From the time he was born at 4.2 pounds, five weeks early, now more than seven years ago, our son was a picky eater.
Told by doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to supplement Griffin’s meager intake of breast milk with formula, I tried six different brands—all of which either constipated him or caused the opposite problem—before finding one that brought my tiny son’s gastrointestinal tract to an uneasy equilibrium.
When he was old enough for solid foods, Griffin enjoyed spitting his mashed peas and carrots all over the kitchen floor. And as a toddler and now elementary school student, our son has refused to veer, even slightly, from a diet of milk, chicken nuggets and bagels and cream cheese, complimented by an occasional apple.
Griffin’s twin sister, on the other hand, has historically been a pleasure to feed. Georgia sucked down her breast milk and formula, slurped up a wide variety of mashed fruits and vegetables, and has heartily partaken in adult dishes at dinnertime, gliding smoothly, unlike her twin brother and younger sister, into dessert.
But with her recent entry into second grade, Georgia seems to have undergone a transformation in tastes that is causing me intense frustration. She has decided to exert her independence in the form of controlling her menus—an area I prefer she avoid, since I’m already overwhelmed trying to nourish her traditionally much finickier brother and sister.
It all started with a thermos.
“I think for second grade, I need a thermos,” Georgia informed me several days before school started. “You know, to bring soup or noodles in.”
No. I didn’t know. And those food items she listed were two of the only meals I could get everyone to agree on for dinner.
So, like any practical mother, I ignored my daughter’s request.
But Georgia remained undeterred, bursting into tears on our walk home from the bus after the first day of school, wailing that lunch had been “terrible.”
“Why? What happened?” I cried in alarm. “Didn’t you have anyone to sit next to?”
“No, nothing like that,” Georgia retorted with a sniffle. “The cream cheese you put on my bagel got all over my lunch box and my shirt!”
And for the next couple of hours, instead of telling me about her lovely new teacher, how she had arranged her supplies in her desk and what books she had checked out from the school library, Georgia aired her newfound culinary complaints.
“No more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she said. “I don’t like carrots in my lunch, unless you have those little packages of dip. And I don’t like my apples cut curved anymore. I like them cubed.”
“Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit far?”
“Maybe,” Georgia said, conceding at least on the apples. “But I still really need a thermos.”
As frustrated as I was by my daughter’s headstrong behavior, I also sensed that Georgia was working through an important though mysterious developmental issue—taking the form of dictating her lunchtime menu—the cause of which I would never unravel but that I instinctively understood I should try to respect.
So I spent a weary evening circling the crowded aisles of the Target off City Line Avenue, searching for one of those old-fashioned thermoses that I had had in the 1970s. But instead of finding plastic jugs encased in plaid, all I could see were rows of insulated coffee mugs in a myriad of shapes and sizes and an alarming array of water bottles with straws, spouts and spigots.
I was about to give up when I spotted a preteen in a school uniform, who directed me to the camping section, where she nostalgically caressed a squat Hello Kitty thermos I had somehow missed in my meanderings. “My mom used to put soup in one of these for me,” the girl said.
Georgia was ecstatic when I brought it home.
“Jiayi has this exact same one!” she exclaimed. “What are you going to make for me tomorrow?”
“Soup?” I limply offered.
“Yes!” Georgia said, triumphantly declaring the next afternoon that Hello Kitty had kept her chicken noodle warm.
As I hovered over the stove boiling pasta for my daughter at 7 the following morning, I noticed to my dismay that Griffin—who I had always been able to count on to demand only a cream cheese bagel, applesauce and milk for lunch—was eyeing the Spider Man thermos that I had felt compelled to buy him to match his twin sister’s.
“What could you put in that?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, sighing, overwhelmed, caving in. “Chicken nuggets?”
“But where would I get ketchup?”
Griffin shook his head.
“I know!” he proclaimed, offering a sudden epiphany. “You could put ice cream in it!”
“Maybe on your birthday,” I said.
Then I neatly tucked away one of the offending thermoses in a bottom drawer for what I hoped would be the rest of the school year.