My (relatively) omnivorous son

People ask me about it a lot and then last weekend three sets of parents inquired in the space of 36 hours. The question: How did my son get to be “such a good eater”?

First and foremost, full disclosure: There are things he will not eat. “Sandwiches” being the category that aggravates me the most for obvious lunch-packing reasons.

He also claims not to like “bread.” He will, however, attack a baguette like nobody’s business and, as once observed by Margo True when I was bemoaning his claiming to not like bread while gorging on pita and lavosh and and fougasse and naan and injera: “Why, he just likes ethnic flatbreads!

Tucking Into Spicy Mole

Tucking Into Spicy Mole

Yes, he loves his dim sum and sushi and tacos and tandoori fish and I’ve never seen him turn down a plate of ban chan – even the weird jiggly white fish-jello stuff – and he asks for second helpings of greens. He’ll eat abalone and foie gras and loves himself some raw oysters. But he will also eat all the sugary sweets he can get his hands on and craves chips of all sorts and wishes beyond hope to someday have a bag of Cheetos to call his own. He loves to fly because he gets ginger ale on the flight. And he loves Fridays because he gets to choose something from the ice cream cart chock full of neon-colored concoctions made to resemble Spiderman and Powergirls and Sponge Bob that lies in wait outside the school doors forcing parents to listen daily as their children beg for treats.

He is a human child, tempted by bright and shiny packaging and simple sugars and quick carbs and crispy fats. But yes, he is relatively omnivorous compared to plenty of other kindergardeners.

How did he get this way? Honestly, I’m not sure, but my hunch is that, along with a lot of luck, it is a combination of the following interconnected and overlapping factors:

1. Some kind of genetic or constitutional factor. He comes from a long line of hearty, adventurous eaters, which has to count for something.

2. He hasn’t been given a whole lot of choice. The meals he is served are the meals he is served, and the variance from eating what my dashing husband and I eat gets slimmer with each passing month. When he was younger I would more frequently pull out some plain noodles if a pasta dish had something in it I knew he didn’t like or scramble some eggs if dinner seemed particularly “challenging” (in particular, I remember understanding his lack of enthusiasm for a giant bowl of bright pink steaming borscht). I don’t do that anymore. I am not, as he has heard me say many a time, a short order cook. That said, I do take the whole family into account when making dinner. If I’m making a dish I know someone isn’t that into, I try to also make something I know they love.

3. He eats at fairly set times. There are the three meals a day and usually a morning snack and an afternoon snack. There is not much random snacking in between. When meal times come, he’s hungry and ready to eat.

4. He also eats at a set place. It’s called the dining table. I highly recommend it.

5. He has always been a good size for his age. He’s not chubby at all, but he’s always been solid. There is plenty of muscle on that boy. The notion of him skipping a meal never filled me with much worry, and that has allowed me to follow through on my claims of “that is what is for dinner, eat it or don’t.”

6. No one – at least not his parents – ever assumed he wouldn’t like something. Quite the opposite, my assumption is that if a foodstuff is tasty, he will like it. Hence, his experience of food has, since he was in utero, been a broad one. He had his first raw oyster at age two because all the grown-ups were so excited about them that he wanted to try one. Without someone telling him anything except “here you go,” he didn’t know it was an odd thing for a toddler to like. Of course, he then received a lot of very positive attention from everyone as he asked for a second and third and fourth oyster.

7. He lives in a city with lots of different kinds of food, so none of them ever seemed foreign or weird to him, much less like things kids wouldn’t eat. To him “chicken noodle soup” may include a matzoh ball, rice noodles, coconut milk, or arugula leaves. We bring him to eat where we want to eat, and we want to eat lots of different stuff. If you’re not a “good eater” how can your kid be one?

8. He has a parent with enough Midwest in her to be vaguely repulsed by both waste and notions of any of us being a hot house flower. You ordered crispy tacos and they come with guacamole on them and you “don’t like sauce”? Scrape it off and eat your tacos.

9. Same said parent is pretty repulsed by the whole notion of “kid food.” I find it insulting to kids and insulting to food. To me food is mainly something to be enjoyed, but that enjoyment goes beyond the signal between our taste buds and our brains. It includes the careful choosing and preparation of food, the sharing of food, and the conviviality of eating together. Why dumb it down and deny children the opportunity to experience it and learn to love it?

10. He lives in a food-centric world. I work in food. My dashing husband is into food. Ernest has visited farms and restaurants and test kitchens ever since he can remember. He even used to help out – snapping beans, shelling peas – in the Sunset test kitchen on those weird school holidays when I would drag him to work with me. He knows about food and where it comes from.* Maybe it’s the same for him as it is for me: knowledge creates interest and interest begets pleasure.

11. I have always firmly believed that my job as a parent is to somehow turn a completely dependent infant into a fully independent adult. It doesn’t always mesh with my more immediate desire to have a happy child in every particular moment, but that belief has gotten me through plenty of heart-breaking tears and maddening tantrums – including those around food and demands for more treats – by focusing on the big picture.

12. I also believe that sad parents, super-tired parents, completely over-extended parents, or just plain fed-up parents are not good for kids, so I try to avoid becoming one. We don’t actually have that many rules in our house, but those we do have are often for my convenience – and that includes the “that’s what’s for dinner” rule. Yes, eating at the table instead of being allowed to wonder the house with snacks is a good habit. It also means there is less cleaning to do. A three year-old can bus their own dishes and do an okay job of shucking corn. A four year-old can get their own water if you set things up right and their tiny fingers are perfect for peeling shrimp. A five year-old who drops rice all over the floor can help clean it up and can peel carrots and grate cheese perfectly serviceably. They can also set a table, more or less.

I don’t claim any or all of this is right for any other family or parent or child. Everyone figures out how to feed their own child. I have been asked how we have “such a good eater” and these are simply the explanations that come to mind. If anyone finds it useful, that’s great. And if I sound like a bit of a mean mommy? I’m cool with that.

Did I miss something? What are you doing to raise a relatively omnivorous child?

* Just recently, when we went strawberry picking, Ernest was hoping there would be chickens at the farm. He waxed poetic about his past interactions with chickens and how he can pick them up and pet them and how much he wishes we could get chickens. Then he paused, looked up, and said with absolute glee “Mama, and you know what? Chicken is also my favorite meat!” It reminded me of the time he was three, gnawing on a frog leg at a French bistro in Portland, and he asked in a tone of half “ah-ha” and half “no, that can’t be right”, “Mama, is this the leg of a frog?” I told him indeed it was, worried that he might be upset. He just nodded and went on eating the tender, succulent meat.

Want more? Check out Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater.