The Kid Is All Right: In Defense of Picky Eating

On learning to accept your child's discriminating tastes, even when it hurts.

An illustration that shows making a cheese, ketchup and pickle sandwich in front of a microwave.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person who has never raised a picky eater knows exactly how to make other people’s children eat. Theirs is a special kind of wisdom, firm in its untested conviction, unsullied by something so banal as experience. Parents today are too accommodating, they will tell you, spoiling children by becoming their short-order cooks. Kids have too much access to junk food, anyway; give them a diet of roasted spelt and kombucha for a few weeks, and they will learn to appreciate real flavor. If children aren’t hungry enough: starve them. If they won’t try new foods: force them. After all, French children will politely eat everything served, including kidneys and bunny rabbits. If your kids don’t appreciate what you put on the table, it must be due to some moral failing on your part.

There is another approach, too, one that sees picky eating as part of the general malaise of Western, developed countries. It’s not the parents’ fault; it’s the culture. Doctors recommend weaning too late, depriving babies of the chance to grow accustomed to a variety of tastes. Industrially processed foods, with their flavor enhancers and artificial colors, dull children’s sensitivity to natural aromas. When in doubt, just blame plenty. It must be the luxury of being able to choose among so many different kinds of food that creates difficult eaters, finicky and unadventurous even into their adult years.

I regard these clever theories with bemused exasperation. These days, I’m the kind of woman who will try andouillette or saumagen on sheer principle, but for the first 12 years of my life, I categorically refused to eat most foods. For my parents, this posed a particular problem because, until I was six, we did not live in a land of excessive, enervating plenty. Romania in the early 1980s was brutalized by government austerity policies put in place so the nearly-bankrupt country could pay off its international debts. Given a second-chance loan by the International Monetary Fund, President Nicolae Ceausescu agreed to increase exports and decrease imports; in practice, this meant that the best fruits of Romanian agriculture were sold abroad, but few products were imported for the local market. Basic staples were rationed, and long lines became a standard part of daily life and fodder for dark political jokes. (You got in line first and only then asked what food was rumored to be available at the other end.) My parents stood outdoors for hours in sub-freezing temperatures to buy potatoes and meat, if they were lucky enough to still find some in the store. Faced with this hard-won fare, their wispy, sickly daughter clammed her mouth shut. None of their pleading or arguments mattered, nor did the fact that hunger shadowed the entire country: I would not eat.

At mealtimes, I squirmed in my seat, making excuses to escape. I hated milk in particular. I would not drink it cold, and could just barely get it down if it was warm, with honey stirred in, but not, of course, if it had developed a skin on top. The shock of slippery milk skin in one’s mouth is a reminder that even the coziest moments in life can be destroyed by the existential horror of reality, that a food so basic and soothing might easily become nauseating. (Soft-boiled eggs with jiggly, still-translucent whites teach a similar tragic lesson.) Meat was my other enemy, my opposition to it an outrage in a country where vegetarianism was basically unheard of. There is a scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which Andrea Martin’s character, Aunt Voula, reacts with surprise when she finds out the groom-to-be is vegetarian: “What do you mean, he don’t eat no meat? Oh, that’s okay, that’s okay. I make lamb.” That’s Romanian cooking in a nutshell, too.

When I think back on my childhood, I hear a chorus of voices trying to convince me of the deliciousness of some traditional preparation of a body part I had no intention of putting in my mouth. Piftie, a garlicky aspic made of pork feet, jaws, and ears; creier pane, chicken-fried veal brains; ciorba de burta, a sour tripe soup; boiled cockscomb (a special treat!); fudulii, bull testicles; toba, our version of headcheese. These were delicacies that older generations salivated over. But I found our daily fare almost as unpleasant: chicken stews cooked for hours, soups dotted with flaccid herbs, and ciulama, a gray, slimy dish of mushrooms or chicken in a sauce made of meat broth and flour. My father always thought he could make ciulama more appealing to me by calling it “chicken à la king,” as though the British royal family were eagerly waiting just outside our kitchen door, ready to finish up whatever I left behind.

My refusal to eat was a torment that spurred my entire family to heights of creativity and resourcefulness. My grandfather Mircea cut up tomatoes and slices of salami and arranged them into battle lines between us, like pawns in a chess game. He would attack one of my salami slices and eat it; I would boldly counteract by spearing one of his tomato soldiers with my fork and popping it in my mouth. My father had a different approach: He tried a starvation diet, allowing me to refuse meal after meal until, after about three days, I ravenously gulped down anything he put in front of me. My mother, he later said, was too soft to let him continue on this brilliant pedagogic path.

Because I remained unbearably skinny, a doctor advised my family that I should be taken to the mountains and given real, fatty cow’s milk to drink. My parents dutifully booked a holiday near a farm, and every morning they went down the hill and purchased a bottle of fresh milk, still warm and smelling of the beast. One bottle was all they could afford, and they lovingly placed it in front of me, hoping that I, their daughter, their sole heir and link to immortality, would gain a few kilos. Every morning I tried a sip and recoiled in disgust, and they eagerly drank the rest of the precious milk. When we returned to Bucharest, I was still pale and gaunt. My parents had both gained weight.

When I did show interest in a dish, my family would latch onto it with a kind of wild desperation I now recognize in myself when I try to feed my son. At one point during my childhood, both my grandmothers realized I liked tomato soup with noodles, that I would eat it without complaint—with relish, even. I went to Grandma Nadia and she made me tomato soup with noodles. The next week, visiting Grandma Sanda, I was served tomato soup with noodles. One week later, Nadia proudly put a bowl of tomato soup with noodles on the table in front of me. Unimpressed, I asked, “Don’t you two know how to make anything else?”

Looking back now, I understand all the things I said no to when I turned down a meal. I refused nourishment—especially protein-rich dairy and meat—in a country where consuming enough calories to thrive was a challenge for anyone not connected to a farm or to the Communist party. I refused a culture, too, one that practiced nose-to-tail eating long after mainstream American cooking had moved away from offal. I declined to join in on my parents’ pleasure, a long “no” that I kept repeating even after we had left Romania for Israel, then Canada. I still remember their glee when they made piftie, how the project of boiling up pig parts took up the entire kitchen and dining room, how the odor of garlicky gelatin wafted throughout the house, delighting them, revolting me. Even my nose preferred not to.

One such “no” I regret deeply. After the Romanian revolution opened the country’s borders, my mother’s parents visited us in Toronto. To celebrate, my family bought lobsters for everyone and boiled them in our small apartment kitchen. There is a photo of my grandfather tucking into his bright-red crustacean with well-earned gluttony, my beautiful grandmother beaming, and between them a prim girl with an empty plate, looking scornful and put-upon. I’ve had lobsters since then, but that was the one I should not have turned down. I did not understand how few years I would have left with my grandfather, nor what that particular luxury meant in the context of his life. It was probably his first and last lobster, and I chose not to share it with him.

There are generous theories to explain picky eating, ones that approach the problem with understanding rather than censure. One holds that picky children are asserting their power over the single thing they can control: what they put in their mouths. Another maintains that picky eaters are genetically disposed to taste bitterness more strongly. Or they are supertasters, more sensitive in childhood to all kinds of powerful flavors, even to sweetness. When children stop being fussy, they do so for mysterious reasons. Perhaps they are cajoled into tasting each ingredient enough times, finally hitting that magic number at which repulsive becomes delectable. Or their taste buds have dulled enough with age to bear bitter, sour, and sweet. If they are anything like I was, some develop canny strategies to eat more of the tastes that appeal to them, even if it requires venturing into the kitchen at an early age.

Over time, I developed a taste for unusual dishes of my own devising, bizarre combinations I would put together in my long periods alone as a latchkey kid. I covered slices of Wonder Bread with ketchup and fluorescent-orange Kraft cheese, nuked them, and pressed in cold bits of pickle and raw onion before eating. For years, I threw out my bologna sandwiches at school and went hungry, until I hit upon the idea of cutting open a massive onion bun, slathering it with cream cheese, layering tomato on top, and seasoning it generously. By lunchtime, the tomato juices had permeated the bread, the cream cheese had squished out into the sandwich bag, and the whole thing was a gloppy, stinky, salty mess that I found divine. My classmates thought my lunches gross, but I had learned from my parents how to enjoy my food even when others called it disgusting.

An illustration showing a cheese, ketchup and pickle sandwich being made in front of a microwave.

Illustrations: Annelise Capossela. 

Then, in my teens, a deeper hunger unfolded. I longed for meat, the redder the better, for steak and pork chops and liver. I became curious about what my friends were having at home, watching as their parents rolled out chapatis or unpacked blood jelly bought in the Scarborough Chinatown. Suburban Toronto was a good place for a teenager to discover she liked eating. My friends’ families introduced me to bamboo soup and latkes and chilled lobster. They welcomed me to Shabbat dinner and taught me how to say thank you for tea by tapping the table silently with two fingers. I tasted my first curries at parties thrown by my mom’s Indian boss. At home, I tried to make my own versions of the foods I liked eating out, subjecting my parents to over-ketchuped pad thai and passable agedashi tofu.

And my parents? Their cooking had become strangely interesting and rather more palatable to me over the years. I wasn’t going to be making pork aspic any time soon, but I paid close attention as they explained how to choose the right pickled cabbage leaves for cabbage rolls, how to take the bite out of onion for onion salad, how to treat roasted eggplant to remove the bitterness but keep the smoky aroma. In the space of a decade, I had gone from a boorish table companion to someone who had learned to relish both my native cuisine and the rich cosmopolitan offerings around me.

By the time I became pregnant, in my early 30s, I had forgotten my own early struggles with food and assumed I would give birth to a good eater. I ate a wide variety of foods while expecting, convinced that I was laying the biological groundwork for an adventurous palate. My son would not be encouraged to act enthusiastic about calf’s brains. Instead, he would have the best flavors that an industrialized Western country could put at his disposal, a panoply of international ingredients, some of which he was bound to find delicious. At first, he did. Like many babies, he gobbled up whatever was offered to him, happily grabbing at olives and onions and—his mother’s boy!—wakame. Inwardly, I preened. I was doing this right.

It all went swimmingly, until it didn’t. Around age two, he stopped eating most things. Plain rice, plain noodles, plain bread—these became his staples. Vegetables, but only raw and crunchy. Milk, but only on bare cornflakes or uncooked oatmeal. In a short space of time, he became one of those children, one just like little me.

Watching my son refuse food sometimes feels like payback for the trouble I caused my family. He is not polite in letting us know how revolting he finds a dish he has not even deigned to taste. I have lost much of the pleasure I used to take in cooking, frustrated by having my efforts in the kitchen treated with reliable disdain. His kindergarten teachers rave about his creativity and kindness, but then, with a lowering of the voice, remark on how poorly he eats compared with the other children. His grandparents prepare him meals out of special children’s cookbooks, and look on with barely disguised concern as he rejects the spinach lasagna or broccoli bake the author assured them would be a hit. My husband and I have taken to opening kids’ cookbooks, staring at the photos of Things That Are Not Plain Pasta, and laughing the hollow laugh of the defeated.

Still, the boy grows. He has boundless energy. He is clever and fun and loving. There is nothing visibly wrong with him. His doctor is unconcerned. When I see people try to cajole him into acting like a normal hungry child, I feel like I am the only person who really understands him, his one ally in a world of robust and unquestioning eaters. I know the frustration of being browbeaten into eating something with a texture or smell I couldn’t bear, of staring down a plate of unfinished food for hours. I recognize his stubbornness, the way he turns down even a food he loves if he feels he is being coerced. I resent that his eating habits so often overshadow his many good qualities, as though this one flaw weighed heavier in the balance than his curiosity, empathy, or devilish grin.

I, too, was defined by what I didn’t eat, by the one area in life in which I was not perfectly obedient. I, too, was encouraged to ignore my instincts and preferences at the table, urged to continue stuffing myself even when I felt full. I was taught to feel guilty about what I didn’t put in my mouth, and now I often feel guilty about what I do. As hard as it is to see my son turn down the food I want to share with him, I do not want the family table to be a battleground for his bodily autonomy.

Yes, picky eating is often a repudiation of family, of culture, of the basic tenets of politeness. But it also marks the formation of an individual taste. We tend to be uncomfortable with firm stances on quality, often for good reason: The word “judgmental” started out positive, but now carries an unpleasant aroma. Though my son turns down some foods I love and consider good, he also has a knack for tasting artificial flavors or combinations that are slightly off. He is ever critical, but only sometimes wrong. And his resistance to parental pressure forces him to be creative in finding things he does want to eat.

A while ago, I decided to make macaroni and cheese, the real kind, with béchamel and good cheese and crumbs baked golden on top. These were all ingredients he could tolerate, arranged into a classic kid-friendly dish, so my husband and I held out hope that it could be a meal our family could share. My son took an experimental nibble and, sensing our desperation, declared he didn’t like it. I thought he probably did, but tried to conceal my frustration and told him there was nothing else to eat for lunch. “Maybe...” he started musing, “ would taste better in bread.” My husband and I looked at each other, immediately grasped the face-saving strategies at play, and jumped to get the bread. My son went on to eat two mac and cheese sandwiches, happily explaining to us that he had improved the recipe.

In some parts of Romania, the last bit of food left on a plate is called rusinea, the shame. This morsel is the scandal of a child who turns down a meal bought with long labor and prepared with love. It represents the chagrin of parents who fail at the elemental task of nourishing their child. Shame binds the fussy child and her weary parents in the face of well-meaning relatives, teachers, friends, and doctors, all of them secure in their superior knowledge. It will take some flexibility and inventiveness, but one day, I hope we can have our dinner together and leave the shame behind.