Recently I made spaghetti for dinner. My husband and I had conventionally laden plates. My daughters, 3-year-old Lily and 2-year-old Camille, ate buttered spaghetti with meatballs on the side. My 3-year-old son, Jonah—well, Jonah did not.
Jonah ate two cream cheese and strawberry jam sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Rather than ingest them in the usual way, he peeled apart the halves and ate the open slices—two coated with cream cheese, the others coated with jam. He nibbled through the middle of each until he was left with C-shaped crusts. These he placed in neat stacks on the table.
Jonah wandered off to play with his train set wearing the satisfied expression of someone who has just consumed a 10-course meal at a four-star restaurant.
Toddlers are idiosyncratic by nature, and no aspect of their lives expresses their idiosyncrasies better than their food preferences. Their meals are as motley as their wardrobes. Just as I have taken my children to the post office wearing pajamas, cowboy boots, and a fleece scarf and hat (in August), so have I served them, at their insistence, meals consisting of cold baked beans, uncooked oatmeal, and a raw carrot.
I don’t police my children’s diets, beyond the most minimal nudges toward nutrition. This works perfectly with Lily, whose natural choices result in a balanced diet. She’ll belly up to the dinner table and gobble a portion of spinach and feta pie or a bean and rice burrito. She prizes the crunch of raw cauliflower and the sweet drip of watermelon.
Jonah’s tastes are different, though, more difficult to support. His idea of the perfect meal is a cream cheese and jam sandwich, some Ritz crackers, and a few slices of cheddar cheese. Other times he requests a cup of lime-flavored Yoplait yogurt with a glass of milk to wash it down. Balance is not a word in Jonah’s vocabulary. He fixates on a certain food and eats it ad nauseam. With the pitiful, infrequent exceptions of broccoli quiche and pumpkin bread, no vegetable has passed his lips for nearly two years.
And he wants his food the way he wants it. Yogurt must be served with the foil cap alongside, for licking. If the whole wheat bread has “crunchies”—nuts and seeds—in it, he’ll spit it out, gagging. Toast should be quartered, sandwiches sliced in half, waffles cut into tiny squares. Don’t ask me why; Jonah has these urges, but he can’t explain them.
It can’t be normal, I sometimes think, for someone to eat so few foods. It’s time-consuming, too: the worry, the provisioning. I test his fingernails for brittleness, watch him for signs of scurvy. I wonder if Jonah’s rigid eating habits are connected to his inability to share the train set at preschool. Will he always be so narrow-minded?
Sometimes I feel I’m conducting an experiment in how far one person can take his food fetishes. But I carry on. For one thing, I have come to believe that the foods we eat are an indication of our inner workings. Jonah asks for the same foods every day for a purpose, and it’s too early in his lifetime for me to divine that purpose. I’m trying to tread lightly until I understand more. I keep in mind the doctors’ oath: First, do no harm.
The other reason I continue serving Jonah his few foods and rarely prod him to try new ones is that his culinary eccentricities are not unfamiliar to me. For as long as I remember, I’ve been fetishistic about food myself.
My mother says that when I was 18 months old I spent weeks eating nothing but vegetable soup with cut-up hot dogs floating in it. Later, I gagged over the beef stew and pork chops the rest of my family enjoyed and often sat alone at the dinner table because I had refused to eat some vegetable.
Meat was my greatest bane, but I also hated zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green peppers, peaches, raisins, cheese other than American, spinach, whole wheat bread, dried apples, and the natural peanut butter my mother bought.
Onions seared my mouth, and broccoli tasted like garbage. I ate grapes only if they were small, firm, and still on the stem. I would eat pureed tomato sauce but nothing with chunks of tomatoes in it. I ate apples raw or in applesauce but not in pie or in cobbler.
I drove my parents nearly crazy. We never talked about it, but under my stubborn, unspoken I will not I will not I will not and my parents’ unspoken You will dwelt a distant, quiet, equally unspoken question: Why?
I never wondered until I became a mother myself. Watching other parents cajole or browbeat their finicky eaters, I knew immediately that I could not practice such persuasions on my own children. They had only made me more stubborn. They made Jonah more stubborn, too. Still, I wanted him to be healthy, and I wanted him to experience the pleasures of the table. In searching for ways around Jonah’s extreme culinary limitations, I began to think more about my own.
I was struggling against my parents’ authority in a classic way, but some greater issue was in play. The kind of eating I liked was private, strange, idiosyncratic. I did it less for the nourishment it provided than for the mental itch it scratched. Blowing bubbles in milk thrilled me. How high would the bubbles rise up before they spilled over the top of the glass? Sweet-salty ketchup on a yeasty hot dog roll made a chewy, soothing snack, and picking chocolate chips out of ice cream was as meditative a project as knitting.
I was a shy, intense, hypersensitive child whose senses worked overtime. Everywhere I looked something was too loud, too rough, too bitter or fibrous or bloody.
As it was for me, so it is for Jonah. He is not shy but he is intense, hypersensitive, plagued by bad dreams at night and—by day—the assault of wind, blaring music, people who speak to him without warning. Too much about the world tips his equilibrium; no wonder that at mealtimes he retreats to creamy white cheese, to cool smooth yogurt and syrup-soaked waffles. When the sun seems so bright it hurts your eyes and every slammed door startles you, food can offer a calming influence.
But it is possible to grow into the world, and it is possible to broaden one’s diet. When I left for college I came home eating not only broccoli, green peppers, and onions but also soy milk, tofu, and bulgur wheat. Away from home I had been able to search out my true tastes, and I declared myself a vegetarian as if I were coming out of the closet.
I am still idiosyncratic in my food preferences. My eating oddities have caused me to study up on food, to think about it, to value its role in my life beyond keeping my body moving.
I believe in food. I believe in the revivifying properties of a cold glass of orange juice in the morning. I believe that gazpacho can refresh a hot summer afternoon. A pot of spaghetti and a bottle of wine have allowed me to face strangers across the table without shyness, and a grilled cheese sandwich with a mug of tomato soup has soothed me when life seemed bleak.
I have come to believe that the food people put into their mouths is as private a matter as the thoughts in their heads. I sensed this as a child; I began to articulate it in college. In motherhood it has become my mantra: Don’t mess with your children’s food.
Recently I bought some tangelos, and I offered a couple to Lily and Camille. This was the first decent citrus fruit of the season, and my girls tore into them. It was a tangelo massacre. Jonah would rather use a tangelo as a baseball than as a food source. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, and no amount of persuasion will help him understand.
But he is not suffering. The things he likes eating, he loves. “Green yogurt! Green yogurt!” he cries when I take a carton from the refrigerator. “Waffles, please, Mom?” he begs at breakfast, as if I could surprise and delight him by stocking this one food.
Of course I stock it. It’s one of the five favorites. I give him a daily vitamin as a matter of course to help make up for what his diet lacks. But his confidence about food reassures me. Watching him take his trademark enormous mouthfuls—watching his urgency, his hunger, his enjoyment—I believe it is still a time for me to stand back. Someday he will grow beyond the narrow confines he has constructed for himself, and in the meantime nothing could compel me to fight with him over pork chops or mushrooms.
Elizabeth Roca lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland. Days after she completed this essay, Jonah asked for (and ate) a grilled cheese sandwich and some raisins. Reprinted from Brain, Child (Spring 2006), the magazine for “thinking mothers.”