On any random day, Adam Mansbach's daughter will reject pancakes at breakfast, deciding she wants spaghetti instead. She'll ignore the contents of her lunchbox, then clamour for pancakes before bed, after dad has settled into a Scotch, neat.
Mansbach, author of the bestselling children's book for adults Go the Fuck to Sleep, has published a sequel, titled You Have to Fucking Eat. With his daughter Vivien now six years old and as obstinate as ever, Mansbach is turning his lens to picky eating, another universal parental struggle.
But unlike getting rowdy kids to go to bed, getting children to eat what you want them to is a more public battle. What parents manage to feed their kids does not go unnoticed, from their lunchboxes to the checkout aisle to a meal at a restaurant, where you get to watch other children eat everything set before them, or reject sustenance with a tantrum. Mansbach and others say that parents who have lost the battle – feeding picky eaters a steady diet of tater tots – feel increasingly judged by other adults.
"There's always this glancing and the shame and the comparing yourself or your kid to others, which to me reflects some of the worst of parenting culture," Mansbach said in an interview from New York.
Once a normal part of childhood, picky eating is now another knock in the game of competitive parenting. Aside from worrying that their kid may be malnourished and feeling like they've failed at something basic, parents also have to contend with evolving their children's palates, amid tacit judgment from other moms and dads. Getting a child to eat is a loaded public exercise, even as you grapple with your own personal issues with food as an adult. It's an anxiety pronounced for this generation of self-professed foodies who see what's on the plate as a kind of currency that telegraphs their identity.
"There's a lot of pressure right now on parents to be feeding their families perfect food and there's a lot of worry about food. I think we need to take the lid off the pressure cooker," says Emma Waverman, a Toronto mother of three and co-author of Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters.
Waverman says that parents now treat all food as nutritional fuel, an approach that dials up the stress when kids reject the offerings: "Not everything that goes into their body has to have a nutritional impact. They can also eat for enjoyment and thrill," says the author, adding that Mansbach's expletive-ridden book "rings true because it is frustrating and it is emotional."
Waverman's 14-year-old son went through a "white-food phase" of bread, plain pasta and French fries. He's over it now and eats "adult food" like steak, but still hates tomatoes, as does Waverman's eight-year-old daughter. Her 11-year-old son is a "real bread-and-cheese guy" who will eat even stinky varieties, but currently shuns burgers.
The key concepts here are different tastes and phases, not abject failure. "Because we're obsessed with everything they put in their mouths, it's so much easier to feel like failures when they don't eat what we want them to eat," says Waverman
She believes that much of the comparing happening now between parents boils down to personal insecurity, not wanting to make others feel bad. Still, she can easily identify the braggarts whose kids walk around with kale chips, and food websites that "make parents feel worse if their kids aren't eating mini kale soufflés."
Other parents insist that just like potty training, extracurriculars and volunteer hours, food easily turns into another sport in the overly ambitious landscape of modern childrearing. A reflection of this: In October, The New York Times released Small Plates, an instantly viral video featuring second-graders from Brooklyn dining on a seven-course, $220 tasting menu at the acclaimed French restaurant Daniel. Part of the interest here was in a test of these young palates: Some children gobbled the crispy Japanese snapper, others balked at the cured Hamachi and one mostly stuck to the madeleines. Star chef Daniel Boulud oversaw the meal, explaining that the goal was "for the children to really discover a lot of flavour, a lot of layers, a lot of texture."
The pride of raising a mini gourmand – or "koodies" as Chicago magazine has dubbed them – is also evident in the rise of "locavore" camps that see urban kids sampling goat milk and grading fresh eggs, as well as cooking classes for children, such as the one hosted earlier this year at Toronto's hipstery Pizzeria Libretto for precocious pizza tossers.
Then there was 12-year-old restaurant critic David Pines, who had his elders take him on "food hunts" so he could scribble notes under the table about kimchee dumplings and Cuban sandwiches. Widening children's palates set aside, is it about the kids, or a new bragging right for the PTA parent?
Brandee Foster, a Fraser Valley, B.C., mom who blogs about parenting at OneCrazyKid.com, has felt the bristle of competitive foodie parenting. She says her athletic six-year-old son is resistant to vegetables and red meat, leaving her occasionally worried about his weight. On top of that, she's been repeatedly criticized by other moms at the grocery store for buying him yogurt drinks with added sugar. These women have helpfully suggested plain organic Greek yogurt with fruit or honey. "It's a veneer around somebody – they have to be this perfect Pinterest mom," Foster says.
Jennifer Pinarski, a Centreville, Ont., mom who blogs at Today's Parent, says she's gotten sidelong glances when she tosses Kraft Dinner or Goldfish crackers on the conveyer belt at the grocery store: "You know you're being judged by what gets put into your cart."
She says her four-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son like spicy curry and Ethiopian, but they dig KD, too. Still, that gastro-judgment continues, Pinarski says, pointing to Pinterest boards, Instagram accounts and blogs devoted to artful school lunches teeming with decoratively carved cucumbers and whimsically arranged cold cuts (that would inevitably get pulverized in a kid's backpack). "They make me kind of feel guilty that my lunches aren't as beautiful," Pinarski says.
Even among parents who've won the lottery with gastronomically open-minded kids, there remains an inverse anxiety that your child's advanced palate (and attendant parental pride) reads as snobbery. Mansbach says that while his daughter is inconsistent, she is an adventurous eater who once ate an oyster on the half-shell when she was 2. "I was high-fiving everybody," recalls Mansbach. Today, he says Vivien is into sushi: "That makes me sound like a jerk who's bragging about his kid being into sushi."
Ceri Marsh, co-author of How to Feed a Family: The Sweet Potato Chronicles Cookbook, says: "My kids are so those obnoxious kids. They both had a playdate and they were talking about food with their friends. My daughter turns to her friends and says, 'Have you had the octopus at Terroni? It is so good.' I was like, 'Oh Christ.'"
Despite cringing at the moment, Marsh argues that parents of gastro risk-takers are deservedly "enjoying that victory" because it involves hard work and not giving into kids' natural preferences for junk. At the same time, she acknowledges that foodie obsessiveness can foment unnecessary anxiety: "What we feed our kids is everybody's problem. Feeling self-conscious about it may be an elite problem."
Parents like Foster think breaking down the competitiveness would help all parents – the kale and Kraft Dinner eating – in the long run.
"If we were less hard on each other it would be a lot easier to relate to people," says Foster. "If we could open it up and say, 'I'm doing the best I can and for me that means fruit snacks and for you that means hand-dried raisins,' that would be great."