the battle of the tomato (or how you can’t force a kid to love food)

Today on Facebook, I came across a provocative (& depressing) article that was shared via several parenting pages–an article about how one mom basically uses the “my way or the highway” approach to her 2-year-old when it comes to eating. You can read it here. And you can read all the opposing comments that are on two sides of the Food Battle: parents who applaud this mom for not taking any shit, & parents who are dismayed at her lack of empathy & sensitivity.

What disturbed me first about the article is that the writer posts a photo of her daughter at the dinner table–crying. She doesn’t use this image of her daughter to elicit any sympathy–she uses it to degrade her, make an example of her pickiness. I don’t see “pickiness” when I look at it though; I see suffering. I see a 2-year-old who, for whatever reason, is not enjoying mealtime. The mother says that, “Right now, every dinnertime, my desire for parenting is pitted against my daughter’s determination not to eat.”And her strategy? She tells her daughter, “Either eat or starve.”

Ironically, the mother says, “I view food and mealtimes as earthly communion. It’s our time to reunite, to talk, to eat,” but she immediately follows it with “and if you don’t like it, you learn to smile, wash your bites down with your milk, and hope dessert is good….[because] respecting mealtime is important. Not just for learning how to be part of a family, but because it’s one of the ways you are evaluated as a person. Want to go on a date? Inevitably you will share a meal. New job? You go to lunch with your co-workers. From interviews to friendships, most of life’s most important relationships are conducted through meals.”

Let’s look at the irony here: She hopes to teach her child to do well during personal & professional meals in the future by using snarky comments such as “tough” when her child makes a request for something that isn’t on the menu. I can just see how those conversations will go during an interview over a lunch. What this mom doesn’t understand is that she assumes her child will always be the subordinate, the one controlled–& that is how she currently wants it. She doesn’t think that one day, maybe her daughter will be the bitch that tells someone else their feelings don’t matter.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my family went out to Sizzler, a mid-priced steakhouse, to eat. We didn’t eat out often, so it was a treat to go with my parents, my sister, & my grandparents. I ordered a hamburger which came with a very thick slice of beefsteak tomato on top of a piece of lettuce. I assembled my burger, dressed it, & enjoyed every bite. Except for the tomato. I couldn’t stomach tomatoes at all, & it had already been a problem at home, when my mom would prepare dishes with tomatoes–squash & tomatoes, liver & tomatoes, potato & tomatoes. At the end of the meal at Sizzler, I had eaten everything on my plate but that slice of tomato. As the meal wound down, my father told me, “You need to finish that tomato.”

I stared at him in disbelief & confusion. How did he not know that I didn’t like tomatoes? Like, couldn’t eat them. They made me gag. We had already been through this–many times at home. Did he not remember?

I told him, “I can’t.”

He said, “You will.”

And so the battle ensued. Horribly.tomato

Looking back, it’s amazing how much power a parent has over a child. I was not chained to the chair–but I stayed. I didn’t run away. (Many of the commenters to the blog post said, “She doesn’t force her child to eat,” but I ask: Does the child feel forced? Does the child feel like there are any other options but “eat & please my parent, or don’t eat & risk wrath/punishment, or starve”?) I cut a piece off of the tomato, put it in my mouth, & gagged. Tears welled up in my eyes from the taste & the frustration. I sensed with great gravity my father’s anger–& found it impenetrable. As I cried, my grandparents & mother started to protest, & my father angrily ordered them to go wait in the car.

At this point, the entire restaurant, crowded on a weekend night, could hear our battle. When I started to cry in earnest, the room went silent for those moments during which time seems to stop. Which only of course made it impossible for my father to back down. I stared through tears at this enormous slice of tomato for what seemed like an eternity. I knew I would throw up if I tried to eat it. I don’t know what it was about the taste of tomato that so turned my stomach, but it was visceral; it was not a choice, it was not pickiness. Did my parents think I would really “pick” for them to be so mad at me everytime a tomato was on the menu?

Finally, I came up with the idea to drown my tomato slice in–ironically–ketchup. Yes, I hated tomatoes, but I like ketchup. I cut the tomato into tiny pieces & ate each one with a huge dollop of ketchup. I got the tomato down. While choking back tears & the occasional wretch.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” my father said.

Well, let’s see if it wasn’t so bad: It did not make me like tomatoes. It did not make me like my dad. It did not increase my appreciation for food “while so many children in Africa are starving.”

It wasn’t bad–it was horrible. In the moment, it was humiliating, confusing, & physically painful. In the long term, it always made me wonder what the point of it was. Why pick that battle?

10356523-happy-tomato-characterAnd so it is funny that sometime in college, I started to like tomatoes. On salads, in sandwiches. I developed a taste for them. A chef boyfriend of mine helped me discover that it was mostly the seedy, gooey part that I didn’t like. One time while visiting home, I voluntarily ate a tomato without any fanfare at a family meal, & my mother said, “I thought you hated tomatoes.”

“I like them now.” Cuz that just happens sometimes.

“See, it’s good I forced you to eat them,” said my father.

It was pointless to argue that that probably wasn’t the reason that I liked them now.

So, now I have a daughter, our second child, who really doesn’t care for a lot of kinds of food. She likes what she likes, & she doesn’t like a LOT of stuff–at least stuff that I prepare or buy. And while I do get frustrated after preparing a meal, & she wants no part of it, I try not to take it personally. It’s not about me. It’s about her taste buds.

So you know what wasn’t so bad about being forced to eat that tomato in Sizzler? I learned I’d never do that to my own kid. So in that way, Dad (bless you), it is good you forced me to eat it. đŸ™‚


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