stubborn little brat” and a “pain in the rear.” No matter how hard they tried, they simply could not make me eat foods I didn’t want to eat.
My aversion to certain foods wasn’t entirely my fault. My mom had been raised under the philosophy that it was a woman’s duty, a woman’s responsibility, a woman’s JOB to do everything possible to please her man (a ridiculous philosophy she tried unsuccessfully to pass on to me!). Pleasing my dad included cooking what he wanted to eat, and what he wanted to eat was usually mushy or greasy or both.
The list of foods I refused to eat was long and varied and a disgrace to my country girl upbringing. Meatloaf and tuna casserole, weekly staples in my mom’s 1960’s kitchen, would never pass through my lips. Hamburgers, fried chicken and fried potatoes were also out of the question because of the greasy film they left on my fingers and teeth. I couldn’t understand why my mom persisted in putting mashed potatoes and gravy on my plate; I might make pretty swirls in them, but there was no way I was going to actually eat them. Beans of every kind were greeted with crossed arms, pressed lips, and a determined shake of my little head. Spinach? I didn’t care that it was Popeye’s favorite food; Popeye was a boy, and boys were icky and stupid (and therefore, their opinions didn’t matter).
I know my mom was just trying to nourish my skinny little self, and I know my refusals to eat almost everything she cooked had to be very frustrating for her. Life would have been much simpler for both of us, though, if she would have accepted defeat early on and realized that I could survive and, in fact, thrive on peanut butter, carrots, hot dogs, and fruit.
I’m sure some of you are thinking my parents should have just busted my little butt. Believe me, they were not advocates of “sparing the rod”; I think I was just spanked so many times for so many other reasons that they probably wanted to try different strategies (or their arms were tired).
In the beginning they thought they could wait me out. They would tell me I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I had eaten everything on my plate; I remember their trying this tactic repeatedly–I also remember that it never worked. I had a vivid imagination, and I could sit at the kitchen table for hours, swirling pretty designs in my potatoes, playing tic tac toe with my peas, and making up stories about the little people riding the green bean logs through the river of gravy. Eventually my parents would become disgusted with me, and my mom would yank my plate from in front of me and tell me to brush my teeth and go to bed. Little Miss Stubborn had won again.
I remember the last time my parents tried to force me to eat; I think I was eight years old. My mom had cooked one of my dad’s favorite meals–meatloaf, mashed potatoes, pinto beans, and spinach. It was so unfair–I hated all these foods! I was determined not to eat a single disgusting bite, but this time my parents had had enough, and they changed the rules. I had already accepted that I would be sitting at the table until bedtime, but instead they told me that if I didn’t at least try everything on my plate, I was going to be spanked with the belt. Now, I hated all these foods, but I hated the belt even more. What to do? Suddenly, my little eight-year-old brain formulated a plan, and I’m sure that little eight-year-old brain thought it was a brilliant plan, too. I decided I would take a small bite of the meatloaf and stash it in one of the back corners of my mouth; then I would take a small bite of mashed potatoes and stash it in another corner. This would be followed by a small bite of the spinach and a small bite of the pinto beans (saving the worst for last)–and then I would go to the bathroom and spit it all into the toilet. Pretty clever, right?
I forked the tiniest bite possible of that nasty, ketchup-crusted meatloaf and stashed it in the back of my mouth, and then I added the mushy mashed potatoes and vinegary spinach to their designated spots. I was one bite away from salvation, but when I added the pinto beans to the mix, it was more than my little tastebuds could tolerate. I started gagging–and gagging–and gagging–and then I threw up all over the dinner table. Dinner was destroyed, and my parents were furious; I got a spanking and I was sent to bed, where I cried myself to sleep over the injustice of it all. I had lost the battle, but a few years later I realized I had actually won the war–my parents never again tried to force me to eat anything.
Before giving up completely, they did try other tactics in their desperate attempts to feed me. First it was guilt. How could I refuse to eat the food that my mom had spent hours slaving over a hot stove to cook? How could I leave food on my plate when there were starving children in China? (Later it was the starving children in Ethiopia who were being slighted by my stubbornness.) Once I asked my parents how much it would cost to mail my food to the starving children in China–would my allowance cover it? They were not amused. Then they tried scaring me, warning me that I would “dry up and blow away” if I didn’t eat–and I did worry about this possibility a few times when thunderstorms rolled through and the wind kicked up (but I calmed any fears by simply filling my pockets with rocks until the wind subsided).
Eventually my parents did give up and left me alone to suffer whatever dismal future fate had in store for me. (“If you die from malnourishment, it won’t be our fault!” Unbridled guilt mixed with a dash of passive aggressiveness–what a powerful parental punch!) Were they disappointed when I proved them wrong and didn’t waft away in the wind? As I matured into my teens, I slowly began to add a few dishes to my palate and my plate–dishes that I wanted to eat. And life became easier for everyone when I got my first job and used part of my paycheck every week to buy my own food (nothing fried or mushy, I assure you). I put on a few pounds and then a few more (and then a few more) until finally even my parents had to reluctantly admit that all their fussing and fretting had been for naught.
From these experiences I learned a valuable lesson about raising children–namely, pick your battles. When I had three sons in the house, I had enough battles to wage without making food one of them (do your homework, pick up your dirty clothes, quit hitting your brother, did you just back talk me?). My sons were always encouraged to sample whatever I had cooked, but they were never forced–if they didn’t like it or the looks of it, they could help themselves to raw fruits and vegetables or fix their own peanut butter sandwiches, bowls of cereal, or macaroni and cheese. I know many parents who completely disagree with my approach (and have told me so), but it worked in my family; my sons still grew up healthy and strong, and–as an added benefit–they grew up knowing how to fend for themselves.
They also grew up knowing their opinions mattered (at least in the kitchen). I didn’t just cook for the “man of the house”; I considered their likes and dislikes when planning meals, and I tried to make sure they each were frequently served their very own favorites (for one it was spaghetti, for another it was chicken and noodles, and for another it was steak–or any other large slab of grilled meat).
They also, amazingly, developed a love for many of the same dishes I still can’t stomach, relying on their pitying grandmothers and kind-hearted aunts for their occasional fixes of beans and cornbread and mashed potatoes and gravy. I know–I remain a disgrace to my country girl roots (but you should try my lasagna, my chicken enchiladas, and my sausage and shrimp gumbo!).