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Mean Parent Confessions: My Kids Eat What I Serve or They Don't Eat at All

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First appeared on Food Riot, by Amanda Nelson

What I'm about to say will remove me from the Hip Parent Club and place me firmly in the Old-Fashioned Parent Club along with dads who wear khaki shorts with white socks and sneakers and moms who require their children to say "yes, ma'am," so prepare yourself to throw stones my way: my children eat what I prepare, or they don't eat anything.

My reasons for this, like everything having to do with parenting, are personal: I don't have the energy or the time to be a short-order cook in my own home. I don't want my kids to think they can customize the world to their liking by having a tantrum when something happens to not suit their whims. I don't want them to eat only bread and cheese and bread and cheese (which is exactly what would happen if I let them pick their meals). Admittedly, there's also a bit of My Parents Never Made More Than One Meal And I Had To Eat What Was In Front Of Me And I Turned Out Alright, Dammit, with a side of Because I'm The Parent And I Said So.

All those reasons play a big role in my mean mommyhood, but there's also this big one: there is very little on this Earth that I find more irritating than a grown-up human being who is as picky as a child. Not just someone who is picky, but has high levels of pickiness combined with the demanding entitlement of a toddler. Being as picky as a child means someone's gumming up the works at a restaurant, asking 50 million unnecessary questions about the chicken breast they want and making all those substitutions, dear Lord, you are not in When Harry Met Sally. Being as picky as a child means that you're That Person at the dinner party making the host run ragged trying to accommodate how you just don't eat this or that and can't be bothered to eat around it (pickiness in the face of someone who is literally and figuratively serving you being the height of rudeness to my Southern sensibilities).

Being as picky as a child -- and I don't mean just not liking some things and carrying on about your business, I'm talking pickiness that negatively affects other people -- shows a weird dearth of open-mindedness, an "I like what I like and that's all that I like" nose-in-the-air 'tude that implies a lack of culinary adventuresomeness (similar to, ya know, a toddler's).

Well that got a bit out of hand. MOVING ON. So, I place a really high value on raising my kids to not be a pain in the ass when taking in other people's hospitality. To that end, dinner goes like this: I make a thing and serve the thing. The children are required to take one bite of the thing (I find this to be really important, especially since mine are young enough that any new food -- which, when you're 3, is still probably most of the foods -- is frightening).* If they do not like the thing, they are free to get down and go on their merry way. There's no after-dinner snacking because you're hungry because you decided not to eat the thing. There's no negotiation, there's no mommy making other things.**

The results so far: Who knows? They're only 3, they don't know what they like. They'll eat beans and quinoa and peas and goat cheese with no complaint, but won't eat any sort of leafy green, red peppers, eggs that aren't cooked the "right" way, chicken nuggets (what kid doesn't like... whatever), or really any meat. They'll chew on a raw onion with wild joy, then randomly decide that grapes are the devil's eyeballs. When they're older and have developed more firm ideas about actually not liking something (as opposed to just trying and failing to exert their will, toddler-style, in any way they can), I'll take those ideas into consideration when I make a meal.

But the best result of my mean-meanness is this: I only cook once per night and then I sit down on the couch, amen and hallelujah. And I hope I hope I hope that maybe it will mean that someday, when their adventures take them to the table of a stranger who is serving something unfamiliar, they'll eat it with an open mind and an of-course-I'll-have-some grateful attitude that they'll owe JUST THE TEENIEST TINIEST BIT to their parents.

*The American Psychological Association and the USDA say it can take a kid nine to twelve times to accept a new food, which is why I always require them to take at least one bite.

**Since this is the Internet and parenting is second only to politics in the rage it induces in the comments, let me go ahead and say these few things before someone else does: No, my children are not starving or even mildly unhealthy. No, refusing to cook separate meals for my children is not child abuse. No, I don't think this is the only way to create adventurous eaters -- it's just what works for us right now. And no, I'm not talking about children/people who have allergies or any other medical or ethical dietary restrictions. Carry on.