For years now I have kept a picture in my kitchen cabinet; it is a self-portrait of my friend Todd trying to decide what to have for dinner. In front of him lie three choices: Kraft macaroni and cheese, Top Ramen, and a loaded gun. (The fact that he was still alive to give me the picture tells me he must have chosen one of the first two).
I keep this picture for two reasons: one, it’s funny, and two, it is a reminder to me that I am now far beyond my ramen years, far beyond the days when I purchased food based on how many units of it I could get for a dollar. Gone are the lean college and post-college years when “fine dining” meant using real butter on your mac-n-cheese, and “splurging’ meant using two flavor packets on your ramen noodles. Now I am not only an adult, but an adult with an actual job that pays actual money, enabling me to therefore stock my kitchen cabinets with all kinds of actual food. Which makes it even harder to explain why, when I opened up my cabinet this morning I was confronted with box after box of macaroni and cheese.
It is the same with every parent I know. No matter how health-conscious, kosher, vegan or South Beach the parent happens to be, dig hard enough in their cabinet and you will find some version of macaroni and cheese. It is the food you reach for when all other food offerings have failed: when the sushi has elicited howls of despair, the pasta puttanesco has produced lip-curling sneers, and the meatloaf has generated newfound vegetarian conversions. It is, in the world of kid cuisine–where every attempt to introduce variety and/or flavor is inevitably met with the sort of disdain usually reserved for balding middle-aged men trying to pick up college girls–the equivalent of that same balding, middle-aged man just giving up and calling an escort service. In other words, it is a sure thing.
This is, unless of course, you happen to be one of those people who writes the books and magazine articles about how “easy” it is to get children to try new foods; for these child-feeding “experts” all you need to do is offer a variety of healthful, nutritious foods presented in a variety of “fun” options and children will instantly transform themselves into miniature gourmands. If only, they chastise, you would take the time to dress up their open-faced spelt bagel and hummus sandwiches with broccoli “hair”, red pepper smiles and olive eyes, then your child, too, would be joyfully gobbling down their healthful snack, instead of hanging off the refrigerator door like the world’s noisiest magnet screaming “Popsicle! Popsicle!” After all, that’s what worked for their little Jacob or Brianna, so why wouldn’t it work for you?
In rhetoric terms, this is what is known as a logical fallacy. Saying that my child will eat fresh vegetables because your little Jacob did is the same as saying the sun goes down because it is scared of the dark. Let’s face it: Jacob ate his fresh vegetables because he is a little freak. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that: lots of people are freaks, myself included. It’s only when freaky Jacob’s freaky mother writes a book about how the rest of us could get our children to eat fresh vegetables too if only we really tried that I start to have a problem with it.
In fact, the only thing that keeps my resentment at the thought of them enjoying their family dinners of eggplant, pad thai, and even such exotic dishes as rice in check is that same picture of Todd. That picture always reminds me that one day the Wheel of Fortune will swing even these children into their poverty-stricken early twenties, where they, too, will learn to make friends with the blue box. Let’s see their nutritionist mothers write a book about that.