Parents often hope their young children will embrace adventurous eating, that they look at new foods with wide-eyed wonder, and try everything put in front of them. Parents then typically discover this is a dream state that rarely finds a place in reality. Recently, our host Francis Lam has been excited that his infant daughter is showing promising signs of a foodie in the making. However, he’s anxious about what’s to come. For some advice, he talked with Matthew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg, co-hosts of the podcast Spilled Milk. They both have young kids of their own, and plenty of experience dealing with the topic. [Ed. Note: bring your family together around bowls of Braised Escarole with Beans, a recipe Wizenberg says her children love.]
Francis Lam: Is it true that my dear darling sweetheart baby is going to stop eating broccoli rabe and fish cheeks, and I'm going to resent her for it?
Matthew Amster-Burton: It might be true; that's the bad news. Everything you've done right so far is going to buy you absolutely nothing in about a year or so, when it's not just that she starts having opinions of her own, it's that she is going to get less hungry. A baby is doubling in size every couple of months. When they hit two years old, it slows down a lot, and they need to eat a lot less. That freaks parents out.
Molly Wizenberg: The other thing is that she's going to start figuring out that she has lots of opinions. There's a mixed blessing in there. My daughter is four, and I think if she were left to her own devices, she would eat all different forms of meat, all day long, supplemented with some fruit. And that's kind of cool to see that develop. But it is frustrating at times.
FL: Your daughter is paleo.
MW: Basically. So far, my tried and true method for eating happily with my child is to pretend that I absolutely don't care whether she eats what's in front of her or not. It's a radical, lazy approach, so to say.
Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster-Burton co-host the Spilled Milk podcast.
(Photo: Kyle Johnson)
FL: That's fascinating, because there are days where I try to feed my daughter, and she's just not into it, I start to panic. It's irrational, but I start to feel like, “Oh my god, what am I doing wrong?” just because she didn't want to have that piece of fish.
MAB: Aside from the nutritional part, as food people, we're programmed to feel personally offended when someone doesn't like the food that we made. And when it's this person that you love and want to share everything with, and they're like, “Nah, I don't like this,” I would feel crushed. But I knew that if I showed it, that light would go off in the little brain and be like, “Okay, this is my lever of control over Dad, and I am going to use it every day for the rest of my life.” She has plenty of levers of control over me that she does use, but I wanted to try and start to nip that one as much as possible. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes not.
FL: Stone-faced. Poker face.
MAB: I did not originate this idea. I got it from Ellyn Satter's book Child of Mine, which is a great book about feeding kids – from infants to teenagers. It's a very detailed book with lots of clinical angles, and I recommend it. It can be boiled down to this: share your own food with your baby, provide good food, and don't worry about whether -- and how much – they eat at any given meal.
MW: It's interesting too, because I grew up in a typical American household, where I had to have milk every night with dinner, I was supposed to finish the whole glass of milk, and I was supposed to take a "no, thank you” helping of everything, even if I didn't want it. It's a tricky balance to figure out how to help your child taste all the things you want them to taste, while also acting like you absolutely have no stake in the game. You're just putting the food in front of them, and they get to choose what they eat.
MAB: We have an important role here as parents, which is to make the food – or choose the food – and put it in front of them; to have it be a good, balanced, healthy, delicious arrangement of food, and then it's the kid's job to do the rest. We don't have to make sure it gets down their throat.
MW: All three of us are raising daughters. I think this a thing about wanting my daughter to know when she's hungry and know she's full and know what she wants. It's her body; she's in charge of it. It's a feminist issue.
Matthew Amster-Burton wrote the book Hungry Monkey about his experiences with encouraging his child to eat adventurously
FL: That’s interesting. The world is full of messages – particularly for young girls and women – about eating, what you should eat, what you shouldn't eat, how it's going to affect your body, how you're going to look, and how people are going to judge you. All that stuff is going to be bombarding them. But there's still this part of me that's always like, “I want you to be a great eater. I want you to be super adventurous.” But I don't know – does it matter? Am I trying to live vicariously through her? Why does it matter so much to us?
MAB: Whether it matters or not, the way she eats at age 1 or 2 or 3 or 8, is probably not going to resemble, that much, the way she eats when she's 25. I remember for me, I was a real picky eater when I was a kid. Then I got to college and saw there were all these different foods available at the dining hall, and a lot of the people around me were not picky eaters. I felt peer pressure, and at that moment I was like, “Okay, I'm going to hit the salad bar and try some of these things I see other people trying,” and they were good. Your kid's diet is not set magically at age 3 and is going to last the rest of her life. It continues to evolve. We focus on these times when kids are really picky, because they're expressing their opinions, and they're not very hungry. We think, “We have to solve this problem right now, or my kid is going to be in trouble.” And it just doesn't work that way.
MW: I think the tricky thing is, we're all perfect parents before we have kids. I think for those of us who are into food and love cooking and eating, we want the world to see our child as an adventurous eater. We don't want to be the parent that maybe we used to look at, who was letting their kid eat whatever. The truth of the matter is that I feel like my relationship with my daughter around food is fun and harmonious most of the time. We’re going to learn about food that we eat because it fuels our body and food that we eat because it's fun. And there's time and space for everything.
FL: I guess it's learn to let go, and let there be hope.
Matthew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg co-host the podcast Spilled Milk. Amster-Burton is also the author of Hungry Monkey, a book about his quest to raise an adventerous eater. Wizenberg writes about food and recipes at her blog Orangette.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.