Every night, as a small child, my family’s dinner table was the front line of a years-long war over food. The battle cry? Three more bites…
On one side of the skirmish: my loving parents who counted out remaining forkfuls like prison sentences on a plate. On the other side of the pepper mill was me, the repeat picky eater.
My stomach may have been empty, but I was full of fear. One globule of drumstick fat or the slip of a slimy mushroom would be put me off a dish for months.
During those stressful stretches of mealtime, I longed for a big, shaggy dog, who would sit at my feet, sitcom-style, like a secret garbage disposal. Our cat, Jasmine T. Fluffy, eyed me pitilessly from a corner stool instead.
“You never see any children’s skeletons at the dinner table in the morning,” my off-color father had been known to quip. He was born during the first year of the Great Depression. And, together with my mom — raised with a World War II victory garden — represented distant food origin stories that were lost on me, their Reagan-era little girl who longed for Lucky Charms but was allowed only Chex. If we were locked in battle, Dad’s tactic was to wait.
Lots of meals ended with me alone under the glow of the kitchen table lamp. Much later in life, I realized it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s how.
In our household, Mom did the cooking. But our family’s fights weren’t over whether she was a good enough cook (she was exceptional). When her hard work arrived on my plate, tears were shed — and voices raised — over my inability to even try.
I say “arrived” because that’s how my mother’s kitchen functioned: a confident one-woman restaurant run from her brown electric stove. If a sign had hung in her window, it would have read: Help Not Wanted.
From the doorway, I watched her hands flutter over simmering pots and cutting-boards like those of a mysterious alchemist; “The Joy of Cooking” propped open to her spells. But, to a picky eater, this siloed ritual rendered every roast a dreaded mystery meat with unidentified sides and “touching” sauces on the plate as scary to me as UFOs.
Looking back, I wish I could have told her: let me come in and cook with you. Because the problem, I’ve learned, with modern mealtime is there are actually too few cooks in the kitchen. Especially kids.
I realized this as an adult when, once upon a dinner party conversation, I recounted that my favorite food growing up had been fried trout. My grilled cheese-loyal friends were impressed; what an adventurous eater I must have been!
But my father was a fly fisherman and would often let me wade into the frigid Rogue River alongside him. I would lay each catch inside his damp, grass-lined basket, then, when we got home, observed Mom clean and gut their silvery bodies in the sink. All of it was icky: unpleasant smells, foggy eyes and gooey bits. But I wanted fried trout all the time as a little girl — crispy fan tails and all.
Thinking back, the fear I often experienced with food was transformed into familiarity with this one meal. It was like being given a night light in a dark bedroom. By letting me dunk the fish in egg yolks and drag them through flour, the boogieman on my plate turned out to be a finger-licking favorite.
As an adult, I finally realized the searing failure one can feel when a loved one rejects your food. My mother, then in her late 60s and recovering from a stem cell transplant, became my charge. I was suddenly a childless parent, a caretaker consumed with Mom’s daily consumption of calories, protein and water. We lived in a bubble as her newborn immune system matured; I took over the grocery shopping and meal-planning. And with her strength sapped, Mom finally invited me into her kitchen for help.
There were some nights she would request a dish I’d prepare only for her to push it away. Her palate was a moving target depending on the drugs she took to survive. I fretted over her nourishment, trying to find anything that sounded good, seeing my frustration in her decades earlier. I wondered how she had mustered the patience and culinary creativity to get me through all those frozen bags of peas.
There was one thing she wanted all the time: chocolate milkshakes. Calories? Check. Nutritious? Nope. As her Nurse Ratched, I rebranded them as smoothies and remember when, between scoops of baking cocoa powder and whey protein, I slipped avocado and kale into the blender, too. As she watched all of the green going into her sweet treat, her eyes narrowed at me and she let out a frowny “yuck.” I bargained with her: taste it and will go to McDonald’s if it’s a dud. But it was a hit! Creamy and thick as her favorite drive-thru order.
I became addicted to winning over her taste buds. After all, we weren’t fighting a battle over food, we were fighting for her life.
A few years later, Mom passed away. And then, my father, too. Among their belongings, I have a box of family cookbooks and recipe cards that read like road maps I’ve never driven or even hitchhiked. All adventures I missed out on. I still don’t know how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey (as a pescatarian, I just shrug). And while I hate mayonnaise in tuna salad, I like an extra side of tartar sauce with my fish and chips. Culinary quirks only a mother would indulge.
As a picky eater, I am not entirely reformed. I have passionate likes and dislikes, but no more fear. I crave all vegetables, except eggplant. But I do love eggs (unlike Mom who despised them). My fussiness probably frazzles chefs, but in the last year, I’ve had to please only myself in the kitchen. Bon Appetit to my lone appetite.
I really want to tell my parents it all turned out okay. To be honest, I’d give anything to be at that dinner table again with them, baked zucchini rounds getting cool on my plate. Because the real joy of cooking is the eating together part — I just wish we had cooked together, too. Then dinnertime would have been more about counting memories made than bites not taken. More fried trout; less stalemates.
So, please, all you parents stuck in the kitchen: let your children in. Let them stir and grate and roll the dough. Let them lick the spoon and pour in the flour too quickly. Yes, it’s messier and maybe a little more time-consuming. But they won’t just learn how to cook, they’ll learn how to eat. Teach them a recipe for living. Inspire a lifetime of trying (for early palates, at least 10 to 15 times). Hey, salty tears are seasoning, too!
Erika is a writer, producer and co-creator of Waffles + Mochi, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and Netflix. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and their four-footed picky-eater, Hazel. Say “hi” at helloerika.com and listen to your vegetables with @wafflesandmochiofficial.
P.S. 7 tips for picky kids and how to encourage kids to eat vegetables.
(Photo by Marco Govel/Stocksy.)