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May 29, 2010

Parenting Imperfect: Like it or not, kids are in control of what they will "“ and won't "“ eat

Daily Star

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At dinner last night, the Boy refused to eat his grilled-cheese sandwich, which is his favorite meal ever. His reason was simple: The cheese was the wrong color.

No, the cheese was not green. Nor was it brown or blue. There was no fuzz on it, no penicillin cultures waiting to be harvested. It was perfectly fine cheese, frankly.

And, yet, we knew it was coming. As he was assembling the offending sandwich, my husband discovered that there was only one slice of American left in the refrigerator. Mozzarella was called in to pinch hit, sliced off of the cube in the cheese drawer.

"This won't fly, I bet," the Boy's dad said as he slid the grilled cheese onto a plate with some blueberries and a half-dozen cherry tomatoes.

It didn't. No matter how much we assured the Boy that white cheese still qualified as cheese, and that it was the exact same dairy product that is on pizza, which he loves, he would not, could not, eat it. Not even with a fox. Not even in a box.

I remember having a very similar conversation with his sister a few years ago. That time it was about fusilli being essentially the same as elbow macaroni, despite the fact that it looks a little different. I went into great detail about how an eater should not judge a pasta based on its appearance but by its taste. I consider it my homage to Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a dream" speech. Sadly, my "I have fusilli speech" was not recorded for posterity's sake.

And, no, she didn't eat the fusilli. Some prejudices are just too hard to overcome.

When they were babies, both kids ate pretty much anything in front of them, including small rocks and fistfuls of dirt. Eating was just so new then that any flavor and texture was welcomed. The baby Diva couldn't get enough sweet potatoes and peach chunks. The Boy was even more omnivorous and ate broccoli as well as lima beans.

I scoffed at parents who had picky eaters. My kids will never be like that, I judged. Look at all they eat! Those other parents just didn't do it right.

I can see myself in current parents of toddler-age kids who brag about how much their offspring loves arugula and kohlrabi. I have a fairly good idea what that kid will eat in five years and I strongly suspect that their parents will be aghast as well.

Because now, of course, I'm getting my comeuppance for thinking that my unfussy eaters would always remain so. Both kids still eat a remarkable variety of fruits and veggies, so there's that, at least. But once you get outside of their respective produce-eating spheres, which overlap only on blueberries and peas, you get into some pretty rough territory.

Protein seems to be the toughest nut to crack, no pun intended. The Diva will eat nuts, as long as they are dry-roasted but not honey-roasted. She'll eat cheese, including the extra-sharp Romano that my cultural heritage demands be freshly grated over pasta. She'll eat the occasional bean and the random meat in nugget form if the stars have all aligned and the moon is in the seventh house. Maybe.

The Boy's list is completely different from his sister, because otherwise it would be easy. No cheese, unless it is orange in a sandwich or white on pizza. Hot dogs, yes. Beans, never ever, despite the fact that not four weeks ago he could eat his own weight in kidneys if not stopped in time.

I understand part of what drives this pickiness. I remember what it's like to be small and have all of the big and medium-sized choices made for you. The adults say that you have to go to school, so you go. They say that you have to stop picking on your brother, so you stop. The large people give reasons but in the end they all come down to "because I said so" and "because being a grown-up is no fun at all."

Food is one of the few parts of a kid's life that the kid is in complete control of. While there may be consequences if a child chooses to not eat what's put in front of him or her _ hunger being the first one _ no one can force the food into the kid's belly if the kid is dead set on not eating it.

Which isn't to say that I enjoy all of the demands. I look forward to the day when both kids are old enough to make a peanut butter sandwich if that evening's meal is deemed substandard. I'm counting down the days until each can pack a lunch. Sometimes, like after the cheese incident, I imagine the time when the Boy can drive himself to the grocery, buy his own individually wrapped highly processed dairy food and fry it up in a pan.

At which point, he'll probably complain that we have the wrong kind of bread.

Adrienne Martini is a freelance writer, instructor at the State University College at Oneonta, mom to Maddy and Cory, wife to Scott and author of "Sweater Quest," which was published in March. Her columns can be found at