On Fish and Picky Eaters

“Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.”

Unless this hypothetical “man” is a four year old. Give a four year old a fish, and spend the next hour in the futile act of convincing him to try it, only to erupt in anger and proclaim that he can starve for all you care. Beyond potty-training, the plight of the picky eater may be the most exasperating part of parenting. The definition of frustration should be “to devote time and money to provide nutritious and delicious food for your offspring, intended to be enjoyed during a Rockwellian dinner scene, only to have your own food grow cold as you turn spoons into airplanes that cannot land on their tongue runway because the tightlipped trap door keeps closing at the last second.”

If it was some sort of prison slop, I could understand the decision of my toddler-turned- air-traffic-controller to declare his mouth a no fly zone. But this fish is delish. Salmon, marinated and grilled to perfection, surrounded by a sweet potato slathered in butter and vibrant zucchini and squash. The colors alone demand to be tasted. Yet they are refused, grounded on their plate, no matter how much I extol their taste and ability to make small boys grow strong like superheroes.

Instead it’s the evening before the following days’ grocery run, when the freezer is called upon to send in reinforcements, that the plates are cleaned and seconds called for. The dull brown hues of fish sticks and tater tots make his mouth water, if only because they act as B-52s loaded with ketchup that are voluntarily flown, rapid fire into his mouth. I feel for the haddock, shredded and breaded into embarrassing strips, when it could have been formed into something so much more beautiful and appetizing. Something my son would surely reject as disgusting.

Maybe my wife and I bring all this upon ourselves. If the masses call for nuggets and French fries, who am I to interfere? It’s one less battle and one step closer to that Rockwell image, even though I can’t imagine Norman painting a tater tot. Maybe Marie was on to something – just let them eat cake. In fact, it could be that she was misquoted; maybe she wasn’t talking about her subjects, but her three year old. “I’m tired of arguing about it; if she doesn’t want the foi gras, just let her eat cake.”

Yet, when I am tempted to throw in my napkin and just stock the fridge with lunchables, I remember the encouragement of Robert Farrar Capon:

“There is always the hope that they will, late or soon (be prepared for it to be late), actually sink their teeth into mushroom, parsnip, Swiss chard, or celeriac. Be bold, therefore. Feed them, yes; but do not cook for them. Cook for yourself. What they need most of all in this vale of sorrows is the sight of men who relish reality. You do them no favor by catering to their undeveloped tastes. We have not acquired our amplitude for nothing. No matter what they think, we know: We are the ones who have tasted and seen how gracious it all is. What a shame if we were to hide that light under a bushel. On the subject of vegetables, therefore, I urge you to please yourself first, last and always. Until they awake out of their youthful and dogmatic slumbers, even lettuce is too good for them.” (Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection)

At some deeper level the fight is not just about nutrition but the wonder of the world itself. It is about the miracle of taste buds and their ability to savor something formed out of dirt, sun, and rain. To reject the majority of food is to unwrap a gift from your Maker and say you don’t like it before you’ve even tried it, and such impudence cannot go on unchecked. So with every bite I take, I will hold before my son the light of enjoying creation as a gift manifested in endless variety and flavor, and he can hold his nose and beg for hot dogs all he wants.