Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Poker at the table

Right now, my daughter is making a cheese rainbow.

For the uninitiated, or for those who are envisioning multicolored cheese molded into a half-moon, mounted on a plate or other medium, you are not in a four year-old’s mind. My daughter’s cheese rainbow involves taking a piece of string cheese, bending it into an arc and shoving it violently over the top of her sippy cup, and repeating, “Look Mommy, a cheese rainbow!” over and over again until I respond with some sort of positive affirmation along the lines of “Wow, dear, that’s really neat. Now eat your cheese!”

I used to love to eat meals. I used to love to take my time, unfold the napkin, savor each bite of delectability that I had taken time to prepare, whether it was as simple as spaghetti and meatballs, or as complicated as lasagna florentine or eggplant parmigiana. But all of that changed when my children outgrew babyfood purees and started having actual opinions on what they put in their mouths.

Now, each meal with my daughter starts like a hand of poker. We each have foods in mind that we want her to eat, and the pot just grows and grows until one of us is caught bluffing and gives in. A typical conversation as dinner is served:

“Sydney, eat your meatballs please.” Substitute any form of protein other than deli-sliced corned beef, peanut butter or the infernal string cheese for meatballs and you could have any meal at any time in our house.

“No! I don’t want to eat my meatballs. I don’t like meatballs!”

After a moment of silence, she allows, “I’ll eat the rice.” Or pasta, or bread, or peas or corn or potatoes. Anything which has a noticeable carb content.

“That’s fine, you may eat the rice too. But I need to you eat some of the meat.”

“But I don’t like the meatballs.”

“You haven’t even tried it yet. You at least have to try it.”

“Meatball! Mmm!” my son, who is nearly two, interjects, shoveling food in his mouth indiscriminately and missing his target most of the time.

“If I try it and I don’t like it, can I have something else? Like buttery noodles?”

Buttery noodles are kids’ nirvana. Not that I don’t agree—when I don’t feel well, there is nothing more comforting than buttered, salted noodles.

And so the bargaining begins. She opens with the low stakes of food switching, and I study her face to see if she is bluffing. And then I raise her.

“You have to try three bites. If you don’t like it, then we’ll discuss other options.”

She calls and moves a forkful of meatball to mouth. Barely allowing it to touch her tastebuds, she immediately screws her face up in disgust and allows the half-chewed meat to fall out of her mouth.

“Use your napkin, please!” I intone from across the table, making a mad dash to catch the falling meat before it hits her clothes. I miss by a long shot and she smiles, a tell that she doesn’t yet know she has.

Round one is over. She raises again. “Now can I have something else?”

I study her, wondering how much she is prepared to gamble to get out of eating the meatballs. “Like what?”

“Buttery noodles!”

I have to master my own smile for a moment, since I now know I have won this round. “You have rice in your bowl. Buttery noodles and rice are the same food group,” I explain patiently. “If you don’t want meatballs, then you need to have some other kind of protein.”

“Like cheese?” She calls.

I envision her cholesterol levels. “You had cheese at lunch,” I raise.

“But I like cheese!” she whines. Another tell. I almost have her. When I am unmoved by the whine, she raises. “What about peanut butter? That’s protein, right?”

I study her carefully and weigh my options. If I am to get her to eat any sort of protein with dinner at all, it is going to have to be corned beef or peanut butter. The meatballs are clearly off the table. Now I just have to decide how much I want to take from her this time. I can raise and say “Meatballs or nothing—dinner’s over,” forcing her to show her cards and effectively ending the hand. If I opt to do that, however, I will be at a distinct disadvantage for the second hand, which comes right before bedtime and opens with her plaintive, “I’m hungry.”

I decide to call and save myself from a second hand in an hour or two. “Peanut butter or corned beef?”

“Peanut butter,” she smiles, showing her cards at last. She thinks she has won the hand. “On bread,” she adds, wondering how far she can push her alleged victory.

“Aha! Bread is the same food group as rice,” I say, a note of triumph creeping into my voice. I pull out my ace in the hole.

“You can have peanut butter—with carrots!”

Her face falls when she realizes she has been beaten. She accepts her defeat with minimal grouching and I turn at last to my plate of cold rice and luke-warm meatballs, wondering when I will once again be able to enjoy a meal.

1 comment:

trAcy said...

children are a pain. : )

i don't remember meal times ever being that dramatic. i know my brother did not eat certain things or eat at all, but it was due to stress (of the alcholic/violent/random parent). i know there were things i didn't like. but i was okay with accepting that "this is the food you have been given." they are too young to see a food pantry or understand what "reduced price lunch" at public school is and how large the statistics, of course. wonder if there is a socially-conscious, age-appropriate way to teach her that food is not always a given, but the product of very caring and competent parents?

i see what you mean about poker. why, i wonder, does she have to make a game out of something that is not an option, something that should not be a game at all/not play time?

hope she outgrows it.