Kitchen Scene

“You need to just taste a bite.  Then you can tell me if you like it or not.” (We’ve already gone over how delicious it is. And how it will make our bodies strong. And that Daddy likes it. And that it contains things Eli thinks are tasty.)

Eli shakes his head. Thankfully, he almost never actually says no. I like to imagine that this word won’t crystallize in his vocabulary (although he can clearly communicate his meaning without the word).

“It’s fine if you decide you don’t like it. But you need to taste a bite before you decide.”

Eli takes the food in question, removes it from his plate, and puts it in the cup holder on his tray, a little circle which doubles as a reject pile. He shakes his head, emphatically this time.

“You need to taste it before you can have the strawberries.” I know this hits right at the heart of things – Eli could eat fruit, and only fruit, for every meal. We have to save it for the end or he’d never eat anything but fruit, yogurt, and cheese. Yes, sometimes we dangle produce like other families bribe with candy.

He scrunches his face in protest, squirming in his seat.  “Baba!”  (Translation: Strawberries!)

“Sure! Once you’ve tasted a bite, I’ll cut you up some strawberries.” I believe this is bargaining. Tends to fall on deaf ears, with toddlers.

Eli shakes his head again, and moves the offending food as far away from him as possible, maddeningly close to the tray’s edge, without actually throwing it overboard.

So this is how it’s going to be, I think, turning to clean up the kitchen. I take my time, loading the dishwasher, wiping the counter. Sometimes, by giving him some time and no audience, he will relent and begrudgingly try what I’ve offered him.  Often, trying leads to liking. I mean, I’m not force feeding the kid!  I’m just offering him the chance to taste something new, which is the only thing that can widen his food repertoire! I don’t think this is unreasonable.  I think, He’s hungry. He wants those strawberries. He’ll give in.  I'm not sure why I thought reason had anything to do with it.

I hear the thud of his sippy cup hitting the floor, and I know how this is going to end. I wait a minute before turning to address him, so he won’t think I’m reacting to the thrown drink (my policy is to ignore the first offense right now).  When I turn around to check his progress, the little morsel of food is still sitting there.

Eli wildly signs all done with his hands, and says, “Cloth! Cloth!” (Translation: Wipe me with the washcloth and let me out of here!). He has eaten virtually nothing for lunch.


I come from a family in which food is central, paramount. If you refuse a food, or seconds, or spoon only a polite taste of something onto your plate, the questions start flying. “Is that all you’re eating?  Is everything alright? Are you not feeling well?  Why aren’t you hungry? Did you eat before you came? Is something wrong? Is it too salty? Overcooked?”  Meals are high stakes here!  We live and die by our diner’s enjoyment of our cuisine, and appetite is seen as a potent proxy for general well-being.  The historical landscape of my family of origin – rich with comedy and Italian cultural commentary! – has in turn raised the stakes regarding food in the family I’m creating.  It’s possible that I’m elevating our classic toddler clashes-of-will over food to unnecessary heights of drama.  In truth, Eli is just as likely to eat as if he has a hollow leg as he is to selectively starve out of principle. And given his growth percentiles, he’s eating well enough to thrive.  

We often joke that Eli comes by his stubbornness honestly, considering the the stock he comes from. But the truth is, Eli is doing exactly what he should be at this age.  Asserting independence – that is the task of the 18-month-old!  It’s their major life’s work!  It is that important developmental project of differentiating themselves, their feelings, and their opinions from those of their parents, and it’s central to their emerging sense of self.  

Even the most easygoing and compliant of toddlers is, in his own way, beginning to draw the line in the sand between himself and others.  And as the mother of a little one who trails me from room to room through the house, and who often holds tightly to my leg in unfamiliar situations, I should be celebrating these moves toward independence. (On occasion, I've been known to measure the success of an outing in inches - that is, the distance Eli permits between his body and mine).  He is already such a little person, and he’s starting to deepen his understanding of what that means.  His desires and actions are apart from mine, and can even oppose mine – this is going to open up a whole universe of fascinating possibilities for him.  It is scary. But it excites me for him.  

So, I'm working on it.  My plan? Graciously accept the toddler refusals that don’t matter.  No green beans?  Fine.  Insisting on your favorite shoes?  Ok.  

It’s not obstinacy, it’s just little personhood blooming.


Campbell Family of 5 said...

Beautiful! And exactly what is going on in my house. My favorite "maddeningly close to the tray's edge"...mine inch it there while keeping one eye on me. I, too, am practicing the art of "ignoring". Thanks for sharing, you are an incredible writer!

mena said...

so well written and I can totally relate!


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