"What's she eating these days?" the pediatrician asked when I took my 4-year-old daughter Petunia to her annual checkup last month.
I rolled my eyes. "The same three things she's only ever eaten: peanut butter and jelly, cheese pizza without the cheese and pasta without the sauce. She'll nibble on the occasional chicken nugget, but she's otherwise entirely meat-averse unless it's bacon."
I expected the doctor to say what she's said the past couple of years when I've given the same answer, which is that it's fine; she's healthy and she'll eat other food when she's ready.
Only this time the answer was different.
"It's time she starts trying other food," the pediatrician said. "Bribe her, reward her, force her - do whatever you need to do - but she needs more variety in her diet."
Easier said than done.
Food hasn't been a battle I've been willing to engage in, mostly because we have enough battles with Petunia in the morning and at bedtime as well as most of the hours between. (When she's with everyone else, however, she's simply darling, or as one friend put it, she's a home devil and street angel.) Plus, I figured if she stays on course for the next quarter of a century or so, I'll save a fortune on her wedding reception because the only entree choice will be Kraft macaroni and cheese.
But there comes a time in every little girl's life when Goldfish and bagel chips must fall off the list of major food groups. So since our doctor's visit, I've made an effort to get her to try a bite of a new food every day. It doesn't even have to be a healthy food, just something different if she wants dessert after dinner.
The first new food adventure involved a Cherub tomato, a chase around the neighborhood, a small amount of vomit, a slammed door and not a few tears. The next evening, a quarter-teaspoon of a baked sweet potato resulted in an act so intriguing and insane that Lady Macbeth reciting her "Out, damned spot" monologue seems like a bunny rabbit on Xanax by comparison. Twice-baked tomatoes equaled four times the drama. The mere sight of a cucumber slice produced just as much theatrics and hysterics and, ultimately, total failure. And that's as far as we've gotten since every other new food attempt has been met with total indifference and flat-out rejection.
"No, thanks. I don't want ice cream tonight," Petunia has said almost without exception since the new edict went into effect. "No new food today."
My younger daughter, on the other hand, is a world-champion eater. Peony, 1, gobbled up sea bass at a bar mitzvah the other day, along with the accompanying black bean and corn relish. She also lapped up some white bean dip, inhaled an olive tapenade and devoured a pumpernickel role with raisins - all while Petunia picked out the raisins from her roll, studied them and promptly decided they were inedible because they were yellow and "not raisin-y enough."
She ultimately consented to gag down some plain pasta (without the "sprinkles," or faintest-ever specks of parsley) after an exceedingly patient member of the wait staff kindly agreed to ask the kitchen to refrain from poisoning it with the light, barely discernible sauce with which it had been sprinkled.
For all of 10 seconds one night, I debated trying to hide some healthy food in unhealthier items, but since everything she eats is totally plain and utterly naked, there's nowhere to hide. Besides, I've never quite understood the reasoning behind disguising broccoli in brownies or squash in baked ziti.
First, who are we kidding? My daughter's 4 and was born with a reasonably high IQ and all taste buds intact. I guarantee the first time she spots a floret mixed in with chocolate chips, the jig will be up. Second, at what point do you tell your kids you've been lying to them all along, and they liked spinach in their cookies, so now they should be expected to eat it plain after it's been sauteed with a little garlic and lemon?
What's a shame is that my daughters' health won't average out like my mom report card will. Which is to say, if I get a B in parenting because one of them gets an A on her food report card and the other gets a D on hers (yes, I rounded up), that D will still mean I'll really get an F nevertheless.
I suppose Petunia will eat when she's hungry or when she finally can't stomach the thought of another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, although I suspect the latter will ensure the former never happens.
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