“You’re not supposed to use the word ‘picky’ anymore,” my daughter’s pediatrician said. I was sheepishly explaining my three-year-old’s current diet: She’ll accept Cheez-Its, Goldfish, Cheerios, Annie’s mac and cheese, and tortellini from Vace in Bethesda. She’ll sometimes make exceptions for rotisserie chicken, salmon, peas, and avocado. She does share her mother’s love for Drunken Goat cheese with quince paste—a.k.a. “cheese and jam”—but that’s of little nutritional help. Mostly, the things she’ll eat can be found in a grocery-store aisle lined with boxes.
Sorry, she’s picky.
Unusual? Not really. But for me, a food critic, my daughter’s eating habits have been particularly hard to take. Pre-kid, I was one of those people who swear their child will eat whatever they do. We weren’t going to be short-order cooks, and we’d established the rules of the table early. Like the French! We’d take her to restaurants where she’d sample fat salt-and-pepper shrimp, heaps of bucatini amatriciana, and cheese-laden crocks of onion soup.
Starting at about nine months, however, my girl became resistant—not just to eating but to trying anything new. That little mouth would clamp shut into a frown, her head furiously shaking back and forth at the sight of, say, a cherry tomato or baby carrot or stalk of celery with peanut butter. “Just try it,” I begged. “You never have to eat it again if you don’t like it.” But as most people already know, reasoning this way with a toddler is like asking a puppy to do long division.
“She’s not going to live on easy mac forever,” my friends said. My mom noted, “You didn’t eat much, either.” And outwardly, to my kid at least, I didn’t want her eating to become a thing. I wanted her to grow up thinking of food as a source of pleasure, not as a battleground state. Meanwhile, I would give her vitamins and try to sneak kale into her smoothies. Deep down, of course, I felt I’d failed at the one thing I imagined would come naturally to me.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become an anxious person in so many ways. The things that jack up my cortisol levels are legion: cars whipping down Rock Creek Parkway, disorderly lines, big meetings, peering out the window in the dome of a cathedral, a boat jumping over a wave. But food? I’ll eat or drink anything—a deep-fried cricket, a cheeseburger on a glazed doughnut, a 100-year-old cognac. I’ll happily spend the day wandering in unfamiliar strip malls or fumbling through a foreign language in hopes of deciphering the differences among eight pork-chop-and-rice dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant. Food is the part of my life that calls to mind the more carefree, spontaneous person I was in my childhood and teens—the one who didn’t always lug around a bunch of inhibitions.
With first-time parenting, I’ve had to remind myself that just because my child is one of those “only white foods” kids, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to have a cautious, only-white-foods personality. I walked early, at nine months—and never played on a single sports team. My mother-in-law didn’t talk until she was four, then spent much of her career as an English teacher. I’ve also reminded myself that my daughter isn’t a direct copy of me. Her talents and challenges will be her own. If she’s never up for trying oysters, she’ll find adventure in other ways.
Like this summer, when my husband and I took her to an amusement park in Ohio. I, of course, get jittery at the sight of roller coasters. She grabbed his hand and hopped right on. My favorite picture from the trip is of her cresting the hill, her face filled with joy as her stomach dropped.
This article appears in the February 2020 issue of Washingtonian.