Feeding Bean was the worst part of my day every day. From the breastfeeding to bottle-feeding to solid food, I've dreaded every meal. Initially, it was because I sucked at breast-feeding. Then it was Bean's acid reflux. After introducing solids, it was the anxiety of worrying about food allergies, followed by the inevitable question of "Did she eat enough?" Now, well into toddlerhood, mealtime has become one great negotiation, trying to get her to eat anything that I give her and to not throw it on the floor. Last week, she actually told me to "Take away. Put in garbage." Why did I teach her to talk again?
I thought feeding her food would be the fun part. I had no idea how difficult it would be to get a two year old to eat something other than bananas, yogurt or cookies. And I'm a good cook. No, really I am. I've cooked for Michele Obama (chocolate bread pudding, no ice cream), Claire Danes (Mushroom Tart, no aioli), Elvis Costello (ice cream sampler, extra cookies) and countless other finicky New Yorkers. What the hell is so hard about feeding my own daughter?
I recently read Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe. Her tome describes the radical differences in French parenting verses American parenting. I was particularly taken with Druckerman's chapters on food. The French are very serious about food and consequently, so are their offspring. From the time, babies are in preschool, they are taught to sit for a four course meal. Granted the courses aren't delivered in the ceremony of a Per Se or a Jean Georges, but the kids learn patience just by sitting there. They also learn that food isn't there simply for nourishment, it is a built-in pause on your day. Food is part of the culture. It's a dialogue meant to be enjoyed amongst friends and family. It is not meant to be scarfed down on the run as I've done countless times (see Exhibit A: Bean's car seat).
Reading her book inspired me to re-examine my own feeding ritual with Bean. I took for granted that because of my culinary expertise, Bean would eat whatever delicious thing I put in front of her. This is not the case. Meals typically went as follows:
Bean holds her head high, defiantly sticking her chin up and out. Her tiny, heart shaped mouth sealed tight into a firm line. A slight smile on the ends of her pout, smirking in the knowledge that she holds all the cards. After several spoon thrusts of food or songs from Mama, her head shakes from side to side, reiterating the "NO" from her mouth with each increasingly violent head shake. After months of this, I give up trying new foods. I'm emotionally spent and I'm jealous of any working parent that doesn't spend three hours a day trying to get a kid to eat. Too often, I just give her pasta with butter because it's easy. I know she will eat it. It's a no brainer and I feel better because I know she had something of substance. But really, how much nutritional value is there in a plate of plain pasta? I'm not teaching her anything. I'm giving her the same boring bland plate of off-white noodles. When I introduce something else, like zucchini or spinach, I already expect her not to eat it. Sure , I coax once or twice, but then I end up defeated and annoyed and I give up. Bean eats her pasta and I chalk up this crappy meal to toddlerhood.
Druckerman suggests to make food more interesting, not so much hiding vegetable in food a la Jessica Seinfeld, but to discuss the crunchy qualities of carrots or the tartness of lemons or the color of beets.
If I want Bean to eat everything, I must engage her more with the food that I'm trying to get her to eat. Bean didn't learn how to walk overnight. It took months of hesitant steps and her clumsily grasping at chairs or walls before she finally developed the confidence to walk with her two feet. Food should be the same way. It's not going to happen overnight, but eventually if I keep at it, she'll develop her own tastes beyond plain buttered noodles.
I can expect highs and lows. Just like with walking, she will stumble and fall and we'll have some successful meals and some very crappy ones. I have to trust her instincts too-that she will eat when she's hungry. Babies and toddlers have an automatic shut-off valve, unlike adults. When they are full, they stop eating. I don't want to override this by forcing Bean to eat her entire plate if she's no longer hungry. On the days that she doesn't eat well, I know she will find her calories in the copious amounts of milk that she drinks or the plate of fruit that I give her to finish every meal.
Bean surprised me two nights ago. I noticed Bean liked dipping fries in ketchup or pancakes in maple syrup so I made a dip for squash and cucumbers. I just mixed up some mayo, lemon juice, capers and cornichons (Bean loves pickles). I presented her with a plate of crunchy cucumbers, squash slices, swiss chard stems, sautéed asparagus and duck confit. My expectation was low. While she ate, we talked about our vegetable garden and what bunnies ate. We talked about how some vegetables were crunchy, and others were watery. We talked about the bright pink color of swiss chard. Bean ate the whole plate. Emboldened by this meal, last night I made salmon, sugar snap peas, asparagus, beans. Bean had three bites of salmon and then the head shake returned. No amount of coaxing could get her to eat more. She nodded along while I talked about the food, but her mouth remained firmly shut. My husband came home and I plated our dinner and she crawled onto his lap and ate some of the food off his plate, including the garlic aoili that I deemed to spicy for her delicate taste buds.
I will never understand what motivates Bean to eat some foods and not others. There are no hard and fast rules. She will continue to surprise me with her likes and dislikes. I can only do my best to provide her with food that I like to eat, and hopefully over time, she will share more and more of my likes. I'm trying to take a step back and not stress about meals. Already, my mood has changed. I'm more excited about giving her new food or making meals with her resting securely on my hip, savoring my time with her as much as I savor the food that we are preparing. And isn't that point?