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A Food Writer's Worst Nightmare: Her Picky Eater

My husband is going out tonight, and I’m doing a happy dance. Not because I don’t want to spend time with my beloved but because it means I don’t have to cook dinner. I plan to heat up a hot dog or two for my 8-year-old son with a handful of baby carrots alongside, and I couldn’t be happier.

Which is strange, since I’m a food writer.

I’m living no every food writers’ dream: parenting the world’s pickiest eater.

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Until he turned 2, I smugly believed I was doing things right. He ate everything! Pesto was my secret weapon. If he resisted a new food, I’d stir in a spoonful of basil-flecked, garlicky paste to win him over. Clearly, his omnivorous appetite was due to my superior parenting skills.

And then my precocious toddler reached a developmental milestone. He realized he had very little control over his life and began to grab it where he could, by refusing food he’d previously gobbled down.

Six years later, I’m scared to enter my kitchen. Not scared in the oh-my-god-ebola-in-New-York sense — more like the paralyzing, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t sense.

Image via Pascal

I’m scared to make a one-pot meal. My son’s pickiness is of the foods-can’t-touch variety. Pesto hasn’t been welcome on his plate since around 2008 — he takes his pasta with olive oil, period. He’ll eat chicken, but plain, with the icky seasoning on the outer layer trimmed off (I insist he does this himself, obvs). If it’s been cooked in a pot with some kind of sauce and — god forbid —vegetables, even the inner portion of chicken becomes suspect. Most nights I ignore this knowledge and forge ahead with what I’d like to cook, but a cloud of uncertainty lingers over the stove as I stir.

As much as I refuse to cater to him or play short-order cook, it stings when he rejects my food.

I’m scared to try a new spice. A few years ago I brought home a jar of Aleppo pepper, a fruity-hot relative of red pepper flakes from the Middle East. That little jar inspired me to come up with new recipes for things like Corn, Zucchini & Spicy Pesto Pizza and Roasted North African Ratatouille, but I haven’t added a new spice to my repertoire since. A jar of Ethiopian berbere, bought in a fit of optimism, gathers dust in the cabinet.

I’m scared to involve him in the process. If you have a picky kid, no doubt you’ve heard the maxim that kids who help prepare the food are more likely to eat it. My son wields a mean chef’s knife (last night he dispatched a small mountain of carrots and sweet potatoes) but he rarely eats what he cooks.

Sometimes I convince myself that if he has a say in what I’m cooking, he’ll probably eat it. I’ll try to brainstorm with him casually on the way home from school. “I’ve got some chicken defrosted, but I can’t decide what to do with it,” I’ll say. “Got any ideas?” It never fails: He either shrugs, uninterested, or engages in a lively conversation with me, tossing around ideas — and come dinnertime doesn’t eat the very thing he’s requested.

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I’m probably painting a more dire picture than the situation deserves. Life-threatening, this ain’t. We sit down almost every night for a family dinner, and I try to respect Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. Most of the time I just cook, and let my son decide whether and how much to eat. But the getting-ready part makes my pulse pound. As much as I refuse to cater to him or play short-order cook, it stings when he rejects my food. If I can just get it right, I think, I can avoid that pain.

As if it were possible to do parenting right.

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