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Debbie Koenig Headshot

Why I Am Leaving My Kitchen

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Today is my last day in this Williamsburg kitchen. After 8 years here -- first as a newlywed, then as a fledgling food writer, and now as a mom and family-friendly cookbook author -- I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people, and its potential for rewarding, Hallmark-ready family time. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, enjoying food continues to be sidelined in the way my 5-year-old son approaches the table. While once he favored pesto above all else and gobbled guacamole by the messy handful, now he disdains anything green, as well as several other colors of the rainbow. His Will Eat list has dwindled so much from the lengthy, dare I say sophisticated, tally it once was that it now fits on a Post-It note. I can no longer in good conscience cook dinner and expect that he will eat it. So for today, at least, I'm walking out.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, especially since my cookbook is all about feeding your baby the same things you're eating from the very beginning, but for the last 3 years our family dinners have become increasingly anxiety-ridden. It began when those dinners were switched to family breakfasts, to accommodate my husband's work schedule. Harry, our son, never saw us savoring the things I was trying to feed him, usually our leftovers from the night before. To him, my colorful, well-balanced meals were cause for suspicion, not part of a loving family ritual.

I tried to remain calm, to tell myself this was just a toddler asserting his independence, but my frustration showed. Harry, sensing an opportunity to exert some power in his little world, upped the ante. Entire categories of food disappeared from his roster quicker than I could say, "But you love meatballs!"

I knew it was time to leave when Harry entered the kitchen last night, took one look at the plain pasta with olive oil on his plate -- the result of his refusal to so much as taste any variation on sauce, and until that moment one of a handful of always-embraced meals -- and announced, "Pasta again? I hate pasta!"

When I was a new mom I didn't know where my own strengths lay, or how to resist my son's instinctive manipulations. He weighed barely 6 pounds at birth and has always hovered on the low end of the curve. I just wanted him to get some nourishment, however he'd accept it, and in my concern I lost control of the kitchen reins.

My proudest moments in life -- losing 100 pounds, persevering through 18 months of infertility, publishing that cookbook -- have all come through hard work, with the understanding that at some point it would pay off. My kitchen today has become too much about "what will Harry eat" and not enough about exploration and pleasure. It just doesn't feel right to me anymore.

But I'm no employee. Cooking for my family isn't a job I can resign, any more than I can resign as my (mostly) sweet little boy's mom. Plus, he's 5. Harry's not the one who needs to make conscious changes; I am.

So here's my plan: I'm going to re-read "Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense" by Ellyn Satter, R.D., until I commit the following to memory: I am responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding; Harry is responsible for the how much and whether of eating. Starting tomorrow, I'll reconfirm my resolve to a variety of healthy options and let him eat what appeals to him, without interference from me.

When he wrote "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs," now former executive director Greg Smith said he hoped his words would be a wake-up call to the board of directors. I hope this will be a wake-up call to Harry as much as it is to me: Make variety the focal point of your eating again. Without variety you will not find a party in your tummy. In fact, you will miss out on a lifetime of enjoyment. Weed out the knee-jerk responses to new flavors, no matter how convinced you are that you won't like them. And get the attitude right, so I'll enjoy wielding my potholders again. Peanut butter sandwiches, yogurt, and whole-grain goldfish crackers will not sustain your body -- or my sanity -- for much longer.