The hunger games

My partner, Edna, is an excellent cook. But she’s also a terrible worrier about things like BPA emissions and our son Ed, Jr.’s magnesium levels. The collision of these two traits has turned her into a mad scientist when it comes to feeding him.

At times, this causes…er, friction, since I worry too, but more about things like keeping him from falling from the top the garage (man, he got up there fast!), and raccoon bites.

It started out with her crazy dream of creating a kid who would eat anything—by passing all manner of foods to him through her breast milk. Six years later it’s clear her evil plan has worked.

Salty seaweed twists from Evergreen Chinese, with a serving of spicy Mapo Dofu? No problem. Al pastor tacos? Only if he gets extra lime juice on them! Even plain old Grapenuts are in the mix!

Yes, we’ve created a monster who’s the opposite of a picky eater; a kid with an incredibly broad palate—when he feels like eating, that is. Which is just about never, since things like dinosaur role-playing and belly button lint are far more interesting.

This demanded some extreme tactics during the early years, which Edna learned from her Bengali sister-in-law. ‘Sneak attack’ feeding involves time-intensive mini-assaults all day long—basically whenever the kid opens his or her mouth. Sitting on the floor, playing with a car? Attack with banana from the side! Kid at the table trying to say, “I don’t want to eat”? Slide some broccoli in there!

There was a lot of plain old wheedling, too, because it’s not easy getting ‘hard’ foods into a kid. That and the fact that Ed, Jr. learned to keep his mouth clamped tight pretty quick.

This is not how I ate as a kid. I gorged on bowlfuls of Cap’n Crunch, wolfed down hot dogs, and flattened platters of grilled cheese sandwiches. And if I happened to not like the fried fish we were eating? Then, tough nuts, Bucko—I went to bed hungry because my parents had bigger fish to fry, like keeping me from killing myself via copperhead snakes and dirt bike ramps in small town New Jersey. 

To her credit, Edna has a reason for all her worry. She works as a therapist in a school-based clinic and sees that the arms race of creating too-tasty foods (like salty-caramel-chocolate pretzels and super cheesy Cheetos) is creating dangerous impulses of another sort: narrow palates and food addictions.

Kids can’t fend off these foods, which focus on the easy calorie flavors that our nut-and-bug eating ancestors evolved to crave. It’s left us with kids who don’t know when they’re full, or even when they’re actually hungry.

Hunger games

Which brings me back to Ed, Jr.—who has a hunger problem of another sort. While I learned as a kid that the pain in my stomach meant that I needed to eat (or I’d hit the wall and get even stupider than I already was), Ed, Jr. still hasn’t made this connection. He can run for hours wound up on vapors and sunlight and then turn into a whining, crying, monster of crabbiness—so hungry he doesn’t know he needs to eat. This also causes friction for me, and Edna, and Ed, Jr.

This means that until recently I quietly gave Ed, Jr. just about anything to prime his pump.

The transformation is often miraculous. After 10 minutes the whining turns to chatter and Ed’s frown turns upside down. Once I have my homo sapiens back, I can finally coax some healthier food into him, but Edna can’t believe I just fed the kid salty-caramel-chocolate pretzels. I can’t believe she didn’t realize that he was physically tapped out. Hence more friction. There has to be a happier mean.

The solution was that it was easier to accept the mad scientist’s vision than fight it, but also to use my own food-clock as my guide. If easy-bonk dad is hungry, then Ed, Jr. must be, too. But I don’t just shove any old thing into him. I’ve got a secret weapon nowadays in the form of banana-blueberry smoothies pumped up with whey powder. If I can get even a sip into him to prime the pump, he’ll down the rest on his own. Pistachios work, well, too, with the added bonus that the shells make a mess. That gets him ready to actually eat dinner, when the big guns come out again. Stuff like yam curry and chard on quinoa with Sriracha sauce.

In the ruminant calm that comes with Ed, Jr.’s steady chewing, Edna can turn her laser beam of worry onto other topics—like the state’s inadequate lead level standards and how she may have to put us all on the Paleo diet.

And I can relax along with Ed, Jr., chewing in sync with him as I calmly reach over to remove the butter knife he’s about to stick into his ear.

 Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at [email protected] with thoughts or suggestions.