I don’t like vegetables. They don’t taste good to me. I eat them because I’m supposed to.
As a kid there were countless evenings when I would sit at the dinner table looking at the three spoonfuls of green peas my parents required me to eat and pretend they weren’t there. After eating everything else on my plate, making at least two trips to the bathroom, and watching my mother unhappily clean up all the dishes around me, I would finally relent and choke down those cold, slimy little balls. Usually, I gagged a bit on each mouthful.
It wasn’t until I turned sixteen that this approach to vegetables began to shift. That summer, I dated a girl two years older than me. Her family always ate a salad with their dinner. While I never touched a salad at home, I thought it would look childish of me to not eat a salad when I had dinner with them. Much like drinking beer, the first couple of times I ate their salad it did not taste very good. But, I gradually learned what to expect and got used to the taste and texture of all those leaves in my mouth. Eventually, I even came to enjoy a good salad on occasion (though I still can’t stand that iceberg lettuce you get at low end restaurants and in cheap bags of salad. Why does anyone willingly eat that stuff?)
My relationship with other vegetables followed a similar trajectory. After getting started with salad, I took on some of the other plants – broccoli, carrots, spinach, green beans, etc. I quickly learned to eat them first, the flavor of fresh, hot vegetables being much more tolerable than lukewarm, soggy ones. I even found that a few raw carrots or slices of bell pepper could be enjoyable when I am feeling adventurous. They’ll never take the place of a piece of beef or slice of cheese, but veggies have now found a regular spot in most of my dinner selections.
I bring this up because I am actively trying to keep from passing my vegetable aversions on to my children. To this end, once Pip and Polly started eating solid foods, I made a concerted effort to ply them with as many vegetables as possible. My hope was that by flooding them with spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, and the like, we could align their taste buds to favor a range of vegetables and avoid the kind of drama that I subjected my parents to.
This has not really come to pass with Pip. During the past year or so, he has been gradually dropping various vegetables from his list of acceptable foods. Avocados went first. Then zucchini. Then spinach. Then broccoli. Then carrots. We’ve been able to hold the fort with green beans, green peas, corn, and butternut squash, but I live in fear of the time when these too will drop away, leaving us completely dependent upon multi-vitamins to keep Pip functioning properly.
This past week, however, things took a turn for the better. For reasons that are not fully clear to me, Pip suddenly took an interest in trying some new (and previously dropped) foods. It could be that he is trying to keep up with Polly, who ravenously demands a piece of just about anything that shows up on our plates. It could be that he has recently seen adults besides his parents eating and enjoying these foods. It could be that he has just entered into an exploratory period, one of those developmental sweet spots when suddenly he is more willing then usual to try new and different things.
Whatever it is, this week Pip happily ate broccoli and carrots again, tried spanakopita and like it, and willingly put meat sauce on his pasta for the first time. Just like that four more foods - including three vegetables - were added to his ‘will eat’ column. I felt like celebrating.
As I heated up some more broccoli for Pip on Tuesday, three different things came to mind:
First, it’s nice to have our patience rewarded. Ava and I have worked hard to not make a big issue out of Pip’s diminishing vegetable preferences. We have tried to let him be, offering new possibilities when he shows some interest, but not pushing him or punishing him when he says he doesn’t like something. Our hope was that this would enable Pip to feel in control of his food choices and leave him more willingly to try new things on his own. It is gratifying that this strategy seems to be working.
Second, this success with Pip gives us more confidence to follow the same strategy with Polly. This confidence already is paying dividends as Polly is more willing to try things than Pip ever was at the same age. She will even demand food - like lasagna, for example – that we had never even thought to give her. So, even though she has dropped a couple of foods recently – most notably, avocados – we’re not that concerned.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and learning since posting a few thoughts about preschool a couple of weeks back. One of the comments I received on that posting included the conventional wisdom that you can’t teach your own kids as well as someone else can. I’ve been pondering this question and the theory I’ve come to is this: We teach our kids things all the time – from how to address people to how to eat with a spoon to how to use a toilet. Why would formal education be any different? I’ll grant that I can’t teach my children things the same way a school teacher would. But that has less to do with a stranger vs family dynamic and more to do with a class vs one-to-one dynamic. A school teacher can do drills or regimented lessons with a class because no one student has to be ‘on point’ the entire time. The responsibility for answering questions and producing work can get passed around. Parents and children do not have the same kind of buffers. So, a different approach is in order. As a parent, I have to be an opportunistic teacher, coming at subjects like reading, writing, geography, history, or math from an oblique angle, taking advantage of moments of curiosity in my children to introduce and tie together these things.
This is how Pip came to eat four new foods this week. Ava recognized that Pip was showing extra interest in what we had on our plates. She offered some of those new foods to Pip, and he decided to give them a try. If we had played the classroom teacher, bringing out these same foods and employing our authority to make him eat them, I suspect he would not be willingly consuming those foods again for a long time. Then we would be stuck waiting for someone else to convince him that vegetables are worth eating, just like me some seventeen years ago.