My son has always had a hard time eating appropriately. Before he turned two, our pediatrician told us he clearly had a problem “pocketing” his food, which meant that he would stuff his mouth with more and more food, “pocketing” it in his cheeks like a hamster. Sometimes, we’d be brushing his teeth hours after dinner, and when he spit out his toothpaste, out would come half his dinner. I would dry heave into the toilet in disgust, trying not to shame him but having a hard time hiding my frustration between gagging fits.
We’ve tried lots of different strategies over the years with different goals in mind. We’ve tried the “you need to take at least a bite of something and swallow it before you decide you don’t like it” strategy, which resulted in more pocketing than ever. We’ve tried the “you don’t have to finish everything but don’t ask for more bread unless your plate is clean” strategy when he got a little older, and he ended up chewing and chewing the same bite of food for half an hour while we washed the dishes and cleaned the table around him. The doctor gave us suggestions (recently she became mildly concerned about his lack of vegetable intake), but nothing has ever really worked. These days, we’ve settled on making one dinner for the family; the rule is he doesn’t have to eat anything he doesn’t want to eat, but if he’s still hungry and doesn’t want the food on his plate, he gets a piece of bread with butter. We’re not making multiple meals each night. He eats a lot of bread with butter these days.
This has all been exasperated by his maturing psyche that begs to be treated like a “big kid.” He gets jealous of his older sister at restaurants when she orders like a matronly food connoisseur: “I’ll start with the lobster bisque and for my entree I’d like the truffle oiled baked mac’n’cheese.” It doesn’t help that we heap praise on her adventurous and varied palate, and he yearns for that kind of attention. What happens of course is that he orders something that he’ll never eat in a million years and then pushes it around his plate sheepishly wondering whether one bite or two will be enough to get dessert.
For now, we’ve taken to giving him tiny portions of protein and vegetables, which seem to cause him the most trouble, and heaping servings of carbs. A typical dinner plate for him will include about two cups of white rice, a barely visible morsel of chicken, and two green beans. He usually eats the rice, carefully maneuvering his fork around the chicken and beans, and then asks for his bread and butter.
Today at Thanksgiving dinner, he threw a fit when we didn’t serve him enough stuffing. I tried to reason with him that if he ate all of what little stuffing we gave him, he could have more, but that wasn’t good enough. “You aren’t me! You don’t know what I’ll eat!” he cried. I rolled my eyes, which egged him on even more. My husband gave me that “why can’t you just let him be six?” look and gave him a second spoonful of stuffing. Thirty minutes later, the entire pile of stuffing stood untouched on my son’s plate while he resisted the urge to pocket a second helping of turkey he insisted on receiving only because his sister asked for more. I looked at him and pleaded with him to just spit out the food in his mouth and be done, but he stalwartly chewed on. I think he’s still working on it now.
I think this all bothers me so much because of the complete lack of logic in it. If he doesn’t like the food, why does he put it in his mouth? Why can’t he just try a tiny bite and then swallow it down and say he doesn’t want any more? When we give him an option to just spit out his food with impunity, why doesn’t he take the opportunity and move on?
I have friends with underweight toddlers who probably cringe at reading something like this. I don’t know why I even choose to fight this battle night after night. We all have these pet peeves with our children that drive us nuts, and if other families are anything like ours, they even cause discord between the adults. My husband and I have completely different irritations when it comes to each individual kid. One of us will try to support the other while at the same time say with our eyes, “Does this really matter?”
We all know the answer. Of course it doesn’t matter. And at the same time it really does. The adult voice in our heads tells us that logically we should let it go, and in the moment, letting go feels like it will send our children down a slippery slope that ends in spoiled debauchery.
I’m getting better at letting it go, about not falling into the same routines night after night after night. It’s a slow process, but I guess I’m technically an old dog learning new tricks at this point. There are aspects of helping a young person lead a good and a right life that end up doing precisely the same thing for us as adults. As my kids gets older, I find that I’m maturing a bit too. Tonight, I’ll just sit and chew on that thought for a while as my son chews on that extra turkey he asked for.