For my daughter’s 2nd birthday, a friend and her four-year-old daughter came to the party and stayed the night. Upon arriving for the party, the little girl—I’ll call her Beth—surveyed each of the three pizzas I had ordered and then announced she would eat none of it. “I only eat cheese pizza,” she said. I pointed out that one was, in fact, a cheese pizza. She examined it again, and proclaimed, “I don’t eat THAT kind of cheese pizza.” This routine was more or less repeated at dinner and breakfast the next day. Needless to say, Beth spent a very hungry afternoon and morning at our house.
My parents made their share of mistakes, but one thing they did right was to expect me to eat whatever they set before me. Liver and onions. It did not matter. I could eat it. I could starve. So I ate it. And nowadays, I adore well-cooked liver and onions. We raise our two children the same way. Here’s a perfectly good meal. You may choose to eat it, or you may choose to go to bed hungry. And there have been nights like that. “I’m hungry!” they cried. “I’m always hungry, too, when I don’t eat a good dinner. But there will be a good breakfast in the morning.” Hunger was a consequence of their own choice to refuse the food set before them.
Let’s face it. I have seen parents act like short-order cooks, rushing around the kitchen trying to find something their kid will eat. “I don’t want that,” the kid says, and the negotiations begin. At that point, the child is firmly and completely in charge of the parent. What an amazing power! And with what caprice do they wield it. “I’ll only eat that if you cut it into diamond shapes.” A picky eater—and a power struggle—is born.
Of course, not everyone likes all foods. “I am not fond of that,” we teach our children to say, if they are asked directly about something they don’t like. There will be things in life that we are not fond of, but picky eaters are, quite simply, a privileged first-world problem.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those privileged first-worlders. What would you like for dinner? Wow, you get a choice. In some parts of the world, it might be gruel yesterday, gruel today, and gruel tomorrow. But you get a CHOICE. You can go to the grocery store and buy whatever appeals to you, if you have the cash. You can go out to a restaurant and sample cuisine from around the world.
Unless you’re poor, in which case you have to make your food stamps carry you until the end of the month. You have to buy the cheapest foods you can find, which will be heavily subsidized junk carbohydrates, most likely. Salad? You wish. And if you put on any extra weight eating that stuff, well, folks can judge you all the more harshly over their surf ‘n turf.
I freely admit that I am bothered by seeing food wasted. I freely admit that I can’t stand to put good food in front of someone only to have it spurned. No doubt, I was starving in more than a few previous lives, and it just hurts my heart, particularly when so many people are hungry. According to Feeding America, 20% or more of the child population in 37 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. were “food insecure” in 2011, which is a fancy way of saying “frequently hungry.” That’s one in five kids. Given that one in five of my children’s classmates are probably hungry on any given day, it’s hard for me to have sympathy for picky eaters. There are starving kids in China… Yeah, and here at home, too.
During a visit to my mother’s home state, my uncle and his family had us over to their house for a lovely dinner. They had worked very hard to make it a nice evening. Everything was wonderful. After the meal, my aunt brought out a newly baked cake and set it on the table, at which point my mother began, “Oh, we don’t eat stuff like that. Sugar’s really bad for you…” And she went on and on. I looked at my aunt’s face. I looked at my uncle’s face. I wanted to crawl under the table and die. Oh my God, Mom, I thought, why can’t you just eat the damn cake?
Food isn’t just nourishment for your body, although that matters a lot. Food is a social contract. It is a sacrifice (literally, when meat is involved). It is a bonding. If someone puts a plate in front of you, treat whatever is on it with gratitude and respect. Eat what you can, and be as polite as you can. If you’re dining with the Maasai, you’ll probably be served raw meat, raw milk, and raw blood. Go with it. Or don’t, but you might not be as welcome if you go down that path. Food offered says, “We share ourselves with you.” Food spurned says, “I don’t want to be part of you. I reject you.”
I certainly know that I am one of these privileged picky eaters. I have my own preferred diet. It’s fairly low-carb, high-veg, unprocessed, with a reasonable dose of meats and fats. This is how I prefer to eat. Luckily, I am able to do that. Vegans, vegetarians, raw foodies, paleos, and any other dietary adherents are, too. And if you can, go for it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. But be aware. Be flexible. If I’m a guest, or if I’m hungry because shit happens and the food supply is broken, then I’m going to eat (and share) whatever I can. Because that’s life. The reed that bends with the wind does not break.
My daughter was naturally more picky as a toddler than her brother is. But over time, our expectations have not changed. There’s your dinner. Eat it or don’t. And she has gotten very good at trying new things. I’m proud of her. She is also a gracious guest. She knows not to insult anything set before her, and if, after trying something, she genuinely does not like it, then she can avoid it without comment. However, the list of things she doesn’t like shrinks each year, and she’s discovering that she likes more and more. She’s lucky to have the choice.
If you happen to be a picky eater, be grateful that you have such problems. Somewhere, people are so hungry they’d gladly eat mud if it would do them any good. Somewhere, a mother is watching her child starve to death before her eyes. How I would love to set a plate in front of them. And really, there’s no excuse not to.
If you’d like to know more about hunger and how you can help, check out A Place at the Table.
I’ll leave you with the patron saint of all picky eaters, Sally Albright.