They should really stop calling it dinner, which sounds innocent, pleasant even, and rhymes with “winner.” A more fitting, if less mellifluous phrase, might be Apocalyptic Hell Hour or Lucifer’s Food Time.
My daughter, Lucy, thinks the effort I put into preparing food for her is quite funny. Regardless of what she is served, it will be smooshed, flung, dropped onto the dog, or rubbed vigorously into her eyes. She will apply yogurt to her face like an all-over beauty mask. She will get ketchup on the ceiling. She will not eat.
I went out to lunch with two mom friends last week, one of whom has a son Lucy’s age. He sat in his high chair without complaint, smiling, and lapped up a quinoa, shiitake, and broccoli frittata. He devoured a savory beet yogurt by the heaping spoonful. What that actual fuck? I balked at my mom friend’s parenting wizardry. I studied her child like a buried treasure map as he nibbled his way through a mushroom, the floor beneath him pristine, not a swipe of pink across his cheek.
One evening a few weeks ago, I made Lucy a very innocuous bowl of boxed Annie’s mac and cheese. Yes, I threw a few very offensive green peas in there to appease the part of me that doesn’t want my daughter to become a carbohydrate. She wouldn’t try a single bite. She alternated between screaming like a goat and barking like an injured seal. She communicated to me via our complex system of pointing, yelling, and grunting that she wanted a Brocolli Little, which is, despite its name, a small potato cake in the shape of a triceratops. I stuck the dinocarb on a plate in the microwave. She shattered all the windows and mirrors in the house with a high-pitched scream, apparently because she wanted to push the buttons. She pulled the microwave down off its shelf and it nearly fell on top of her. Then there were tears. Then she wanted a veggie burger instead, with cheese and ketchup. I’ll let you guess how much of that made it into her mouth.
Like every other mother I know, I decided when my baby was a baby that she would “eat what I eat”, and that I “wouldn’t be one of those mothers who cooks fifteen separate dinners a night.” I realize now that this is the language of a presumptuous asshole who has never experienced Chobani as a hair mask.
After I gave up trying to feed my pig-tailed tasmanian devil and combed the cheese out of her hair that night, I called my MIL, who is the gatekeeper to the land of parenting Oz. “Maybe she’s not hungry,” she said. “What is she eating during the day?”
During the week, my 18-month-old goes to daycare so I can work. Behold, a sample menu from a single weekday:
Breakfast: half banana, cheese omelette, milk
AM Snack: Ritz crackers, water
Lunch: Veggie burger, peas and carrots, mashed potatoes, pasta with mixed vegetables, milk
PM Snack: Pouch, banana, water
She is being fed like an animal about to hibernate for 6 months, like a competitive eater training to take away that little Coney Island hot dog guy’s untouchable title, like me 3 days before my period. No wonder she’s not hungry for dinner; she’s already eating enough calories a day to sustain a family of elephants.
So, I stopped fighting with her about dinner. Now on the weeknights, she lets me know when she wants a snack. I’ll give her whole grain crackers with almond butter, a veggie pouch, popcorn, or yogurt, and she’ll eat happily while she plays. Instead of spending our evenings screaming, crying, and cleaning condiments off the ceiling, we now stack blocks, read books, and lick crayons.
Her disinterest in sitting down with me at 5pm to eat curry and talk politics doesn’t mean she’ll only eat white foods forever or never appreciate global flavors. She’s one and a half; dog hair is the height of culinary sophistication to her right now. Also, she’s full, and I don’t want to teach her that eating is required method of torture. This whole idea of eating three meals a day plus two snacks is just another thing someone somewhere made up, and now is law. It’s not actually important.
Over and over again, my daughter teaches me this: let go of your expectations. Trying to bend her spirit to fit into my idea of what kind of schedule she should be on doesn’t work. What does work is listening to her, letting her guide me to be the mother that she needs. It also results in less airborne applesauce.