THE BLOG
11/25/2013 03:57 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Fork in the Road: A Mother's Prayer for a Picky Eater

The List is anchored to the refrigerator door with a four-inch magnet of Max. That's Max from the Maurice Sendak book, the willful, inventive, pajama-clad protagonist of Where the Wild Things Are. The List, on our fridge long enough to have acquired spatterings of tamari and smears of applesauce, was my attempt to codify my daughter's maddening eating habits into a document that might actually help us plan menus.

Under EGGS, for instance, I brainstormed: French toast, scrambled eggs, omelettes, hard-boiled... The SOY heading includes tofu, veggie sausages, soy bacon, tempeh and soy-milk smoothies.

There's only one problem with this list. Actually, there are many problems, according to Sasha. Some days, she will gobble a warm Boca sausage and ask for more; other days, the disc sits on her plate, hardening to hockey-puck consistency. She grimaces after her one required bite of shrimp dumplings, cauliflower or baba ghanouj. On the other hand, she will happily eat an artichoke all the way to the tender heart, pulling the fleshy nub of each leaf across her proud, permanent front teeth.

She will scarf down an adult-sized portion of salmon but reject the rice bedded by its side because "it's the wrong color." When we serve greens, no matter how tenderly sautéed with garlic, olive oil and Mexican sea salt, she winces as if we've forked over a bed of hot grass clippings. French toast can't be too eggy, yogurt can't be too watery, the milk can't be one degree away from ice-box cold.

One recent morning, I was in a hurry, dashing around for my cell phone but forgetting my earrings, nearly tripping over the cat as I hurtled down the basement stairs in search of a laundered shirt.

"Sasha," I called from below. "Would you like a smoothie?"

"I guess. Okay." In the kitchen, I dumped two ice cubes, a frozen banana, a container of mocha yogurt and some soy milk into the blender. Two minutes later, I poured a latte-colored, banana-scented treat into a wide glass and poked in a straw.

Sasha took a sip. "I don't like it."

"What's not to like? It's delicious!" I demonstrated by slurping directly from the blender. A large blob of deliciousness landed on my black linen vest.

"Damn! I have to change. Drink your smoothie. We're late." And I raced upstairs again, leaping over an unzipped backpack and a wooden Matryoshka doll napping in someone's slipper. When I came back to the kitchen, Sasha was pouring cornflakes into a bowl and drowning them with soy milk. She stirred the cereal, pensive as she watched each flake bob, then succumb to the creamy flood. She took a bite, considering.
"They're too..." She searched, my eight-year-old, for the precise word to convey her displeasure. "They're too...corny."

"Sasha, they're CORNFLAKES!" I grabbed the box as evidence. "See, corn is the first ingredient!"

She looked at me evenly as I jabbed the microscopic print. My wild thing; my daughter who befriends a piece of string and draws houses with 27 windows; my child who seems, some days, to live on air.

"I said they're corny. But I meant it the other way."

How old was I when my palate began to assert itself? Or, more precisely, when I understood, with a clarity that would have made Freud beam, that food is never just food: it is self-expression and autonomy, connection and rebellion.

An early memory: I am young enough to eat in a high chair, young enough to giggle when my Pop-pop clangs a fork against my parents' wedding crystal, singing "C-A-T, cat, R-A-T, rat," never missing a teachable moment. I am young enough to be fed by someone else's hand. I watch my Pop-pop crack a soft-boiled egg into a bowl of mashed potatoes and whisk it a few times, then hoist one gelatinous spoonful toward my mouth. Rivulets of unstirred yolk drip from the sticky potatoes; a blob of egg white falls from the spoon. I will not have it. I reach out one chubby fist and capsize the bowl.

Later, at seven, I will squirrel nubs of untasted lamb chop under the cushion of the kitchen chair. At ten, the foods I crave -- Lucky Charms, strawberry Pop-Tarts, nitrate-filled hotdogs from Howard Johnson's, candy corn -- are precisely the ones my health-conscious mother forbids. Certain textures and tastes will offend my sensibilities -- the furred skin of a peach, the silken threads clinging to ears of grilled corn, greenish juice from canned peas sluicing into my grilled cheese sandwich. I will hate the foods other kids love -- peanut butter, chocolate ice cream, meringue -- and like the ones they despise, including mushrooms, creamed spinach and lobster.

At two, I do not know all this. I do not know that I won't eat another egg for seventeen years. But I know what I want. I find and assert, without difficulty, the bright line between desire and repulsion.

It's good to be able to locate that boundary, to know what you seek and what you find distasteful. Gut feeling isn't the whole of morality, but it's not a bad place to begin; my stomach churns, and I literally lose my appetite, when someone tells a racist joke or when I read about crude oil pooling into the Gulf of Mexico.

What I want is for Sasha to follow her body's hungers, to know what she can and can't abide: where food is concerned, sure, but also, later, with sex and jobs and partners and politics. Where does that self-knowledge start? Maybe when an adult hand zooms in with a spoonful of "yummy mashed potatoes," and the kid clamps her jaw resolutely shut.

As Sasha gets older, I hope she will consume -- food, knowledge, life itself -- with curiosity, awareness and pleasure. I hope she will let herself be altered by experience and exposure (I was finally persuaded to try an omelette at age 19, and discovered I liked its fluffy, eggy saltiness.) If it's true that you are what you eat, I hope Sasha's menu will be one of continued discovery, a lifelong dance between the comforts of habit ("I'll just have the usual") and the lure of the new and untried ("Paella del dia, Francisco, por que no?")

In the meantime, though, there are stretches when her dinner plate is a monochromatic still life: sesame bagels, vanilla yogurt, white rice, chicken nuggets, sliced turkey on a naked hoagie roll ("yes, I really do mean hold the mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato and oil"). Other days, she yearns for the flavorful and foreign: vegetable mandu hand-pinched by a Korean woman in a kerchief, available from one particular storefront on 32nd Street in New York, or Middle Eastern dolmas, mint-inflected and tangy with lemon juice.

She revels in her own contradictions -- one the one hand, a yen toward vegetarianism ("I just think it's mean to eat animals"), but on the other, a hunger for that occasional filet mignon. Last week, she ate quiche, crepes and asparagus. This morning, she rejected a piece of buttered toast. And so, I'm learning. If I put down a homemade burrito, plump with refried beans, and remind her, in my most enthusiastic tone, that "you loved that when you ate it last Tuesday," I know I'll be met by an implacable smile: Yes, but last Tuesday, Ama dear, I was a different person.