The Mighty Logo

How I Learned to Let Go of Anxiety About My Kid's Eating

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Before I ever had kids, I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t tolerate picky or unhealthy eating. Black and white thinking is the curse of chronic anxiety, and has always been my downfall. Oh, I had it all figured out, in nauseatingly complacent detail. For starters, I’d never fall into the ketchup trap. High fructose corn syrup? Not in my house. McDonald’s would be anathema, of course. And apple juice? Get thee behind me, Satan.

Like all my child-raising philosophies at the time, my plans were ambitious, optimistic, and fueled by frantic twin demons of anxiety and bipolar mania. Since I knew that offering juice to a toddler was analogous to lighting a crack pipe and handing it on over, I didn’t intend to take many chances with fruit, even in the more virtuous forms. Strained prunes are the gateway drug to soda, as everyone knows. My kids would start with only vegetable purees. Preferably the nastier ones first, like squash. Gag reflexes well exercised, their palates would eventually be perfectly formed to prefer healthy food. Lifelong habits of wellness and farm-to-table ethics would ensue.

All this planning was done in what I call the maximum-dumbness period of life: ages 16 to 26. Younger kids have a very healthy attitude to knowledge in general. They know they don’t know much, and that’s OK, because mom and dad know all the things. And most adults who have pushed through the brain damage of adolescence emerge with a grudging willingness to admit fallibility. Those who don’t become politicians.

But 16 to 26-year-olds? Woof. They know less, with more confidence, than literally anyone else on the planet. I was 29 when I had my first child, and the dumbness was still wearing off. I thought child-raising was just, well, science. The anxious brain needs things to be pretty cut and dry. You input some data; you do some work; you get an expected outcome. If you were lazy and incompetent in your parental duties, the inevitable result would be children who shotgunned gallon buckets of Kool-Aid while watching YouTube compilations of parkour fails. If you were righteous and intelligent, if you followed the rules, your kids would ask for filtered water, extra-filtered please, and cheer when their half-hour of PBS Kids was over so that they could do math exercises again.

It turns out that parenting isn’t actually a science. Believe me, I am as disappointed as you are.

Actually, things went mostly according to my carefully-crafted feeding plan in the early stages. Once a new parent has successfully navigated the ridiculously perilous narratives around breast versus bottle, infant-feeding is pretty easy. Baby needs milky liquid, baby gets milky liquid, baby pukes up two-thirds of milky liquid, repeat. This system works very well. Nine out of ten babies worldwide recommend it. But it can only last so long. Solid food beckons, with a siren’s call.

By the time my kid was seven or eight-months-old, I knew it was time to start feeding her something other than Enfamil. Rather, my mom, my mother-in-law, and the American Pediatric Association made it very clear to me that I needed to start feeding her solids.

“Great,” I thought. Time to initiate stage two of the “Perfect Child Feeding Regimen.” Bring on the yellow squash puree.

My husband and I made a whole big event of it. I put her in her safety-approved high chair, at the recommended angle. I velcroed her cute llama-covered bib (baby aesthetic was all about llamas at the time). The camera was ready. The spoon was primed.  If you are already a seasoned parent, you know what happened next.

Yeah. She wouldn’t eat it.

Undaunted, I put a bit of the puree on my finger and smeared a little taste onto her lips. A gesture of good faith, if you will. She pursed her lips shut as if I was offering her strychnine. I took a bite of the squash myself, to show her everything was on the up-and-up. It was gross, as expected. She looked at me pityingly. We tabled the issue, temporarily. She returned to Sesame Street, while I stepped aside to have a series of panic attacks.

Next time we tried rice cereal. Also a no-go. Squash again, the next day, and the next. Nope. Carrots made an appearance, followed by peas and oatmeal. I unbent enough to attempt sweet potato. Unfazed by this extremely conciliatory gesture, she threw her spoon at my head.

We did everything right, I swear. We let her play with the various purees and cereals, to get used to the texture. We made all the requisite airplane noises. We tried different spoons. Eventually, we just forced the stuff into her mouth, which went about as well as you’d expect. Many tears of frustration were shed. By me, of course. She wasn’t sweating it.

We gave up entirely, for a long, long time. Two weeks to be exact, which is basically forever to a baby. Next attempt, we tried prunes. She liked the prunes. I snuck a taste. I liked them too. I admitted defeat. A tiny child, aided and abetted only by fructose, had defeated my carefully plotted and very dumb system.

It hurt at the time, but I now see this whole process as my first major growth out of anxiety-parenting and into real parenting. Every mom or dad has to get there someday, and some do it much later than others. Eventually, you have to come to the realization that your child is “Not-You.” It’s an extremely painful crash course in ethics and selfless love, but I recommend it. Not only was my daughter “Not-Me,” she was very much her, a real human person with specific likes and dislikes that had nothing to do with my own plans, my own preferences, my own mental health issues, or my own agenda. Her personal agenda involved prunes, apparently. It went on to favor peanut butter and chocolate highly. My permission in this was never asked or required, believe me. She is who she is, a gal who likes peanut butter and hates carrots, a gal who won’t eat mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese but inexplicably will eat yellow mustard by the spoonful. I love her.

Anxious parents, hear me. It’s time to lay down our arms in the food wars. Your kid won’t eat like you, and that’s OK. Your kid won’t like most “healthy” foods for a while. That’s also OK. I know for a fact that peanut butter alone can sustain life. Someday, when your little guy or gal is about 20, you will laugh about all this together, probably over avocado toast and soy-poached eggs. Meanwhile, give yourself a break. Enjoy the smiles and the cooing. Choose your food battles, and remember that you can’t control everything. You shouldn’t even try.

Most importantly, prepare to have squash thrown at you. Everything will be OK.

Photo credit: LSOphoto/Getty Images

Originally published: May 21, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home