This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.
By Lauren Apfel
Children, damn them, they need to eat. Every day. Multiple times a day. It sounds simple enough, one of those straightforward facts of life. But there is nothing simple about my children’s relationship with food. They always want more of it, without ever quite wanting what it is that I have available. Their insatiable appetites and focus on certain food groups to the exclusion of all others is nothing less than an albatross around my neck. It is my Sisyphean rock. The meatball I keep pushing up the hill that rolls right back down again…uneaten.
I will never truly understand the plight of the parents of bird-like children. The ones who pick delicately, listlessly at the contents of their plates, before asking to be freed from the prison that is the kitchen table. The ones who skip lunch or “forget” to ask for a snack. In our house, “nack” was among the first words ever uttered and “nack time” has not once passed by unnoticed. Blood sugar levels plummet to precariously low levels if more than a couple of hours go by without a top up. Dinner is getting earlier and earlier. One of my kids asked me to make it at 3:45pm the other day.
My husband and I recently put up double doors between our kitchen and our living room as a way to stuff the dam of our children’s constant demand for food. For in the absence of a physical barrier, they have been known to swirl in and out of the kitchen at will, eddies of unquenchable hunger, no matter what time of day it is, no matter when they have last been fed (No, you can’t have”breakfast dessert”). Out of sight, the theory goes, and therefore out of mind, because if the little buggers so much as see snack-food or sweets, they need to have it. And if they aren’t allowed it, they start to beg. And then they beg and beg and beg some more.
The older ones ask nicely, imploringly, steeling themselves for my wrath, which comes quick and hot if we are in touching distance of a main meal. They even offer to make it themselves. Just a bowl of cereal, Mom, a slice of toast. I’ll do it myself, Mom, and I won’t spill the milk this time! The younger ones alternate tacks. Either they whine until they wear me down into a nub of spinelessness. Or they approach me tentatively and whisper in my ear, as if the softness of their voices and the especially cherubic cast of their eyes will sway me in favor of the need for a third pack of organic cheese puffs in a row.
Set meal times, you say, of course that’s the answer. Clear limits on snacks. Be firm, be consistent. Make them wait, build the appetite. If they are hungry, they will eat anything! Don’t give them choices! Oh I know the litany of rules and oh how I’ve tried. But I have too many children now and there are too many variables and some nights I end up cooking four different versions of dinner, where “cooking,” you would realize rather swiftly if you saw me in action, is a euphemism for “cobbling together.” I like to think of theses disparate dinners as variations on a theme, because then it at least sounds artistic.
My nine year old, who is as thin as a wisp, eats more and more sophisticatedly than the rest of his siblings combined—I want a REAL dinner tonight, Mom, not just baby things smooshed together! My seven year old’s love affair with bread products and peanut butter and jelly (PbJ crumpet, anyone?) is matched only by his aversion to sauces. One four year old used to eat everything, but now relays a laundry list of fastidious requirements, as much as I assure her that, if fruit and vegetables were meant to be skinless, they would grow that way. The other four year old eats more than he used to, but ingests at a snail’s pace. Have you ever seen a child take on a single meal in eleven discrete stages?
Once, in the face of dinners left barely eaten and mitigating pleas of I’m not hungry, I had two of my kids sign a contract that they would not, under any circumstances, ask for more food for the rest of the night. If they truly weren’t hungry, I reasoned, this was a legitimate approach. And if I could get it on paper, surely it would stick. It goes without saying that I underestimated the three year old. 45 minutes later, with the foolproof logic only a toddler can muster, he was begging for chocolate, because he “really, really likes chocolate.”
Reader, I gave him the chocolate, and all was quiet.
Don’t judge me, this is what I live for. The calm born of full bellies that descends upon our house like a warm blanket, once dinner has been served. The high I experience when the grocery shopping is done for the week. The promise of a refrigerator stuffed with a sufficient variety of food to ensure that nobody will be bursting into tears at the mere sight of their plate.
And when all else fails, we hit the drive-through. Because I didn’t know that, on so many days, motherhood would feel tantamount to being a short order cook. Because I didn’t know that my favorite four words, both literally and metaphorically, would become: The kitchen is closed.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. If she could choose one task to assign to the parenting fairies, it would be mealtime. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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