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Getting over picky

Yesterday's project was a serious strawberry harvest, and today I'll make lots and lots of jam - 50 pints, I estimate.

Strawberry is the univeral favorite among the kids, so we grow lots. The kids helped (hindered ;-)) with the picking in their own inimicable ways.

Eli plopped himself down on the straw and began a two-fisted strawberry eating project, with an occasional languid toss of one into a basket.

Isaiah took his bucket and began a quest for only the biggest, reddest, ripest strawberries, which meant his picking rate was about 6 an hour, 4 of which were promptly eaten.

Asher likes to pick, but by the time the strawberries get from his little hands to the bucket, they often must be discretely disposed of, while lavish praise for helping is dispensed.

Only Simon really picks at this stage, and he takes great pleasure in bossing people around while he does it. "Don't step there, Eli, you'll squish the strawberries." "Isaiah, no eating!" (Here Mommy intervenes to say that Eli is fine and so is eating - her mouth is full, so she's no hypocrite ;-). And when Asher accidentally ate a green strawberry and said "yuk," Simon erupted in outrage "No saying yuk!"

Now this last is a firm rule in our household, although there are exceptions for babies eating truly gross things like green strawberries or dog food (don't ask). But my kids are powerfully enjoined never, ever to complain that food is "yucky" or "gross." They can say "this isn't my favorite." They can say, "no, thank you." They are not required to eat anything they don't like (although seconds and dessert, if any, depend on reasonable eating). But the first "ugh" or "yuk" gets you a very stern warning, and a second means you leave the table and don't eat again until your next meal. The same is true about discussing food that is not present in the same terms. None of my children have ever had to have this happen more than once.

This rule also applies to regularly visiting other children who I babysit for, and has been applied by Isaiah (to Mommy's horror and embarassment) to a visiting guest who was describing a meal she strongly disliked. And while we had a long talk afterwards about how being a good host and not embarassing guests or making them uncomfortable, I've never been sorry about this rule. My children can recite our reasoning as well, "This is very important to Mommy. All her jobs are about making other people have enough to eat, so we don't waste food and we don't say mean things about it, and we do say a blessing before we eat."

The world is a hungry place. Millions of people world wide don't get enough food - 2 billion are food insecure, including millions in our own country. Hunger and its associated illnesses kill millions of people every day. Saying "gross" to food that is good for you, nutritious and just doesn't happen to suit your palate seems to me to be wrong. Everyone has food preferences - but the notion that there's an inherent ickiness to anything someone considers food is just wrong - or rather, it isn't anything more disgusting that what you eat.

Seriously, think about it. Grossed out by someone who eats organ meats? Why is muscle tissue somehow nicer? Don't like the idea of fermented, spiced kimchi? But you eat the coagulated milk of live animals as cheese? Grossed out by vegemite? Well, other people think peanut butter is just as vile. You eat pringles, and you want to tell someone their rutabagas are bad ;-)?

Me, I don't like anything gelatinous (no aspic) and I avoid soft boiled eggs. Never acquired a taste for vegemite, and I'm only so-so about chocolate (I like adulterated with other things, like peanut butter and fruit, and in milk form - people who are serious chocolate people tell me this is heresy). I keep kosher at home, and won't eat non-kosher animals when out, and I try to eat sustainably whenever possible, although I don't bitch when I'm a guest somewhere else. But I don't find anything wrong with the things I don't eat, and there are circumstances in which I would eat all of them. Visiting a distant connection on Java, for example, we were fed an elaborate meal by a very poor family. I'm still not totally clear on what sea animal was involved, although I'm sure it wasn't kosher - but it was delicious, and offered with generosity and kindness.

I'm one of the less-picky people on the planet. I've eaten things in my travels that ordinarily get a chorus of "EWW!" - and liked many of them. My husband is similar, and together we've managed to raise four comparatively unpicky kids. A lot of this is sheer luck - you spin your wheel, you take your chances. For example, we have an autistic son, and autistic children are notoriously poor eaters, often because they have strong sensory issues with food textures and smells. Eli is a spectacularly good eater by autistic standards (actually, compared to many of my friends' kids he's a spectacularly good eater, although there are things he avoids, like cheese) This is a huge advantage in our quest to cut emissions and eat sustainably - because it means that we can truly take advantage of what is fresh, local and in-season. Some of it, however, I think is a product of two things. We eat everything. And we garden.

I was talking strawberries to a friend of mine the other day, and she was saying she buys them all year 'round for her daughter because they and bananas are the only fruits her daughter will eat. We, on the other hand, eat strawberries like mad for a month in June, and then enjoy dried strawberries, strawberry sauce and strawberry jam until the next year's harvest. When the first strawberries come in, everyone eats the few bites with reverence. A few days later, when there are enough, we gorge until the juice pours down our faces. By the end of the month, we've eaten strawberries every day, canned dozens of jars of jam, lived with the scent of dehydrating strawberries, and we're ready for something else. And here come cherries, peaches, plums, raspberries and blueberries to take up the slack.

But, of course, my children *eat* cherries, peaches, plums, raspberries and blueberries. But a child who eats only strawberries and bananas can't eat a seasonal diet - even imagining a modest importation of bananas, that's a tough, fruit-free life. And since this child also doesn't eat whole grains, chicken in non-nugget forms, greens, peppers, carrots, broccoli or any vegetables other than corn, peas and cucumbers, that lack of fruit is a real problem, health wise.

And why doesn't this sweet little girl eat any fruit? Well it is possible that there's a real underlying issue to her pickiness - that she has sensory issues, unrecognized food allergies or some other deep reason. But I know her family well enough to guess not - I'm guessing the root is simply that her Mom is a picky eater too. Her Mom doesn't eat cranberries, eggplant or beans of any kind, squash, sweet potatoes, any cheese but cream, brown rice, brown bread, or drink unflavored beverages (ie, water). And Mom, perhaps because she too knows the pain of eating something she doesn't like, doesn't require her kids to try things, and gently passes along her own prejudices. When they came to dinner, older child would eat only plain rice (white) or pasta (also white) at my house, and they would ask me to produce a seperate bowl of these, even if they weren't on the menu. Now I'm big on guests being curteous to hosts, so I did, but there was some discreet eye-rolling.

Now I'm not talking here about food allergies, medical conditions or religious and ethical scruples, or distaste for stuff we shouldn't be eating anyway (hostess snowball prejudices are good with me) but about garden variety pickiness, the "I just don't like it." And most (not all!) of the picky kids I know come from picky parents, or non-picky parents who make food into one of the BIG DEALS. I've never met a little kid whose parents made a big thing about not liking things who didn't do the same, or one whose parents scrutinized every bite and worried a lot about it (and again, I'm not talking about people with medically fragile kids who need to worry about these things) who didn't appear, at some point to have thought "Cool, found a button to push - fun!"

The thing is, most picky parents don't really admit the connection. A friend of mine's son suddenly went from eating all vegetables to nearly none, but his Dad ardently denies it has any connection to the fact that Daddy only eats lettuce and peppers. Friends of mine wince when their kid complains about the food at my house (and no, not because we make a big deal about it - they don't even know about our rule), but I've heard the mother say, "No, honey, you won't like that. I'll get you something else." Hmmm...

I'm going to take the risk of ticking a lot of people off by saying that at least 80% of food pickiness in the absence of aggravating conditions (sensory stuff, toddlerhood, etc...) is of parental creation. We're tolerating it, even encouraging it - and there's a real and serious price. We've somehow got the wacky idea that their health is less important than that they screw up their courage and eat some brown rice. Yes, it is fine to hate lima beans. Everyone is allowed a couple of things they don't eat simply because they don't want to. But if you also don't eat tepary beans, black beans, soy beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans, along with 20 or 30 other things, you've cut signficantly back on your ability to adapt to a changing world and diet. Dealing with children's picky eating, which is really important, starts with dealing with adult pickiness.

In children, elderly people and the sick, this can actually be fatal. Studies done in World War II Britain on dietary changes caused by the war showed that young children, elderly people and sick people will, when confronted with a major, sudden, crisis induced dietary change will simply stop eating - the medical term is "appetite fatigue" and it is real and serious phenomenon. Most of them eventually adapted, but periods of malnutrition can have long term consequences for babies, young children and people made vulnerable by illness and disability. And sometimes people just died, unable to make dietary adaptations.

So (and g-d forbid) given a situation where favorite foods became suddenly unavailable, people in your family who don't have a wide-ranging diet, particularly one of foods that are often available without trucking, could really suffer from this. The solution is to get used to eating your local diet now - while also trying lots of new things - new grains, new tastes, new ways of eating things, particularly those that suit your area.

It certainly reduces your ability to eat locally and sustainably if you are a picky eater. You can join a CSA, but you are likely to get a basket full of things that you don't want to eat sometimes - maybe if you have a friend whose pickiness is a perfect mirror image of yours it would work, but otherwise, it means wasting food. You can grow a garden, but a lot of the best storing crops and the things that get you through a winter are "hard" foods - if you don't any root crop but onions and potatoes, it'll be one long winter. How much richer would things be with beets, celeriac, shallots, carrots, parnsips, parsley root, kohlrabi and turnips?

How do grownups get over long-ingrained habits of not eating things, of thinking "yuck?" Well, first we realize how high the stakes are. In a rich, priveleged world, where your emissions don't matter and you can buy the three vegetables you like every week, and if you don't enjoy the meal at the dinner party, well, you go home and eat again, it doesn't matter what you eat much. You still get fed. You still get a reasonable approximation of balance (in some cases - we're most of us not eating enough produce, and we've certainly got dietary health problems up the wazoo). But we don't live in that world any more - none of us do. Pretending we can is lying to ourselves.

We don't have the luxury of not caring about our impact. We don't have the luxury of wasting food - food I waste at home means more at the store out of my budget and more ecological impact, and moral problems in a increasingly food scarce world. And the day may not be too far away when more and more of us can't afford to be picky - food prices are rising rapidly, in large part because of the ethanol boom. Millions of Americans are hungry now - it may not be that long before we are affected. So we simply can't throw good food out, or demand only expensive, extra meals for ourselves. Health care costs are rising fast enough that we simply can't afford to get sick because we don't eat well. And if hard times do come, not being adapted to a locally, sustainbly available diet could actually kill people, harm our children's growth, and make us sick.

The same is true for even healthy people about abrupt dietary transitions. If you eat a lot of meat 3 times a day, and suddenly your protein source has to shift to legumes because of poverty or lack of access, you are in for some serious intestinal distress. Have you only been eating processed foods and bleached grains? Well, tolerating whole grains, especially lots of whole wheat will not be a pleasant or easy experience. Have you always, always, always used canned cream of mushroom soup in your Christmas greenbeans? How traumatic will it be in hard times to switch to chard with a homemade sauce? It is far easier to adapt to eating whole grains right now, to put some beans in your diet gradually, change your holiday specialties one at a time.

But if you've hated broccoli for fifty years, it will be a challenge to start eating it. Now if you have plenty of locally available, healthy green options you love around, there's no reason to choose the broccoli over the kale. But what if broccoli is it - if the bugs got the kale crop? You need to eat it and you might as well like it. Or what if you are a meat and potatoes person, and now you are being told that you can only eat grassfed meat, and not that much of it? How do you get there? Now the good news is that you only have to do this for local, seasonal, sustainable foods - if you think twinkies are vile, you don't have to do anything about that. No worries about your extreme distaste for barbecue chips, and go right on hating McNuggets - in fact, we encourage that. The other good news is that the things your are learning to like - whole grains, fresh vegetables, not so much meat - these things are really good for you. There's really no down side.

The first thing to remember is that you have overcome instinctive food preferences before. There are exceptions, but comparatively few people loved coffee, beer, wine, tea, sushi or strong cheese the first time they tasted it. It took a while to develop a liking for these tastes. Similarly, I'm going to bet that your idea of a perfect day no longer involves candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tastes change. You can change them. We just have to do the work. They say a toddler often has to see a food on their plate 20 times before it seems familiar enough to eat it.

What's the magic trick? Lie. Like a rug. Lie to yourself. Lie to your kids (but don't do in an obvious way - kids are really not stupid). Explore your acting talent. You are going to convince yourself to not only like X hated food (one at a time), you are going to enjoy it. So the first step is to tell yourself you will like it, and to eat a little. Trust me, it won't kill you. Try the kindergarten method - three bites. And then keep putting it on your plate. Smile at it. Think friendly thoughts. Think how wonderful it is to try something new. Think how lucky you are to have it. Find something you like about the taste.

Perhaps the problem is the cooking method - do you cook vegetables until they are grey? Do you like highly seasoned foods, and most veggies are kind of bland? Try a quick steam, or eating it raw. Or perhaps you should add hot sauce, lots of garlic or herbs. Learn to cook your food well. Throw it in with something you do like - put the greens in with the bacon, or toss the peppers in with your pasta salad. Decide to like it - and keep trying for at least a few months, introducing the food regularly to your table. Cook it several ways - my mother likes peeled broccoli stems and raw, fresh picked asparagus, but not broccoli florets or steamed asparagus. Try it raw, steamed, pureed, tossed with pasta, covered with something you like.

Convince yourself that meat isn't the main part of every meal - a lot of this is simply attitude adjustment. Maybe you'll always prefer turkey to baked beans, or no kale to kale. But being able to eat the kale and the baked beans enriches your life.

Don't complain about your food. Be grateful for it - don't call it names, and if you can thank someone or something for it - G-d, the farmers who grew it, the soil it came from. Food matters in this world. We can't afford to treat it lightly.

Teach your kids the same lessons. Remember, no matter how many faces they make, it won't kill them to eat kale. It is a time-honored tradition to torture your children with green vegetables, and as far as I know, no one has died yet. Don't over-sympathize with their distaste - kids tastes are much more malleable than yours, and you aren't doing them any favors.

IMHO, the best hardline method is simply to keep serving them the same meal until they eat it - won't eat beans? Ok, but nothing else is offered, and there will be beans again for lunch tomorrow. When they get hungry enough, they'll eat. Loving every bite is not a prerequisite for life, and missing the occasional meal won't kill anyone.

I admit, I'm usually not that hardline. But you don't get seconds or dessert unless you eat everything. You don't get snacks between meals - if you are hungry, that plate of beans is still there. And you don't, under pain of getting to know just how yucky hunger is, complain about the food.

But hardline alone isn't enough to make your kids really good eaters - they also need to know what's wonderful and fun about food. That means getting them involved - bringing them into the kitchen, the garden, out to the farmer's market. Get them involved in the process - where did that carrot come from? Take them to the pick your own and let them get their own apples. Let them have their garden and have them help in yours. Let them have their own chickens, care for them and be in charge of the eggs.

There's something really different about food you've grown yourself. Kids who wouldn't touch a zucchini or eat eggs normally will beg their parents to help them cook zucchini frittata (assuming someone's mentioned that there is something you can do with both those things) if it is *their* zucchini and *their* eggs. Simon and Isaiah were very resistant to salad, but they've invented their own - rainbow salad. It has chopped nuts, dried fruit, greens they pick and edible flowers - johnny jump ups, daylily petals, begonia petals, borage flowers, nasturtium blossoms. With lemon-herb dressing they'll eat their weight, and pick the ingredients as well.

Food is, afterall, fun. It tastes good. If they don't have to compete with sugarfrosted flakes, there's really nothing not to like about a ripe peach, or a berry. If you act like you like homemade tofu marinated in garlic sauce as much as steak, your kids will never know that the two aren't supposed to be equally good. And since they both *are* good, your kids will grow up liking them both, most likely. Who knows, after a little practice at this deception, you might even believe it yourself.

If you are looking to eat a local diet now, when in many places options are at their broadest, try joining Liz at Pocket Farm on her "One Local Summer" project www.pocketfarm.com/?cat=21

Cheers,

Sharon

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