Friday, June 1, 2012

The Devil's Kibble



We went to visit my extended family in southwest Missouri over Memorial Day weekend and our travel couldn't have gone smoother. Our flight was direct, nonstop, and on time. Our rental car was fast, comfortable, and easy to drive. Most important, our five-year-old was well-behaved on the plane, and, except for a minor meltdown directly followed by a nap, in good spirits in the rental car. It seemed that our little friend had graduated to being a somewhat easy travel companion, and we allowed ourselves to fantasize about other, more exotic trips we might soon take with him.

Those hopes were soon dashed, however, as we pulled off the highway and realized that we'd have to make a quick stop at Wal-Mart before arriving at my grandmother's, because we knew to a certainty that she wouldn't have anything on hand that the boy would eat in a million years.

To say that this kid is a picky eater is like saying Jimi Hendrix was a guitar player. Though we did our best when he was a baby to expose him to all kinds of foods, he only liked a small fraction of what we gave him: bananas, cheese ravioli, fish sticks, chicken tenders, apple slices, veggie burgers, mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese, yogurt, cereal, and (of course) pizza.

That is a very limited diet, and we worried that it wasn't balanced enough, but at least there was seven days' worth of meals there, so he was eating something different every day. But at some point, things started coming off the menu. Bananas were first: after eating them almost every day for a couple of years, he was suddenly repulsed by them. Then ravioli, a dependable dinner staple, could only be depended on to get spit back into the bowl. Then apple slices got the hook, and peanut butter wasn't far behind.

I could feel my chest constricting when he started poking at his pizza and pulling the cheese off. Our go-to, our rock, frozen pizza, in danger? We put it on the bench and put in veggie burgers, which he'd always loved, though not without a strange little quirk: every time I gave him a veggie burger he'd scream and cry and protest that it's not what he wanted. Every time I'd eventually persuade him to have one bite, and every time he'd declare it yummy and then go to town on it. Eventually I shot a video of him enjoying a veggie burger with my phone so I could show it to him every time I served him one, but even that wasn't enough to keep him from eventually declaring them yucky.

It wasn't long before his diet was down to buttered toast in the morning, a grilled cheese for lunch, and either fish sticks or chicken tenders for dinner. Every day. EVERY. DAY.

Let me tell you what kind of person we're dealing with here: After refusing, in rising tones, every bona-fide healthy, questionably healthy, and obviously unhealthy but at least DIFFERENT option his mother suggested, she'd give in and accede to his demands for buttered toast. The butter would melt on the toast, sometimes as it sat in front of him on the table, sometimes before it got there, and he'd protest that it had no butter on it and was therefore inedible. If you have never tried to explain the concept of butter melting into bread to a screaming three-year-old, let me just say I envy you. For a period of about six months, my alarm clock was rendered superfluous as I woke each day to high-pitched screams about NO BUTTER and my wife's helpless, infinitely patient insistence to the contrary. In these circumstances, there is no right side of the bed to get up on.

He's mellowed a little since then, and there are no longer any screaming matches at breakfast, mostly because his mother has settled him into a routine of cereal and/or toast and possibly a (Trix) yogurt, and mostly stopped bothering him to try a strawberry ("you loved them nine days ago!") or an orange ("it tastes exactly like orange juice! You like orange juice!") or a banana ("THE ONLY FUCKING THING YOU ATE FOR EIGHT MONTHS WAS FUCKING BANANAS NOW EAT SOME BEFORE I SHOVE THEM DOWN YOUR STUPID LITTLE THROAT."). She kept the cereals semi-healthy (Life, Chex, Cheerios, and their all-organic Food Coop counterparts) but made the strategic blunder of rewarding him for good behavior with a box of Lucky Charms, which immediately became the Alpha and Omega of his entire existence; when his sixth or seventh box ran out a few days later, suffice it to say he did not take it well, and his mother suffered multiple contusions on her legs and hips. Once we banned the Lucky Charms -- or as we came to call them, The Devil's Kibble -- from the cupboard, things got back to normal and breakfast went back to being relatively easy, the boy alternating between toast and plain cereals.

Lunch is a crapshoot. His mother packs him a sandwich -- jelly on whole wheat, now that he's scratched grilled cheese off the menu -- plus a couple of strawberries and a handful of Goldfish crackers, and at least two days a week this lunch makes it back to the house unopened and uneaten.

As for dinner, as I mentioned he's down to chicken tenders and fish sticks, split about 70/30 in favor of the fish sticks. While that's an appallingly narrow diet, we comfort ourselves in the idea that fish is "brain food" (I'm sure I heard that somewhere) and if he's got to subsist almost entirely on one thing, at least it's not hot dogs or cotton candy or something. These are the pathetic stories one must tell oneself in order to parent.

Anyway, as we pulled into the teeny-tiny Missouri town where dinner was waiting on the stove for us at my grandmother's house, we had to stop at Wal-Mart, because no matter what was on the stove, we knew with a grim resignation that the boy wouldn't eat it.

Here's a question you might be asking yourself, and that I've asked myself, and that I've asked my wife about a hundred thousand times, usually through clenched teeth: So what if he doesn't eat? You make him whatever you make him and if he doesn't like it tough shit! It's not like he's going to starve to death. Let him go to bed hungry a time or two and maybe he'll be a little more adventurous next time!
Unfortunately, he seems to be one of those people -- like for example his mother, and come to think of it, his father (what are the odds?) -- whose mood shifts dramatically with his blood sugar levels -- we can tell when he's hungry before he even knows it, because that's when he turns into Demon Boy, disagreeable, argumentative, teetering on one rusty ice skate at the precipice of emotional collapse. That is not the state we want him in for our family reunion -- my cousins and aunts and uncles haven't seen him since he was a baby, and he's now the oldest of seven great-grandchildren visiting my grandmother -- so we've got to feed him something, so into Wal-Mart we trudge in search of fish sticks and chicken tenders.

Sounds easy enough, but of course -- and if you don't know where this is headed, I would love to co-star in a body-switch movie with you -- it's not enough to get fish sticks and chicken tenders, they have to be the RIGHT KIND of fish sticks and chicken tenders, the kind he's familiar with. Which is why it's particularly inconvenient that like good little Brooklyn center-left pseudo-citizens, we do our shopping at the Park Slope Food Coop, where only grass-fed, free-range, karmically pure, pesticide-free, no-GMO, yoga-practicing chicken tenders and fish sticks with aligned chakras are sold, and there's nothing close at the Wal-Mart (which put the other two reasonably-sized grocery stores in my grandmother's town out of business, God bless the free market). So I buy a frozen pizza, which is also unfamiliar -- Wal-Mart doesn't have Amy's Organics, if you can believe that -- but seems to be the best bet. (They don't have any minced fish sticks, just the filets, which are unacceptable, and when I reach for a big bag of frozen chicken tenders, he and his mother say in unison "He doesn't like those"/"I don't like those.")

He ends up turning up his nose at the frozen pizza, of course, when I cook it an hour later, and for the rest of our three-day visit he subsists entirely on Honey Nut Cheerios, which he spotted on top of my grandmother's fridge on arrival and which we banned from our house three years ago when, shortly after they came into his life and foreshadowing the Lucky Charms Siege of 2011, he started shriekingly demanding them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We decide just to go with the flow on this and let him live on Honey Nut Cheerios for the weekend if he wants to, as he's otherwise behaving beautifully, adapting to the role of Oldest Kid in the Family with aplomb and generally having a great time, and we don't want to wreck that with a Dinner Scene.

You know: A Dinner Scene:

INT. KITCHEN TABLE -- TWILIGHT.
MOMMY and DADDY sit on either side of HENRY, 5, at the small square table.

MOMMY
Just try one bite.

HENRY
I don't like it.

DADDY
How do you know you don't
like it?

MOMMY
Did you try it?

HENRY
No. I don't like it.

DADDY
But you didn't try it!

HENRY
I want cereal.


DADDY
Mommy didn't make you cereal,
she made you this.

MOMMY
How about some yogurt?

HENRY
Yogurt with honey?

MOMMY
All right!

DADDY
You can have yogurt with honey if you
eat one bite of your dinner.

HENRY
Mommy said I could have yogurt!

DADDY
If you eat one bite of your dinner! This is
ridiculous!

HENRY
(screams, weeps, lashes out physically)

MOMMY
(to Daddy)
I really need you to read this book.

Daddy k
ills them both with a hammer.



Small problem with letting him live on Honey Nut Cheerios: right after dinner the last two nights we were there, he complained of stomach pains and then suffered about an hour of painful gassy diarrhea just before bedtime. Guess what happened then? Honey Nut Cheerios came off the menu and he didn't eat anything at all for the rest of the trip.

So now we're back from Missouri, and he's settled semi-comfortably back into his routine, though, weirdly, he still didn't want to eat dinner the night we got back despite his three-day Cheerio fast, and he threw a fit when we ordered a Grandma's style pizza last night instead of regular pizza ("you liked Grandma's pizza four and a half weeks ago!"). It's clear we've got to do something about this. Not because we're worried about his nutrition, or that he'll starve or something (has any kid in the history of America ever starved himself?), but because this situation has made it very difficult for us to go anywhere. Because let's be honest, concerns about rickets or malnutrition are abstract -- Whether or not we can go to someone's remote summer cabin is real life. When we find ourselves discussing the logistics of transporting frozen fish sticks on a commercial flight, that's real life. He's ruining our real life!

Of course, this is only our latest in a long series of resolutions to Do Something About This. Our most successful previous effort to get him to try new foods was when I drew a grid with ten squares on it and told the boy that for every new food he tried, I'd put an X in a box, and once he got to ten, we'd let him watch Star Wars. He did it, he got to see the movie, and then he did it twice more for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, for a total of 30 new foods tried. This seemed like a triumph, and I crowed to my wife that I was a genius, for this plan had been my idea and she'd been more than a little skeptical.

Not one of the 30 new foods he tried stuck -- when offered again, he turned his nose up at each and every one of them. A year or so before that, we made the mistake of telling him he could have a treat (a cup of chocolate pudding, a cookie, a brownie, something like that) if he finished his dinner. Because even when we give him something he likes, he takes about 24 years to eat it.

That resulted, naturally, in a couple of pink pages for the Dinner Scene:

INT. DINNER TABLE -- TWILIGHT.
MOMMY and DADDY sit on either side of HENRY, 5, at the small square table.

MOMMY
Eat your dinner, Henry.

DADDY
We've been sitting here for forty minutes.

HENRY
It's yucky.

DADDY
It's fish sticks! If they're yucky it's
because they're cold!

MOMMY
Just eat it. You have five minutes to eat it.

HENRY
If I eat it can I have a treat?

MOMMY
Yes.

HENRY
How much do I have to eat?

MOMMY
Two of them.

HENRY
I don't like this one.

MOMMY
So eat one of the other ones.

DADDY
What's wrong with this one?

HENRY
It's yucky.

MOMMY
It's split, some of the breading came off.

DADDY
It's the same thing! There's no way you'd
ever notice that if you were blindfolded.

MOMMY
Should I get the blindfold?

HENRY
Now can I have a treat?

DADDY
You ate one. You have to eat two.

HENRY
   (crying)
Mommy said I could eat one of the
other ones!

MOMMY
I said you have to eat two.

HENRY
If I eat two can I have a treat?

DADDY
Yes!

HENRY
I need more ketchup.


DADDY
I'm going out for cigarettes.



Mommy kills him with a rusty pipe wrench.


It's a disaster, and we're running out of ideas. You can lead a kid to celery, but you absolutely cannot make him eat it.  My wife, for her part, is diligently searching the Internet for the book that will Change Our Lives and Teach Us How To Parent, as she has with each big parenting obstacle we've faced up to now. She's got a pretty good batting average with this method, so I'm trying to have faith.

Meanwhile, I have to try and suppress my hatred of people whose kids just eat anything. A six-year-old of my acquaintance actually prefers vegetables to all other foods, Henry's best friend Zeke and to an even greater extent Zeke's little brother Jack will eat anything and they just prance around in front of us eating anything and it makes me NUTS. I actually saw red when my 2-year-old nephew ate fried chicken gizzards when we were in Missouri while I tried in vain to get Henry to try some onion rings ("Onion rings! Look at these photos of you eating onion rings!") after he had rejected the delicious chicken tenders he'd ordered ("They're chicken tenders! You like chicken tenders! You eat chicken tenders no fewer than three nights a week! I will sign over the deed to our house to you right now if you will eat one bite of deep-fried chicken! What do you mean, Mommy went out for cigarettes?").


5 comments:

  1. Alex, you're brilliant man. I'm sure I'll still be a father some day, but I'll walk into it a little more clear eyed for your commentary. Thanks for the laughs at your expense.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was a very picky eater as a kid: nothing with peanut butter, nothing with any tomato in it (including sauce, so no pizza and only spaghetti with Parmesan cheese, etc.), etc. Obviously not as picky as Henry, but still a royal pain to my parents I'm sure.

    My parents did a bit of good cop/bad cop (unintentionally, as my mom was a lot more empathetic and my dad a lot more "Just eat it..."), but time, peer pressure, and the threat of starvation was eventually what did it.

    To wit: they'd do their best to cede to my demands, but after that they would just let me starve if I didn't eat. Eventually and very begrudgingly - I'm pretty damn stubborn and always have been - I would eat because I got hungry. I was still picky, but some sort of weird truce was reached where they put forth a good faith effort and I gave in.

    So maybe you just have to be more stubborn? And when he has a meltdown due to low blood sugar just give him the warning that it's going to be bedtime if he doesn't eat, and then stick to it? Not fun, but you have to draw the line and come to some sort of truce, and right now he's got all the aces because you're trying to satisfy him.

    I think it was around age 12 when I finally deigned to try pizza, mainly because I had grown tired of everyone else around me eating it for 8 or 9 years and me having to either eat something else or just have cheese melted on my english muffin when they made English muffin mini-pizzas at school.

    At age 15 or so I started eating more food in general (puberty, sports, and general appetite) and in college a flip finally switched and I said "Why am I limiting myself? I'm hungry...I'll try it."

    That's not to say I wasn't plowing through a box of vanilla wafers or a huge bag of doritos every three days when I was in Middle & High School (that and all the soda couldn't have been good for me) but somehow I survived and stayed skinny.

    And I sometimes think of what a pain in the ass I was to my parents with regret, but all I can do is acknowledge it and be thankful they were as understanding as they were...

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would not normally comment on something like this because every parent knows what other parents are doing wrong and it's horribly obnoxious, so I will try to keep this very general:

    It sounds like you have two problems: he is picky, and mealtimes are a horrible mix of stress and control fights. I recommend trying to tackle these issues separately, with the control being the most important. Whether that involves giving him whatever he wants, or letting him go without food (only possibly at home, I know) or giving him a strict two choices at every meal -- solving the pickiness is going to be nigh impossible if every food is a fight. Enlist your family doctor to see if they are worried about potential health risks of letting him skip more than a few meals for a week, but more than likely, getting over the control struggle would be worth it in the long run, and kids are really amazingly resilient in terms of health.

    Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Alex, that was brilliant! I relate, man; my eight year-old is very similar. Hope you're well. --Jerry from ZDTV

    ReplyDelete
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