I mentioned in yesterday’s post that L., my four-year-old, is somewhat averse to eating fruit. This is a food position I should clarify.
The fact is, until P. came along — a child who was born with an insatiable craving for fruit — I didn’t understand the simplicity and ease with which you could actually feed a kid something like fruit. L. is by no means “picky” (though I often trick myself into believing that he is). I’ve realized, over time, that other parents are probably annoyed by my eye-rolling sighs as I mutter that he just won’t eat his broccoli, while he chows down on salmon, cous cous, and raw spinach with olive oil. So it was with some relief, I’m ashamed to admit, that I had the following exchange with a parent at his birthday party, as we loaded our kids’ plates at the picnic buffet:
She: “I’m going to grab some strawberries and pineapple for N.”
Me: “Oh, sure, go ahead. No, no thanks (rejecting her offer of the fruit tongs) — L. doesn’t eat fruit.”
She: “Really? Not at all?”
Me: “Nope. I mean, well, applesauce and some things like that. But fruit? Like this? Never.”
She: “No strawberries?”
She: “No grapes?”
Me: “No. Nothing.”
She: “N. won’t eat the skin on things, which I find kind of annoying, but…”
This last bit was offered almost as an olive branch, which I gratefully accepted, as we continued to chat idly about the funny food peccadilloes of preschoolers (Say THAT 5 times fast!). But honestly, I have to admit that in some small way, I was relieved to have finally gotten my point across to another parent — my kids may be good eaters, relative to their peers, but we have our struggles, too.
I think what makes the fruit disdain so difficult is that there is a Law of the Child Nutrition Universe that says: “All children will eat fruit.” If you read articles about how to help your picky eater, the angle most of them advocate goes something like this: “Well, if your kid won’t eat their vegetables, don’t force them — it’s fine to just give them extra fruit!” The recipes put sliced fruit in everything. There are sliced fruit smiley faces on the PB&J bagels, artfully arranged for the camera. Fruit gets blended into smoothies and stirred into granola parfaits. It’s appetizingly tossed with cous cous and nuts to make a “kid-friendly” alternative to tabbouleh salad.
But L. will not touch any of those things. Even as a baby, his aversion to fruit ran deep. He would eat the purees — apricots, bananas, prunes, whatever — but there was never, not once, an occasion when a piece of ACTUAL, unadulterated fruit passed his lips. He’d touch it skeptically, then make a terrible face, wipe his hand on his shirt, and clamp his mouth shut so tightly that I’d have to contemplate the invention of a tiny contraption similar to the Jaws of Life.
Things haven’t progressed much, either, though I thought time and age and maturity would help. Aside from the very, very occasional rogue banana (eaten not in its entirety, and only if he can hold it by the peel) or some orange slices (again, to be held by their peels), he can’t bring himself to try a single bite of any type of fruit. Clearly, it’s an issue — fruit is healthy, it’s got a lot of nutrients, it’s got much-needed fiber, and on days when he’s feeling particularly choosy about food in general, it’s hardly advantageous to have an entire category of foods completely off the menu. I try hard to keep my patience with this aspect of his eating personality, because I know for certain that it’s a texture thing with him, not an issue of flavor. He simply can’t handle the sensory aspect of fruit, for whatever reason — I suspect it feels slimy to him, in his hands and in his mouth, and L.’s very sensitive to things that are slimy. (On a side note, he’s quite agreeable to hand-washing and bathing.) However, my frustration has lately mounted a bit, because I’ve come to enjoy the relative ease with which I can slice, dice, and toss containers of plain old simple uncooked, unmasked, un-fooled-around-with berries and grapes and mangoes and peaches and all manner of FRUIT into P.’s lunchbox with not the slightest guilt.
But when it comes to children and sensory matters, there is not much to be done except to wait things out, attempting as much as possible to gently introduce the offending item and desensitize the child. This approach hasn’t done much for L. yet, though I hope one day it will. I’m relatively sure, however, that he can’t be the only kid in the universe with this kind of relationship to fruit — whether it feels like he is or not. So for all parents out there who are struggling with this particular problem, I’m sharing a few of my top strategies for getting even a little bit of fruit into the fruit-repelling vortex that is my son:
1) Bake it in. As more and more of my recipes make it onto this blog, you’ll probably start to notice that many of them revolve around baking fruits and vegetables into muffins, cookies, pancakes, etc. The reason is twofold: for one thing, it improves the health profile overall of the item in question, so my kids can have treats in their lunchboxes without consuming pure empty calories; and for another, it gets veggies into P. when he’s not in a veg. mood, and fruit into L. when he’s not in a fruit mood (which, as we’ve already discussed, is constant).
2) Applesauce, etc. L. has always, as I’ve noted, enjoyed fruit purees, though I will say that even in his baby book, I made note of the fact that he does NOT like the flavor of strawberries. I prefer to make my applesauce, peach sauce, rhubarb sauce, whatever it is from scratch (I know, big shock), but for convenience, we’ve found a few brands of sugar-free, all-natural blends in the grocery store that come in single-serve packs. They’re not terrifically expensive, and L. loves them — particularly the deep purple blueberry apple blends.
3) Spread it on. Though L. isn’t a jam eater per se, I’ve had good luck with putting jams, jellies, preserves, and apple butters into his sandwiches for school. I don’t use a lot, obviously, so it’s not a complete strategy in and of itself, but every bit helps. Also, I should note that we use low-sugar or unsweetened varieties when we can. But remarkably, one of his favorite school lunches has been a sandwich made from leftover roast pork, cheese, and apricot jam. He was even willing to dip his grilled chicken chunks into last night’s blueberry-ginger chutney, a move probably inspired both by the intriguing purple color of the meat, and by his increasing familiarity with the pairing of meat and jam-like substances.
4) Puree it with the veggies. Especially in the fall and winter months, vegetable purees are indispensable in our house. L.’s absolute favorite vegetable is butternut squash, followed closely by sweet potatoes and pumpkin, all of which are delicious made into a creamy puree to accompany a meal (particularly Sunday Roast Chicken, the kids’ favorite dinner). Adding a variety of fruits and vegetables to those familiar purees has been a great tactic for expanding everyone’s diets — my husband, for example, would never have touched a rutabaga until it showed up on his plate whipped with sweet potatoes and apples. And both L. and P. are surprisingly fond of a soup made with butternut squash, pears, and rosemary.
It’s a different challenge than most parents face, this battle for fruit, and one that four years in, I’m still just learning to cope with in a way that allows both L. and me to be comfortable with the balance of what goes on his plate. As I watch P. grow and develop his own food preferences, I’m reasonably confident that our challenges will be different; an a few years, you may be reading something on this blog entitled “The Battle for Meat” or “The Battle for Greens” (God, I hope not). But whatever the challenge, my mission to get everyone fed continues, and so does my quest to elevate my kids’ eating experience beyond the uniquely American obsession with dino-shaped processed meat nuggets. Maybe someday, they’ll even choose the fruit, the meat, the greens, the real food. In the meantime, I won’t say they’re picky — I’ll just say we haven’t figured out how to prepare it so they like the food in question, yet.