I'm just going to come out and say it: I'm a struggling mother. I did my best to instill in my kids an appreciation for a variety of foods as early as made sense. Of course, I was concerned about having a good balance of nutrition, so I raised them to like vegetables—or so I thought. At some point, they began to assert that foods they used to like were no longer acceptable. I couldn't live on mac and cheese, and I couldn't stomach making multiple dinners. My husband was of the same mind. What's a mom to do?
I fell back on my agile skills. It was the only way to make it through.
One day, I left work early and headed for the grocery store. I was a sleep-deprived woman on a mission. I walked through the fresh food sections, throwing anything appealing or novel into the cart. Then, I headed for the condiments and canned foods. I selected a wide variety of dressings, dips, flavorings, and ingredients and tossed them in with the fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats.
Then, I went for the special sauce: neon poster board, Sharpies, and Dixie cups.
At this point, I was clutching the edges of the poster sheets while steering the ponderously heavy cart ever so carefully around corners, just hoping I didn't drop anything important on the way to the checkout. Unloading the cart to ring up the items took awhile, as did reloading the bagged food. I handed over my credit card without waiting (or wanting) to hear the transaction total. Fortunately, I'd picked a regular, everyday supermarket and not one of the fancy boutique options closer to work.
I wrestled the food into the car and then up the stairs to the kitchen, taking several trips. I wanted to have everything ready before I went to pick up the kids. I covered most of my kitchen counter with everything I'd bought, only then allowing myself to count the cost of this venture.
I put on my best smile and strode out again to retrieve the kids. All the way home, I chattered about how we were trying something new on Daddy's night out, a secret experiment. I don't know whether they bought it, but they listened tolerantly enough to my excitement.
As we walked up the stairs to the kitchen, they noticed the bright neon of the poster board. I suggested they each pick a color and then wrote each child's name at the top. Then, I proceeded to strip the refrigerator of every adornment, leaving it bare for the first time since we'd bought it. Not even one cute piece of childhood artwork remained. Then, I picked the strongest magnets and affixed the posters to the fridge, where they dominated the room.
On the lefthand column, I drew a smiley face; on the right, a frowny face. Now it was time to get down to business. I handed each kid a cup of water. I arranged a row of Dixie cups along the edge of the cutting board. I wielded a knife like a seasoned contestant on Iron Chef as I quickly produced a series of food samples and put them in the Dixie cups, ordering one bite, demanding judgment, and then letting the kids take a sip of water before whisking the Dixie cups off to the trash.
Bite. Rinse. Repeat. It was like the Lean Coffee of the vegetable world. The kids could make any necessary facial expressions, from downright disgust to utter joy. They didn't even have to speak on the subject: thumbs up or thumbs down, point and grunt, as long as a judgment was made.
Then, my older son stopped to say he didn't know whether this food was yummy or yucky. So we iterated and added a face in the middle of the poster boards
that had a flat line indicating an indifferent mouth, and we began a new "I don't know" list on each child's Big Visible chart.
As the evening drew to a close and my husband returned home, he was amazed by the abundance of empty plastic bags, scraps of partially devoured food, rinds, and peels, as well as the exhausted look on my face from an extended session of cajoling children to eat.