There’s one in every crowd: The picky eater. The one who makes sure one food doesn’t touch another. The diner who blanches at the sight of anything green.
In my family, it’s my father, the quintessential meat-and-potatoes guy. Serve him a slab of meat and a side of potatoes, and dinner is gold.
Dress it up with a sauce or mix it together with other ingredients, and he will politely, but firmly, leave it untouched.
But even he has exceptions. As a hunter and fisherman, he will eat anything wild. There have been more than a few discussions at the dinner table about this logic. Elk, duck, halibut and venison all work for him. Asparagus and broccoli, onions and mushrooms, not so much.
Which may be why, in my childhood years, my mother rarely looked beyond the big three vegetables. Corn, peas or green beans rounded out every meal. Then again, those menus predated the surplus of fruit and vegetable choices we have today, so perhaps I can’t blame Dad and his quirks entirely for the simple nature of dinner so many years ago.
Despite these mealtime limits — or perhaps because of them — my siblings and I will eat anything set before us. More to the point — and here my father would shudder — we search out new flavors and experiences. Raw fish? Plantains? Cassoulet? Bring them on.
But as I said, there’s one in every crowd. Years later, when I gathered my own brood around the table, one child stood out, and not because he was a hearty eater. Yes, that picky gene had hit the next generation. Although the family was fed a varied diet driven by my recipe testing — one of the perks of having a food writer as head cook — he froze at the sight of anything new. Or green. Or mixed together.
“It’s simply a different kind of burger,” I would sigh as I served up a slice of meatloaf. He would pick out the onions, one by one, then scrape off the tomato sauce. As for his sisters, they ate everything.
On occasion, he would glance curiously at a hitherto-untasted food that someone had on a plate. “That looks kind of good,” I remember him saying as he noticed a toasted bagel, slathered in butter. But he couldn’t bring himself to try it.
We as parents like to think that we’re in charge at mealtime. That if we prepare a tasty, healthful meal, our family members will be grateful and eat every morsel and, well, lavish a little praise on us, too. I mean, we’re dreaming here, so let’s go all the way.
As new parents, we’re sure we can develop good eaters with a few simple culinary tricks, just as we’re unwavering in our belief that we can shape our kids into straight-A students or super athletes or whatever the goal may be by simply following some prescribed Rules of Good Parenting.
There’s no reason not to try, especially when it comes to feeding our children well. Their health and future adult eating patterns depend on it.
But the truth is kids come with their own personalities. Sometimes our plans work; sometimes they do not. At least not on our timetable.
Just out of high school, my son worked at an Asian restaurant, where he scooped up fried rice and chicken with broccoli for hungry diners. Only a few weeks into the job, he brought me a sample. “Have you ever tried chicken and broccoli? It’s really good,” he said with delight.
Ah, yes. Experience. That first bite of chicken and broccoli, so much more enticing from the commercial wok than at the family dinner table, led to more experimentation over the next few years — some of it quite bold — that involved onions, broccoli and Sriracha sauce. On his own, the picky eater had evolved into not-so-picky. Today he eats and cooks — you guessed it — just about everything.
But as I’ve said, there’s one in every crowd, and the next one in the family is pint-size. My preschool granddaughter picked up where her uncle left off. From the day she was born, she had a mind of her own, which wasn’t interested in food, much less variety. Her concerned mother kept a diary of the child’s daily food intake, an effort that seemed a bit extreme to me until I took over as baby sitter for a week. “How does this child survive?” I thought.
Then along came a new sister. This butterball of energy loved food from her first day. We wonder if there is anything this toddler won’t eat with a grin on her face.
There are all sorts of good reasons to feed your kids well and to offer a variety of new foods that, eventually, they will hopefully like.
It’s the “eventually” that can hang us up.
One of the rare foods I avoided over the years was mackerel, which did not appeal to me for some reason I no longer remember. On a recent trip to Japan with food journalists, I found that, by default, I ate mackerel every day for more than a week. This wasn’t planned on my part, but the fish appeared on the plate. I was a guest and couldn’t say no.
Much to my surprise, on my return home, I kept thinking about that mackerel. And wanting another taste.
It’s not only kids who need repetition to get comfortable with a new food.
As for those really picky eaters, some grow out of it and some do not.
At the end of the day, when the dishes are done and the crumbs are cleared, we love them both.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste.