Dear Care and Feeding,
Fourteen years ago, I married a picky eater who does not cook. I am a vegetarian with a food allergy who is an indifferent cook. From the first time we tried to eat a home-cooked meal together to today, it is clear that we do not want the same flavors from food. Given all the options, we mostly just agree on garlic, broccoli, carrots and really good cheeses. There is no restaurant menu from which we end up choosing the same thing.
We have two kids, now ages five and eight. Between my husband’s lifelong pickiness and my restrictions, we would never demand that they eat anything. But all three of them hate my cooking. They come to the table, where I have left everything unmixed so they can pick out what they like. My husband politely tastes some things and eats what he knows he likes. The children ingest quantities of things I know they like fine that I can’t have made badly (white rice, bread directly from a bakery). The only thing I “make” that they reliably enjoy is reheated store-bought rotisserie chicken (only the white meat, no skin), which requires a different main dish for me.
Sometimes my husband tries to help by saying things like “the kohlrabi looks gross, but it actually isn’t bad tasting.” and “I know. There is a smell in here from the sauce, but this zucchini doesn’t taste like anything at all. Try it.”
When I mention this to my husband he says, “You know we like simpler food.” He considers buying already cubed butternut squash and roasting it with some seasoning “complicated.”
When my husband makes dinner, there’s no vegetable. It’s peanut butter or tuna sandwiches with potato chips. It’s plain noodles for the kids and jarred sauce for the adults. Chicken nuggets or fish sticks dipped in plain honey with frozen fries on the side. “Why do I need to make a vegetable no one wants?”
I know they eat plenty of raw fruits and vegetables in their packed lunches and snacks. I know what it is to be pressured to eat things you just can’t or won’t. But I don’t know what to do about dinner. I’m so demoralized and bored of my options. There’s no more food after dinner, but at this point I do let them snack because I’ve kind of lost faith that they’d ever be hungry enough to eat what’s served. The apple and peanut butter eaten while I’m actively cooking is more calories and nutrition than a child has gotten from my cooking since turning two. Do I need to put a stop to that?
Should I start trying to make demands of a grown adult about what constitutes a meal for his children? “Just put the bag of baby carrots and the container of cherry tomatoes on the table” feels like a reasonable standard to me, but I know it’s annoying when someone else declares your efforts inadequate.
Do you have any suggestions for breaking this reflexive “Mom cooked it, so I don’t want it” thing? Even knowing that my husband eats amounts large enough to constitute tasting the food and still doesn’t want it? Or for me to get over this and just go back to cooking things they don’t like and watching everyone stare at it a little while before being excused while I eat by myself? I promise I’m serving something that I know full well the kids like fine, that they could eat if they hadn’t decided that my cooking means going to bed without your dinner.
—Dinner Has to Happen Every Day
Dear Dinner Has to Happen,
This sounds frustrating for all involved, but perhaps most so for you. Either your husband needs to agree to take over the bulk of cooking duties, on the agreement that he provides a largely healthy meal for his growing kids (which includes a nightly vegetable), or he has to present a united front about the dinners you prepare in front of the kids. At this point, you’ll need his support in convincing the kids to eat the meals you cook without complaint. They’ve learned that it’s acceptable to protest or to eat very little because your husband has modeled that behavior for them.
In the meantime, ask your husband to join you in preparing the meals you’re cooking. Let the kids see you both fixing their meals, and stress to them that you both made the food together. Maybe he’ll be able to hear their complaints from your perspective if there’s some buy-in from him, in trying to plan a more nutritional diet for them. Finally, remember that your kids will eat eventually—they are not going to starve themselves. But I’m not sure there’s ever hope they’ll eat what you cook if you continually allow them to have access to the kitchen after dinner.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are parents to five kids. Our second-oldest, 9-year-old “Ivy,” has always been an imaginative kid who loves stories and make-believe. In the past she was consistently included in a lot of enrichment work and extras at school because she was ahead of her peers in grasping reading and math. This year, they’re having a staffing shortage and those activities are limited. Her current teacher is very frustrated with her and reports she’s doing “fine” at completing tasks on level with the other kids, but not excelling, and not very interested or paying attention. According to her teacher and the amount of time we spend arranging playdates, she seems to be socializing ok, but she is often in trouble for not paying attention, and for writing stories when she’s supposed to be working on other things. She often just stares off into space both at school and at home, and if you ask her what she’s doing she’ll tell you she’s making up a story.
I think this is a reasonable response to a big stressful year and a lack of interesting things to do at school, but my husband is convinced it’s the beginning of a slide into academic failure. We try to keep the kids involved in learning, doing lots of reading and doing kitchen math at home, but I can’t fault Ivy for getting the boring stuff out of the way and then moving on to her own interests, which is always how I treated school as a kid. Is this a big problem that I’m not seeing? And if so, how do we work with the teacher to resolve it, given how few resources for enrichment there seem to be in her classroom?
You’re right. This is a reasonable response to the challenges of the last year. Your daughter has found creative ways to occupy her free time. If you haven’t already, have a talk with her about the importance of paying attention in class, and make sure that she’s spending school time on school activities. If she chooses to daydream, create stories or pursue any other extracurricular hobby once she’s completed her school work to the best of her ability, she shouldn’t be in danger of academic decline.
With four siblings at home and classmates and teachers who are trying, like her, to reacclimate to the new norms of post-pandemic school, it isn’t unusual for Ivy to want to zone out from time to time or retreat into her own imagination. This is also pretty age-appropriate for a nine-year-old. It sounds like you’re providing her with appropriate at-home supports, and it’s great that you’ve been in touch with her teacher. Continue that regular dialogue with her teacher to make things don’t decline further, and continue to monitor her level of engagement in school yourself, but try not to begrudge her stares into space at home. She may just need a bit of time to herself.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My baby’s birth was pretty traumatic and while we were still in hospital my partner’s mother passed away from COVID-19. He had to go abroad, and I ended up alone with a premature baby for about a month. I coped and when my partner returned we readjusted together. Our baby is a happy child who likes being held and chilling at my breast. As parents, my partner and I agree that this is fine. However, a mutual acquaintance of ours came over soon after he returned. She was very attentive to his loss but only spoke to me to criticize that my baby was taking too long on the breast, and at one point she even tried to put him in his bassinet herself, which made him scream. It made me really angry. I asked her to leave and said I was tired. She has let my partner know that she expects an apology. My partner thinks I should appease her. For context—she’s older and a wheelchair user. I don’t want to say sorry when I feel she’s in the wrong. As a new mom I’m becoming more picky about how I invest emotional energy. Is it ok to forget her and move on or am I too proud?
– New Mom, No Drama
Dear New Mom,
You don’t owe your acquaintance an apology, but If you’re interested in maintaining a civil relationship with her, forgetting her isn’t the way to go, either. It’s important to inform her of your boundaries as a new parent. Let her know that you and your newborn are still in the process of establishing feeding routines, and though they may be different than she thinks they should be, they are yours and you won’t abide them being disrupted. If she takes issue with that, then it might be a good idea to re-evaluate your relationship with her. Inform your partner of this decision as well. He should know that you don’t feel obliged to appease anyone who interferes with the routines you’re trying to establish with your baby. It’s a good idea to protect your emotional energy. Try to stress the importance of this to your partner as well.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My adorable granddaughter “Jane” is 9 years old. She has a lot of energy, and it’s a challenge for her to sit in one place for too long. A year or so ago when she was done eating at my house she wanted to leave the table. When her parent said “no,” she started whining. I gently said, “The polite thing to do is ask ‘may I please be excused?’” Then of course we didn’t see much of the family during the pandemic. The other night the family was here, and when she was done eating, she was restless, and she asked “may I please be excused?” She was at the other end of the table from me, so I did not even hear her. Her father was nearby and for some reason said “no.” She cried and was unhappy. I know better than to interfere with a parent’s decision in the moment but felt bad about the way it was handled. Jane’s dad said he was trying to teach her table manners. That’s great but it seemed to me she had done everything right and should have been reinforced for politely asking to leave the table. We had been at the table for well over half an hour.
After dinner, and out of Jane’s earshot, I asked her dad how he would feel in the future, if when they were at my house, I were the one to respond to a request to be excused from the table. He said “sure” and did not seem upset at the suggestion (though he did say again he was trying to teach manners and also pointed out that Jane’s 5-year-old brother tends to follow her lead about things). I understand that as well.
What do you think? Is it appropriate for the grandchildren to ask grandparents about leaving the table at the grandparents’ house? Am I right that reinforcing the polite request to leave would be a better idea than forcing the child to stay at the table because it’s “polite” not to get up while others are still eating/visiting?
—In Favor of Politeness
Dear In Favor of Politeness,
It’s definitely appropriate for guests to ask permission of the dinner host when they want to be excused from the table. Your request of Jane’s dad isn’t unreasonable, and neither is his firmer approach. Teaching children manners is important, but so is respecting their limits and needs. If Jane is restless at the table after eating and would benefit from being excused, she should be allowed that grace from time to time. As she gets older, she should also learn that whining isn’t the best response to having her request denied. It sounds like, between you and her parents, she may be able to learn how to regulate her table temperament.
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