Perhaps the earliest of adulthood's unsolved mysteries -- other than the opposite sex -- came abruptly one fall day my freshman year when I woke up with a craving for peas.
Not green peas fresh from the pod, but rather those muted gray-green pearls that acquire their own flavor and texture after time in a can. There was no logic to it; just this odd and insatiable hankering. My parents sat stunned during my next visit home until I had finished scraping the bottom of a bowl of reheated creamed peas.
"You eat peas now?" they asked, confused by a rush of memories of past skirmishes over untouched vegetables. Sure, they'd expected their boy to come home from his first semester of college with God-knows-what vices. But eating peas?
"I can't explain it," I replied, also confused. Even now I can't explain it. But I think of this every time my 3-year-old son refuses to eat peas or almost any other vegetable.
Probably to no parent's surprise, a survey cited in Tom and Nancy Biracree's "The Parents' Book of Facts" discloses that the average youngster, from birth to age 5, tolerates regularly only six of 29 standard vegetables (three cooked and three raw).
Scientists who've pondered childhood aversion to veggies have discovered that humans, for reasons of natural selection, inherit a taste for sweets and a dislike for bitterness. That makes some sense since many poisonous plants taste bitter. So, in part, avoiding bitter-tasting things accounts for the survival of the species. This should be remembered by frazzled parents who've had just about enough of little Johnny gagging over Brussels sprouts. This should never be told to anyone under 16.
There are also biological excuses that young vegetable refuseniks need not know. "First thing you have to remember is that that a 3- or 4-year old has much more sensitive taste buds than you and I have," Gerda McCahan says of this kid-vegetable conundrum. "Children get into more of an adult diet at that age, and to them certain things just taste awful."
For McCahan, a Furman University psychologist who has counseled parents and tykes about mealtime malevolence, what tasted awful was okra -- an unfortunate displeasure growing up in the heart of South Carolina where gumbo is a staple. It wasn't only the taste, confesses McCahan, but the slimy consistency of boiled okra that she abhors even today. "Like raw oysters," she gulps. "Parents ought to be a little bit more aware of the fact that taste in general is so much stronger for little children. That will start to disappear when they become 10 or 12."
Until then, spinach tends to brutalize young taste buds. Beets are like the bad trip of the produce aisle (too much flavor, neon color, mystifying texture). That cauliflower looks like someone's brain overshadows its relatively benign taste. Cucumbers are offensive until they're de-vegetablized into pickles. Tomatoes aren't too bad until parents get this crazy notion to stew them and top them with bread crumbs. No matter how often parents insist these foods are good, no empirical evidence supports the claim for a kid.
"But you have to be sure kids try everything when they're little, or otherwise they'll end up with strange eating patterns," says McCahan, who groans at the thought of one of her grandchildren whose dislike for vegetables drove him to eating only peanut butter and hamburgers.
I have vivid memories of nausea from the odor of asparagus steaming on the stove. I still wonder about the reasoning of one otherwise loving and well-meaning aunt who once tried to teach 6-year-old me to eat those mushy stalks by mashing them into my already mashed potatoes. It proved to be a mistake that I never forgot and that my aunt denied any memory of the rest of her life. And yet, three decades later, I am an aficionado of fresh asparagus.
Now I'm convinced it is the peas and asparagus that secretly urge me to become a parental ogre and force-feed my reluctant little son the vegetables I know to be good for him. And it is my dear sweet aunt's legacy that keeps me from doing it. Still, there must be a balance between physiologically good and psychologically sound when it comes to children and vegetables.
This issue is no small domestic squabble, even though the optimum portions are rather small. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Institute of Home Economics and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's Children's Bureau recommend that a balanced diet for a 2- or 3-year-old toddler should include one 3-tablespoon serving daily of green/yellow fruits and vegetables and two 3-tablespoon servings of other vegetables, such as potatoes. Preschoolers a year or two older should get the same, only a little more of each.
The USDA decades ago even tried to make things easier than that. It contracted a nutritionist who later owned a historic inn in Charlottesville, Va., to come up with recipes for vegetable dishes that would appeal to school kids. Presumably, USDA would then issue these recipes to public school cafeteria cooks and the entire problem of getting youngsters to clean their Melmac during lunch period would disappear fast as you could say succotash.
Apparently, nothing much changed in the school lunchrooms between kids and spinach. Though, years later, the vegetable dishes at the inn in Charlottesville (particularly the baked creamed cucumbers) never went to waste.
Barbara Deskins scoffs at all the commotion mealtime causes in so many families. "It's unfortunate if parents and children get into battles over vegetables," says the University of Pittsburgh professor of clinical dietetics and nutrition. "Probably for most parents, there is no reason to really get hung up on this."
Her solution: "If you look at why nutritionists think children should eat vegetables, it's primarily for Vitamin C, Vitamin A, some of the trace minerals and fiber," she says. "You can get these same nutrients and vitamins from fruits ... If a parent can get four small servings of fruits in their children each day, then technically the children don't have to eat vegetables."
If only it were so easy. But Gerda McCahan figures this to be a struggle that goes well beyond simple taste and nutrition -- and not one to be resolved on a technicality. "The strange part of it is that this is something people really suffer over," she says. "Because of it, you feel unsuccessful in the parent role ... Parents are supposed to be nurturant. Every mama who ever cooked and has the food rejected feels a little like a failure. Food is sort of love made tangible.
"So in a sense you have this emotionally charged situation at the table ... The child finds out that if he doesn't eat, he gets a lot of attention. And if he eats, nobody says anything. What you must remember is that every child likes to make parents jump through a hoop."
McCahan's answer: Be reasonable. Be patient. Don't coerce. Don't bribe. Most important, don't feed them between meals. Her grown grandson who ate only peanut butter and hamburgers? "One day I asked him how did it happen that he finally got to eating like everyone else," she recalls. "He said he got good and hungry."Television ads showing Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. drinking milk has given the white mustache new credibility for my son. If only Cal or Smokin' Joe Orsulak or Moose Milligan would sit down between innings and cheerfully dig into a bowl full of green beans for the cameras. But, no-o-o. The only high-profile role model we get with vegetables is George Bush whining about how much he hates broccoli. Which is all well and good for humanizing the image of the president, but not so good for America's children.
Fortunately, my son responds to competition more than to George. Since he was a toddler, he's always been game for broccoli races. Lately he's willing to substitute other vegetables (within reason), as long as the chow-down starts with "ready ... set ... go!" Only problem is he expects to win every time.
Arguably, that's not a realistic introduction to life's bigger races. But he's got the right message when it comes eating vegetables.
Getting It Down
"Past the lips, over the gums, look out stomach, here it comes." That old standby routine for getting vegetables beyond kids' palates is about as effective as the airplane (Rrrrrrrrr! Coming in for a landing!) or train ploys (Choo-choo! Into the tunnel!). Any of them actually works occasionally. Experts, though, have other ideas about parents conspiring to feed their children vegetables:
"We have heard so much about what the scientists say we ought to eat ... ," writes renowned pediatrician Benjamin Spock, in his classic manual "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care."
But Spock suspects the human body, even that of a toddler, left to its own devices, instinctively knows what's good for it. "It is naturally irritating to a parent to buy a food, prepare it, serve it, and then have it turned down by an opinionated wretch who loved the same thing a few days ago ... But it is worse for the child's feeling about food to try to force or urge it.
"Your 1-year-old daughter suddenly turns against the vegetable that she loved last week. Let her turn against it. If you don't make a fuss today, she will probably come back to it next week or next month. But if you insist on her taking it when she seems to dislike it, you only make her set her mind that that particular food is her enemy."
"At mealtime, provide a variety of healthful food and leave your child free to choose what he wants to eat," advises Robin Goldstein, in "Everyday Parenting: The First Five Years." That generates a relaxed atmosphere at mealtime that is more conducive to cooperation, she contends. "You will find that when there is no coercion or arguing ... children are more willing to try new foods. The best thing to do is offer a variety of good food without putting on the pressure."
Part of the problem is the vegetables themselves. "A lot of them are poorly prepared and I wouldn't want to eat them either," says Marion Birdsall, a professor of nutrition at Albright College, in Reading, Pa., who has studied the influences of vegetable consumption among preschoolers.
"Encourage young children with the bright colors and interesting shapes of vegetables, open them up and look at the seeds inside. Prepare them raw, or sometimes what we call 'crisp-tender.' Most young children do not prefer mixtures or sauces." Birdsall likes the idea of a variety of finger-food vegetables served Lazy-Susan style. Trickery such as cooking zucchini into meatloaf often resolves a parent's guilt over serving nutritious meals, but it teaches little about good eating habits.
According to Tom and Nancy Biracree, coauthors of "The Parents' Book of Facts: Child Development From Birth to Age Five," children's eating patterns often have much more to do with things other than those on the dinner plate.
"A preschool child's appetite can be affected by many factors," they write. "He may not feel like eating because he is tired, he's overstimulated, or he's just too restless to sit. He's also likely to be very sensitive to the entire ambiance surrounding eating ... His appetite may disappear if he doesn't like a strange smell in the kitchen, if he objects to the color of a new food, or if he can't use his regular fork or spoon."
Barbara Deskins says many parents fall into a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do trap with vegetables. "Role modeling is important," says the professor of clinical dietetics and nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh, who attributes her own dislike of beets to her father's outright dismissal of the fleshy blood-red root. "Many parents don't like vegetables and the child picks up these cues very quickly." One solution: Avoid serving vegetables that a parent or other role model is reluctant to eat.
Taste sensitivity, especially in infants and toddlers, is not to be passed off as a highfalutin excuse for finicky kids. In the "Born Dancing: How Intuitive Parents Understand Their Baby's Unspoken Language and Natural Rhythms," couthors Evelyn Thoman and Sue Browder report: "Scientists have now shown that people actually do differ dramatically in taste sensitivity. To you, carrots may taste pleasingly sweet, but to your baby they may honestly be sour and disgusting ... So if your baby hates green beans, you can try making him eat them if you want to. But you may want to save your energy for more important efforts."
Nancy Samalin, director of Parent Guidance Workshops, in New York, believes in letting children solve many of the problems they cause. Here's one strategy she suggests in her book, "Loving Your Child Is Not Enough," for defusing the vegetables time bomb:
"Exhausted by the unpleasantness around mealtime, Mother decided to surprise her children one evening by serving dinner in bowls and on platters, rather than dishing out separate portions to each child." The mother then tells her children: "From now on, you may have as much or as little as you want. The only rule is, 'Don't put anything on your plate that you don't want to eat.' "
According to Samalin, the children test the mother for several days, one opting for no potatoes or vegetables at all, another putting one pea on his plate and waiting for a reaction. "Mother continued to say nothing," explains Samalin, "and the children gradually began to eat from hunger." Mealtime became more enjoyable and the children gradually chose better balanced meals.
"The last thing adults should do is fill the child's plate, because it is always an adult-sized portion," says Furman University psychologist Gerda McCahan. "We put on their plate what we think they should eat -- so many spoonfuls of potatoes, so many spoonfuls of limas. And so, in being nurturant, we overload their plates.
"As a last resort, take the plate away from a child who won't eat. If somebody is not hungry, that's all right. Missing one meal is not going to bother them. Even two meals won't ... I suppose the commandment to remember on this is 'Thou shalt not take thyself too damn seriously.' The children usually turn out rather well anyway."