Sometimes, when parenting small children, you find yourself doing triage on situations in the most ridiculous ways. (Also, saying the most ridiculous things: “Please don’t stick your fork in your underwear.”) Last night was such a moment in our house. Indulge me for a moment as I provide you with a clear picture of how dinner has been going lately:
1) P. is on toddler food strike — meaning that he’s at the age, now, where he’s realizing that it is far more fun to test us by refusing, oh, pretty much anything resembling food, than it is to just eat it.
2) The exceptions to the food strike are relatively random, because it would be too easy and convenient for him to reliably eat the same items each day. He prefers to keep us on our toes.
3) The only certain exceptions to the food strike are applesauce, yogurt, Goldfish crackers, and peanut butter. Everything else is a toss-up at this point.
4) Unless he’s teething or sick, which have both been true, by turns, for the past two weeks.
5) In which case we’d probably be wiser to show up at the table in rain ponchos, with shields, or carrying umbrellas, than to optimistically sit at our usual places unprotected and vulnerable to the food he’ll inevitably fling our way (either out of aggression or just plain interest in the physics of it all).
In this kind of dinner environment, we have to make choices, just like every other parent who’s ever lived through the ups and downs of a willful and apparently unhungry toddler. Of course, in our house, a lot of the decisions we make at these times are based on the foundational values we hold dear when it comes to feeding our kids, and one of the First Rules of Dinner in our home is that You Eat What You Are Served. We credit a lot of L.’s generally flexible and adventurous eating to the fact that he just didn’t have a whole lot of alternatives in the first few years of his life, so he eventually had to try different things. We expect that, someday, we’ll see some of the same rewards with P.
So when he pulls his usual shtick at the dinner table, we don’t often do much about it, and he rarely (if ever) seems to suffer from the lack of meal. He doesn’t seem hungry, he doesn’t whine, he doesn’t ask for food. He doesn’t wake up starving in the middle of the night. He just goes about his business as if dinner never needed to exist. And the game plan has always been that, if he DID ask for something to eat after refusing a perfectly good meal, we’d just give him back his plate.
Then last night came, and we were tested a bit. See, P. had eaten his lunch at school, but he woke up from naptime cranky and pawing at his mouth — a sure sign of teething. He gnawed on his blanket and the spout of his sippy cup, and when they tried to give him crackers at snacktime, he took one bite, then spit it out, crying and holding his mouth. Poor thing. After some Tylenol, he was better, but he still didn’t want the crackers. He arrived home starving.
“Bubba,” he stated emphatically, pointing to the jar of peanut butter on the counter. “Bubba SHEEZ.” (Accompanied by ASL sign for “please.”)
I hesitated. Although we do sometimes let P. have a small snack while I’m making dinner — because he’ll melt down completely if he’s too hungry, and that’s not going to help anything — I didn’t want to fill him up totally and have no chance that he’d eat any of the spaghetti I was making. “Bubba!” he insisted. “SHEEZ, Momma.”
We compromised in the end; I scooped out a small bite of peanut butter on a teaspoon and handed it to him. It was enough to keep him occupied and happy, but not, I thought, enough to actually fill his belly. Or so you’d think.
Apparently a teaspoon of peanut butter is satiating to P., or his will to refuse eating is ironclad, because he stared at the tiny pile of spaghetti on his plate with a gleam of hatred in his eye. “Nuhnuhnuh,” he muttered at me. “A SHOW.” He strained towards the side of his high chair, gesturing at the TV across the room (which was turned off).
I’ll spare you the ugly details, but a couple of thrown cups and protests later, my limp, screaming child was lifted out of his chair and set down to play with his Thomas trains. He recovered enough to scamper upstairs for his bath, but once downstairs, I barely had him in his pjs before he started up again. “More, more,” he insisted to me, running around the kitchen, pointing to the fridge, the pantry, anything on the counters that looked vaguely edible. “More, SHEEZ.”
I picked him up. “You hungry?” He nodded.
Dilemma time. Teething kid + eat-what-we’re-serving-rule can sometimes equal disaster. Still, I was resolute. I know that P. is clever enough to realize that if I let down my guard once, he’ll have an opening to protest every single meal in the future, hoping that I’ll finally just give him a yogurt and be done with it.
I showed him his plate. “Dinner, please,” I told him. “If you are hungry, you will eat.”
He scrunched up his face and prepared to howl, but suddenly, the pot of marinara sauce on the stove — which was cooling down so we could pack it up and put it in the fridge — caught his attention. Or, more accurately, the wooden spoon sticking out of it did.
Swiftly, he reached out one of his deadly accurate little fists and snatched the spoon. Lifting it out, he paused; I readied myself to take it away, envisioning the splatter of sauce across the walls, ceiling, floor — and my sweater. But then, miraculously, he put it in his mouth and licked it.
“Mmmm,” he said, grinning at me.
Don’t judge me. I knew the pasta was a no-go. I knew the bread was a no-go. I showed him his plate again, and he immediately started to fuss, turning towards the coveted wooden spoon. You’d have done what I did next, too.
I scooped him out a bowlful of sauce, stuck a spoon in it, and put him in his high chair.
He ate it. Mouthfuls of marinara sauce. My child ate a bowlful of spaghetti sauce, sans spaghetti, and was completely happy.
Yes, you have to make strange concessions, when you’re a parent. And sometimes, that means you just have to throw up your hands and walk away. Marinara sauce. Yup. That’s Dinner.