Crackers and cookies might seem like typical fare for a 2-year-old, but, in my Persian Jewish culture, home cooking is synonymous with sound parenting. Until recently, my son, Benjamin, regularly devoured the most healthful fare, from lentils and shish kabob to chicken curry and mint pesto. He ate hummus like it was ice cream and dove into his basmati.
Now, I'm lucky if he has half a PB&J.
While I realize this is normal, I'm still struggling with it. In my culture, we are taught that if you cook at home, filling rooms with aromas of fried onions and garlic, it stokes one's appetite from a young age and diverts the possibilities of pickiness.
We genuinely enjoy good eaters and actually take pleasure in seeing how far they'll go: Will he eat beef stew? Try the pomegranate and walnut stew on him! We love baby fat so much that the concept carries into young adulthood, where pardeh yeh goosht, or a curtain of fat, is a sign of health, even beauty, and is preferred over a thin frame.
Before my son became a picky eater, I used to listen, somewhat detachedly, while frustrated moms complained about their finicky eaters.
When it was my turn to speak, I tried not to brag.
"Benjamin? No, he can't get enough of his vegetables," I'd say, resisting the urge to smile. "Have you tried legumes? They're a hit at our house."
I never imagined he'd change.
Once he learned how to climb and run with confidence, it happened: At mealtimes, he started saying "No" in his Big Boy voice, pushing away his plate of lovingly prepared food and asking for a portable Clif Kid Z Bar for dinner. Or, he'd eat three bites and say he was done.
Frustrated, I called his pediatrician one night in a panic, insisting that my 22-month-old was wasting away and had to be examined.
"He's grown taller and actually gained a pound since we last saw him," the doctor said at an appointment the next day. Then he took off his glasses and looked at me sideways: "Don't go to war with a toddler over food. You won't win."
Dr. C explained that kids this age tend to wear out their clothes faster than they outgrow them. Most gain only four pounds during their entire third year of life. They're too busy exploring their world and picking up new skills to sit down and eat.
He said their appetites fluctuate and it's normal to get stuck on one food for a while (hello, rubbery string cheese) but that if you continue to offer a variety of nutritious foods, a toddler will decide what and how much to eat.
Of course, that last part made me cringe. Let him decide? Should I let him choose his TV shows, too? As if in mourning, I came home from Dr. C's office and scrolled through all our photos from the past two years, gorging on my son's new fruit gummies (at least they're organic) between sobs.
Those photos were evidence of a Jewish mother's obsession with food. Most moms chronicle the first pink-cheeked years with images of tummy time and diaper crawls; as expected, almost all of my photos captured Benjamin eating, whether digging his spoon into a tub of cucumber and yogurt dip or swallowing fistfuls of poached salmon.
"Aww, what a good baby," my mother would coo proudly every time I sent her a picture. "You were exactly the same. You ate tomatoes like apples and loved grilled liver and onions."
Thanks a lot, me.
Then I realized it. The reason I was so upset over my son's new eating habits was because I wanted to live up to those stories. I wanted my mom to see that I had carried on her traditions; that I worked full-time just like she did and still managed to get an impressive, well-balanced meal on the table every night. Turns out, it doesn't work all the time, on all kids.
"Your sister didn't eat anything but cold hot dogs and canned green beans for two years," my mom said, empathetically, when I finally revealed that my perfect eater hadn't consumed a nondairy protein in almost a month. "I used to sit on the kitchen floor and cry. Don't worry. It'll get better."
And it has. These days, Benjamin likes carrots and toast and pretzels dipped in peanut butter. He likes rice, fruit and yogurt, and will eat almost anything baked into a muffin.
We'll be fine. But what I wished I had said to those desperate mothers is this: Smoothies are your new best friend. Buy an overpriced blender, pulverize some kale with berries and silken tofu and give it to your kid, then pour yourself a glass of wine and let it go. It's going to be OK.