It’s noon on a Saturday, and the wife is at pilates. I am alone with my tormentor, and it is lunch time.
I take a slow breath, mutter a short prayer, and resume my pleading. I hear a wheedling desperation in my own voice and find it contemptible. My tormentor evidently agrees. He stares back at me with a pitiless, bored gaze. He wordlessly shakes his head, turns, and looks distractedly out the window.
Please, I whine, just one more try. It’s good, you’ll like it. You liked it two days ago, remember? Why don’t you like it now? Please just try it again?
My tormentor, all 35 pounds of him, inhales quietly, then sighs. He turns back to me, looks me in the eye, and utters the word which all along I knew he would.
No, I say, trying to sound calm. No no. You already had bacon for breakfast. Now it’s time for yummy pasta!
But this time it is said more firmly, laced with an inference of menace. It is the beginnings of a threat. This scares me, because I know how rapidly my tormentor’s apathy can turn into something altogether worse.
“Bay-gone. Bay-gone and waffle. Jacob want bay-gone and waffle.”
But Jacob, bacon and waffles is what we eat for breakfast! Now it’s lunch time, and I made this pasta with the meatball you liked two days ago, remember? Yum yum yum! (I’ve already resorted to “Yum yum yum”? This is the desperate patter of an idiot, and we both know it.) It is one third beef, one third pork, one third veal, I continue. There’s some pecorino romano in there, and a little parsley, and some lovely breadcrumbs! All top quality! I made it just for you. Here, I stammer whilst extending a miniature plastic spoon bearing a penne and fragment of meatball, let’s try again! Yum yum yum!
The response is a shout. “No pasta! Bay-gone! Bay-gone!” With an elegant, sweeping backhand he knocks the spoon from my hand. It careens onto the floor and the tears begin to flow. I’m a grown man, so the tears are not mine. At least the visible ones aren’t.
Welcome to feeding my 2 year old son. There are many trials of having a toddler in the house (the endless need for new shoes; the pain of stepping on a Lego block with bare feet; the poop which shows up in curious places), but I find feeding time infinitely the most stressful. I’m not very good at it. And my anxiety is clearly sensed by Jacob, so we become locked into a negative, downward loop.
The good news is that I think I know what’s wrong. It’s that I try too hard, and that I care too much what he eats. And because of this, I set expectations way above where they should be for a two year old. Maybe you are thinking, “how could you ever care too much about feeding your child”. But I’ve learned that actually Jacob responds best to an lackadaisical, shrugging, take-it-or-leave-it attitude in which my wife and the nanny are fluent, but which I find difficult. Instead, Jacob looks across his plate at me and sees a hand-wringing buffoon.
He doesn’t care whether the meatball is made with a precision blend of heritage pork, grass fed beef and humanely raised veal. All he cares about is whether he feels like cooperating today. And – because he’s a toddler, and toddlers are all contrarians by nature – he’s much less likely to cooperate if he thinks you really want him to.
I’m no child psychologist, but this much I know. When you are 2 years old, there’s nothing about your life which you can control. With one exception: you and you alone decide what you put in your mouth. So yes, meal times can quickly escalate into a power struggle, but one in which all the power is on one side of the table. If you come across as giving too much of a shit – as I do – you’ve already lost the game before the food has even touched the plate.
And if I’m being honest with myself, why do I really care so much about what Jacob eats? Of course there’s the primeval, instinctive urge for one’s progeny do not go hungry. But I think there’s a more modern impulse at play too, and that is vanity.
Truth be told, I don’t care too much whether Jacob becomes a gifted athlete. It would be great if he were, and I’d do everything to encourage it. But I was lousy at sports so it’s not that important to me. Same with being good at science, or playing the cello. But I will confess that it would give me enormous satisfaction if, when out for a meal with other kids, Jacob spurned the hot dogs and curly fries so coveted by his peers and instead looked up at the waiter and asked to try the venison. If this were to happen, I would faint with pride.
Will it ever turn out like this? Maybe, but definitely not if I try to force kale or pork belly or sashimi down his throat too early. Fact: 2 year olds (much like middle American adults) prefer things which are very sweet or very salty. Pressure a toddler too much with healthy things he doesn’t want, and you’ll surely wire him into perceiving food as a threat or a punishment. I believe Jacob is much more likely to grow up with a broad, curious palate if he feels that food is something to be enjoyed on his own terms rather than endured under duress.
So I have learned to change my ways. I – like every parent – do my best. I try to give him the green, bitter, fibrous things which are really good for him. And with enough trial and error, you find things that work. (If I sautée spinach with garlic and salt, he really likes it.) But mostly things don’t. In which case don’t push it, and give the kid a break. There have been times when, after a hostile lunchtime exchange and Jacob’s ultimate refusal to eat anything remotely nutritious, he and I have been so furious with one another that I’ve just said “screw it” and taken the kid to McDonalds and bought him Happy Meal. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does I’m at peace with that. I don’t see it as defeat, I see it as the sensible give & take of life.
Oh, one final thing. If ever you are sitting with other parents, and your kid is eating but theirs isn’t, do everyone a favour and be tactful about it. Mealtimes can be so very stressful, so boasting about the broadness of your brat’s culinary preferences when another child is acting up deserves nothing short of a punch in the face. So save it.
OK, recipe time. This is a way I have found for Jacob to eat pasta and broccoli. The bacon and cheese makes the dish sufficiently salty and cheesy that he may consider eating the vegetable. Unsurprisingly the novelty Teddy Bear pasta helps. He demands ketchup as an accompaniment, which is bit depressing, but what are you going to do?
You can buy this Teddy Bear pasta and many other distracting shapes from the Pasta Shoppe. Will your toddler like this? Who knows. Probably not. But it’s worth a try.
Teddy Bear Pasta with bacon, cheese and broccoli
Makes 2 child sized servings
- 2 cups of pasta
- 1/4 onion, or 1 shallot
- 1 slice of bacon
- 1/2 cup of brocolli heads, in small pieces, so they look like “little trees”. (Forget the broccoli stalks… your kid won’t eat them.)
- 1 tablespoon of finely grated pecorino romano cheese.
- 1 teaspoon butter.
Boil the pasta according to the instructions. Make sure it’s nicely soft, not al dente.
Meanwhile, cut the slice of bacon and into little pieces and begin the sautée in a little olive oil over a medium high heat.
After a few minutes, turn the heat down to medium low and add the onion / shallot.
Steam the broccoli in the microwave for a minute until soft but not mushy. Put aside.
When the pasta is done, drain, and check the pan with the bacon and onion. If there is too much bacon fat for your liking, drain it off. Add the pasta and steamed broccoli to the bacon and onion in the pan and sprinkle the tablespoon of grated pecorino romano. Add the blob of butter so that the whole dish is nice and smooth.
Serve with a side of ketchup if demanded.
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