Don't judge me. Sometimes I just want my children to eat their meals, even if they are not models of nutritional value. I carefully pack their school lunches each morning with foods they have eaten and enjoyed. I also throw in a few different foods once a week to add some variety. But when I empty out their lunch bags eight hours later, I sadly find half-eaten sandwiches, untouched apples, and congealed cheese sticks. With three small mouths to feed, it's not easy finding foods that are tasty and nutritious that will satisfy a 6-year-old and 3-year-old twins.
This is especially true for my daughter Nina. Until recently, Nina did not eat solid foods. Anything I could puree, Nina would eat. Vegetable and chicken soups, avocados, smoothies, and applesauce were her favorites. She ate avocados as a snack, for lunch, and had avocados with soup and applesauce for dinner. On a weekly basis, it was normal to have over 20 avocados in my house in various stages of ripeness, ready for whenever Nina was hungry. And I was happy that at least she was eating a healthy fruit that was good for her. I continued to pack Nina's lunch with the usual suspects, but also included solids that resembled what the rest of the family was eating. But there was never any pressure for her to eat these items, only hope.
So, when Nina ate a chicken nugget the other day, I quickly averted my eyes and busied myself with something in the kitchen. A few minutes went by and still, I did not make eye contact with her. Nina gets very upset when people pay attention to her when she's doing something that she doesn't usually do. After about five minutes, I gave her minimal praise ("Good work, Nina"). She barely glanced at me, and continued to devour her delicious chicken nugget. I smiled, and slowly exhaled.
As a parent who had waited over two years for her child to eat solid foods, it was a major relief. Biting, chewing, and swallowing that chicken nugget was a huge developmental milestone that Nina had finally reached. Oddly enough, her graduation from pureed foods to chicken nuggets occurred at the same time as this recent article about what exactly is in a chicken nugget. Although Nina had moved up the food pyramid and was actually eating a solid protein, this protein was a little sketchy. A chicken nugget does not resemble chicken, and according to the article, "Many companies use a mixture of chicken parts, muscles, and fat from chickens rather than the actual chicken itself to make nuggets." The remaining juicy ingredients often consist of fat, blood vessels, and nerves.
The report was disturbing and made my stomach turn, but I took some comfort in the fact that the chicken nuggets I gave Nina were "veggie fed, breaded chicken breast patties with rib meat." They weren't the healthiest option, but they weren't the unhealthiest choice either. I chose to see the silver lining of this particular situation. My daughter was eating solids!
Joey, Nina's twin, started eating solids at 7 months old while she refused them and continued to eat purees. We soon discovered that she had serious sensory issues involving chewing and biting. My husband and I took her to many feeding therapists who worked with her on getting comfortable with food. As Nina became more comfortable touching and licking foods, we remained optimistic that eventually she would eat solids. But over the past two years we had seen minimal results.
In August, while Nina was in summer camp, she suddenly moved from purees to graham crackers. Then this fall, when Nina starting going to school five days a week, we were hopeful that peer pressure would continue to nudge her in the direction of eating more solids. Sitting with her peers during snack time definitely made Nina feel more comfortable around different foods. She became curious about what her friends were eating, and eventually felt safe in the knowledge that trying a particular snack was OK. A month later, she no longer sucked the salt off of French fries and discarded them in a limp, soggy mess on her plate. Nina bit, chewed, and swallowed French fries. Hallelujah!
Now, my daughter is eating the same kinds of food, albeit processed, as many children her age. However, unlike her brothers and many of her peers, Nina ate vegetables every day when I pureed her foods and was none the wiser of how many vegetables she was consuming. Now that she's eating solids, I'm sure I'll struggle with her as I do with her brothers to get her to eat a decent amount of vegetables every day. That's a huge serving of irony that I have a hard time swallowing.
Nina's evolution from purees to solid foods has been long and stressful. But recognizing her desire to belong and to be part of a group is the most vital nugget of information that I've learned from Nina's struggles. When we sit down to dinner as a family and she looks onto her plate and sees food that is similar to ours, she radiates happiness.
Eventually, I'll introduce Nina and her brothers to healthier snack options such as homemade chicken nuggets, sweet potato fries, kale chips, and edamame. But for now, when Nina says, "Mama, chicken nugget is yummy," it truly fills my heart with joy.