I used to feel anxious about Ben’s picky eating habits and that I was responsible. After all, parental advice – the kind you find in magazines and on morning television news segments – tells us children simply need the right introduction to healthy foods. Put a happy face on the lentil patties, provide a dip with the carrot sticks, make little sailboats out of the sweet potato wedges, start calling the broccoli “pixie trees” and kids will happily eat up.
In other words, it’s your fault if your kid won’t eat vegetables because you just aren’t being creative enough.
The director of Ben’s Montessori pre-school, in her letter to parents describing the school's policy on healthy lunches1, indicates that she believes this, too.
If you find your child will not eat fresh fruits and vegetables, try taking them on a trip to the Berkeley Bowl. Allow them to see, touch and smell the many varieties of fresh produce that are available. It is a fun experience as well as educational and it will help you tune into your child’s likes and dislikes as well as supporting their own adventure into personal tastes.
Now, for those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area, you may not know that one of our major religions is Food. And one of the places of worship for this religion is The Berkeley Bowl, which is basically just a huge supermarket that sells an astonishing variety of organic and locally grown produce. Many people around here – including this preschool director2 - have a sort of mystical attitude toward this place – that shopping there can cure cancer and create world peace and make preschoolers eat vegetables.
Please. No toddler I know is capable of feeling reverence for The Berkeley Bowl like your typical grownup Northern California foodie. And I seriously doubt that if I took Ben to the Berkeley Bowl – rather than, say, Safeway – to help pick out our produce, he would not suddenly be interested in kale, butternut squash and mission figs. Even if they were grown by an independent farm collective outside of Petaluma and picked just this morning.3
In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, children at this age are actually equipped with a tendency of neophobia, or the fear of eating anything unfamiliar. It makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary point of view. A three-year-old cave kid is running around the forest out of view of the cave mom. He encounters a mushroom or berry bush. Luckily, he has an inborn instinct to prevent him from putting these things in his mouth.4
This provides a satisfying explanation for Ben’s behavior of not showing interest or curiosity in any food that he hasn’t eaten before.
And there’s another reason I’m no longer worried about his eating habits. The teachers at his special education program he attends every morning are actually impressed by Ben’s eating – both the amount and the variety. “That kid can EAT!” noted the speech therapist.
So when I thought Ben was picky, it was just because I wasn’t comparing Ben to the right peer group. Compared to his ASD friends – kids who only eat things shaped liked circles, only eat foods that are white, only eat food that can be picked up with their fingers – Ben is a regular gourmand. “He eats fruit!” his teacher told us recently, clearly amazed.
Now I’m finishing this post on Thanksgiving night, and I can report with a great deal of satisfaction and surprise that earlier today our neophobe ate an entire slice of heretofore unknown pumpkin pie.5
1. The policy is entirely sensible, by the way.
2. Granted, this is the same woman who suggested that maybe we could have Ben imagine the sound of a flute to get him to calm down when he felt frustrated.
3. We do, for the record, go to Farmer's Markets to get much of our produce and Ben gets that fruit does not come in cans or wrapped in styrofoam.
4. The article says that neophobia wears off starting around age 5 or 6, or as I have observed in close friends and family members, around age 30. Besides, you really have to be a mature adult to have the courage to even try swiss chard. I mean c’mon – who likes that stuff?
5. Which, according to various internet sources I found, has anywhere between 79% and 157% of the daily recommended requirement of vitamin A.