I’m a pretty laid-back mom. My son doesn’t do a whole lot that really gets under my skin. Even when he unrolled and entire tube of toilet paper or pulled every conceivable hygiene product from beneath my bathroom sink or even when he started helping himself to kibble from our dog’s bowl—none of those things made me want to tear out chunks of my own hair.
But sit my kid down at the dinner table with me, and after about ten minutes I’m ready to grab that fish stick (or chicken nugget, or spoonful of mac & cheese or whatever other food he’s toying with instead of eating) and cram it into that angelic, condiment-covered face.
I don’t know when it happened, but sometime between my son’s first and second birthdays, he’s become quite the dinner-time challenge. We’ve tried all sorts of creative tactics to get him to willingly eat. For a while we tried to distract him with a TV show while we’d smuggle food into his gaping mouth and remind him to make like a train and chew-chew-chew. When that stopped working, we’d attempt to make him laugh, practically pulling muscles as we contorted our faces into whatever theatrical expressions would elicit a chuckle from our son, during which the one who wasn’t the designated jester would quickly stuff a morsel in his mouth. But that too lost its charm—the routine became exhausting for us, and as our son grew older, the stunts we needed to pull to achieve the same effect became more complex. At that rate, we’d have to be shooting ourselves out of a cannon by the time our son turned five.
And so for a time, every bite of dinner was the result of a long, calculated bargain.
Me: Have some broccoli, Rollie.
Me: Take a bite first.
Rollie: Juice please.
Me (broccoli-laden fork poised in front of his face): First take a bite.
Rollie: I want juice.
Me: You aren’t getting any juice until you take a bite of this yummy broccoli.
Rollie opens his mouth, then shuts it again as the offending broccoli approaches.
Me: Rollie, please just take this one bite and then you can have your juice.
Rollie: It’s too big.
Me: No it’s not, you can do it, just this one bite.
Rollie: No, it’s too big.
Me (after pruning the broccoli down to the size of a raisin): Here, that’s not too big. Now eat it.
Rollie opens his mouth and leans in for the bite. My shoulders relax as a smug sense of accomplishment washes over me. Then he shuts his mouth again.
Rollie: It’s too hot.
Me: There’s no way it’s too hot, Rol. It’s been sitting out for ten minutes. It’s probably cold now.
Rollie: It’s too cold.
Me: Well, I’m not heating it up—you should have eaten it ten minutes ago. Now take a bite.
Rollie: It’s yucky.
Me (sighing so heavily the force of it blows his napkin to the floor): Rollie, you ate broccoli just the other day and you loved it. You ate every bite of it and asked for more. You smiled and made yummy noises and laughed because you liked it so much. Now you are going to eat this bite of broccoli and you’re going to eat it NOW.
This will go one for several more rounds until finally, I’ll either threaten him with never giving him another drop of juice so long as we both shall live, or my husband will sense that I’m about to have a seriously meltdown, and he’ll intervene, all fresh-faced and different-approachied, making airplane noises with Rolllie’s fork, leaving me to retreat to the fridge for a much-needed adult beverage.
What I don’t understand is why my son’s resistance to ingest anything that isn’t in the shape of a goldfish or a hue not found in nature bothers me so much. He’s big for a two-year-old, energetic and fast. He never complains that he’s hungry, he’s hardly ever sick. He’s obviously getting his nutrients from somewhere. I don’t get it. Does he wait until everyone is sleeping, then raid the fridge, dining on heaps of vegetables and fruit, grains and lean meats, covering the entire food pyramid each night so he can subsist on grapes and air during the day? Or is he more like a camel, storing vitamins and minerals somewhere on his person, feeding off of them slowly through a self-induced famine?
All day long I go through a mental checklist of everything that’s passed my son’s lips, tallying up the calories, fats, proteins, vitamins, trying to determine if he needs to have applesauce for dessert (to round out his servings of fruits), of if he should have frozen yogurt instead (for calcium and protein). I expend more energy obsessing over his menu than I do actually preparing him anything.
Perhaps my son’s lack of appetite is my fault. Maybe I’m too accommodating. If he turns up his little button nose at spaghetti, I dig around for something I think he’ll accept. He seems to know this—he has no fear that he’ll starve if he refuses the first thing set before him. Maybe he should. Maybe the next time he looks from his plate of food to me like he’s about to call child protective services on me for serving such slop, I should simply remove his plate and tell him he’s not getting anything. That’ll teach him. Until he learns how to dial the phone and HRS comes knocking.