Friday, May 21, 2010

Four fussy eaters

“Did I tell you about the Spanish omelet I made yesterday?” my sister Sarah asks me on the phone. “I’m going to send you the recipe. I think everyone in your family would like it!”

Oh, what fantasy words those are. And how utterly out of reach. The thought of making an entrée that everyone in my family likes is a distant dream to me. And I already knew the Spanish omelet wasn’t going to fill the bill; my husband Rick is a fierce opponent of eggs.

Many parents of very young children complain about their kids’ picky appetites, but that’s not really the issue for us. My kids aren’t all that young, and their appetites aren’t exactly picky, in the sense that they’re not the types who will eat only chicken fingers and goldfish, say, or boxed macaroni and cheese. They’re just…well, they’re not omnivorous. They each have several things they like and a few they don’t. The problem is that my husband has his list as well, and I have mine, and if you drew a black-and-white Venn diagram, you’d find very few gray overlap areas. And this is one situation in which some gray areas would be most welcome, but we don’t have many.

My 7-year-old likes fairly plain foods. She likes meat without sauce, starches and vegetables without spice, and so on. This means she can eat a healthy variety as long as nothing has much seasoning, which means I need to remember to separate whatever she’s going to be eating early on in the preparations. I also have long believed she has sort of a biorhythmic appetite: she just sometimes seems too tired by dinnertime to make an effort with eating. When she asks for a bowl of shredded wheat and a sliced apple with cheese while I’m getting dinner ready, I’m usually willing to accommodate her, knowing she probably won’t be interested in anything that nutritious an hour later at the dinner table.

My 11-year-old son has a broader diversity of tastes. Unlike his sister, he likes spices and seasonings, garlic, onions, anchovies. In fact, it sometimes seems that his palate craves extreme flavors the way some people turn to extreme sports because they crave excitement. One of his favorite food items is balsamic vinegar. He’ll pour it on salad, eat the salad, and then finish off the vinegar with a spoon. He’ll refill his salad bowl with straight vinegar once or twice if I don’t stop him, which I eventually do because I think vinegar is bad for tooth enamel.

So his tastes are fairly convenient except that he passionately despises tomatoes. That’s it: just tomatoes. Which brings us to my situation: I’m a vegetarian. People sometimes mistakenly think that means I’m a picky eater, but I’m not: I like just about anything that doesn’t include meat. Still, the kids both like most vegetables, so there are dozens and dozens of wonderful things that I can make for a family dinner, except that my husband dislikes eggs, rice and beans, which are essentially a vegetarian’s mainstay. (He also doesn’t like tofu, but that hardly seems worth mentioning: who unless they are a vegetarian actually does like tofu?) And although he loves pasta, as do the rest of us (as long as Tim’s doesn’t have tomato sauce), for reasons of weight control he has been strongly advised to avoid it.

So making dinner has been a rather wearisome challenge lately. Despite my own vegetarian habits – I haven’t eaten meat since 1985 – I’m comfortable preparing it for my family; I actually think it’s better for the kids to eat some meat than to avoid it altogether. But no spices or sauces on Holly’s. No tomatoes with Tim’s. No omelets or rice-based casseroles for Rick. For years, before the kids were born and then before they expressed preferences, I was fine with cooking for both a carnivore and a vegetarian. That was easy compared to this.

Once in a while I hit on an effective menu, one that everyone eats enthusiastically. Something like pork chops – plain for Holly, sauced for Rick and Tim, none for me – and baked potatoes and steamed broccoli which we’ll all eat, though Rick doesn’t have more than a bite or two of high-carb potato. Tim and I both like salad for dinner; I add some tofu to mine for protein and feel like everyone is in good shape for the evening. But those meals are the minority. So I just keep working at finding the right mix of options for everyone, and sometimes we just all have leftovers and that’s okay too.

In a way, it’s a microcosm of family life. You try to please everyone, and you can’t, and yet everyone eventually finds something they can be happy with. Compromise and flexibility. In menu planning as in interpersonal dynamics. With lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top if at all possible.

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