This was my experience. My 8 year old daughter Jenna put her foot down one day and said she would no longer eat meat.
“Meat” to Jenna was defined as chicken, lamb, pork, beef, fish (soon to be shortened to “anything with eyes”). In fact, to this day, I’m pretty sure she can’t distinguish between pork, lamb and beef. It’s all just gross to her. She has only recently been able to touch and cook a boned chicken breast (completely cleaned up by the butcher at her pleading request I might add). Jenna’s husband is not a vegetarian, so occasionally – very occasionally – Jenna will attempt something to satisfy his ‘meat cravings’ as she puts it. But I digress….
Jenna was a picky eater from about 2 or 3 years old. At any one time, her repertoire probably included less than a dozen food items. She regularly OD’d on a particular food after eating it daily for months on end. I have ‘Toast Man’ (cream cheese on toast with chocolate chip faces) etched on my brain. Meals in Jenna’s pre-vegetarian days were a stress for me. I was ‘quietly’ freaked out about her getting enough to sustain her, let alone a balanced diet with all the food groups. I use the term ‘quietly’ loosely. I knew struggling over food with a child was bad parenting so I tried to keep things as cheery and normal as possible. Likely, I wasn’t fooling anyone, including Jenna. I felt like a failure. I loved food, I loved to cook, I prided myself in my cooking skills and my daughter was having none of it.
Then it started happening. Jenna was about 6 years old. No meat. Was it the texture? Too lazy to chew? Our nanny who took her to the grocery store and pointed out how the raw meat in the plastic containers was killed? Just a phase? (please, please, please). Then chicken fingers were no longer on the list. What? Salmon (even with Hollandaise sauce which she loves to this day) was off the list. I still clung to spaghetti with meat sauce for almost a year until that was off the list too. And the last vestige – gravy made with chicken broth – gone. I knew this was the end because Jenna dearly loved mashed potatoes and gravy. This was not a phase.
So now I had a picky eater AND a vegetarian. Just to be clear, this was back in the 1990’s when vegetarians weren’t very common. I had zero experience, zero appreciation and I loved meat. Seven days a week, for as long as I was cooking, I made a protein with a side of vegetables and grains. Ok, maybe the occasional macaroni and cheese.
I continued serving the same meals after Jenna’s new-found vegetarianism, just leaving out the meat for her. Surely I must have substituted something, but I honestly can’t remember. I had never heard of tofu and I didn’t cook with legumes. Finding restaurants where Jenna could find something to eat was often challenging. I remember, during vacations, walking up to restaurant windows, searching the menu and moving on.
I think I tried to get imaginative and tackle this new challenge (that would be typical of me), but maybe not hard enough. It certainly didn’t stop me from worrying about my daughter’s nutrition. Was her hair getting thinner? I read in a magazine that hair thinning meant a lack of protein. Iron too low? I finally took her to a dietitian (after religiously keeping a diary of everything Jenna put in her mouth for a week – which, looking back, probably upped my game of feeding her nutritious food for my upcoming ‘judging’ by a professional).
And the results were (drum roll)…. the dietitian said Jenna was pretty much getting the nutrition she needed. Try a bit of this. Try a bit of that. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing major. Needless to say, Jenna, now a budding teen who was sick of my nagging and dissatisfaction with her eating habits, was thrilled to throw this in my face. And tell anyone else who would listen (and still does!). “Hah, I told you!”
So how did this professional’s opinion affect me? Well, I think I was a bit relieved, but honestly, I never felt I was off the hook. It was my job as a mother to provide food for my family and to make sure my daughter was healthy. I read article after article that eating right was the gold standard.
Somewhere along the line, I started making two different meals every night – one for Jenna (“what am I having?” she would ask) and one for me and my husband. It became the norm and, admittedly, often a chore. I think Jenna thought she was an afterthought when it came to meals. More guilt.
At 18, after graduating high school with a ton of awards (did I push Jenna to be a high achiever? – another story, never mind), Jenna moved downtown in Toronto to attend University. Relief! I missed her, but not the food business. Not at all. In fact, when she came home on weekends, I loved her company, but dropped her off at the subway on Sunday evening with a little bounce in my step – no more double meals until the next time. Out of sight, out of mind (at least the food part). You want to eat pizza everyday? go ahead. Boil noodles and eat them with butter? Sure. (Ok, it killed me, but I tried to largely ignore it and feed her better on the weekends).
Then a miracle happened. Jenna moved to a condo in downtown Toronto with her boyfriend (now her husband) and immediately assumed the role of cook to provide for her new little family. She called me for some how-to’s. I danced around the room at the other end of the phone.
Five years later, Jenna has become a foodie. She experiments constantly with new recipes and cooking techniques (making her own pasta and dough and tackling finicky macarons for example); throws parties, attends local food events and has even cooked on two occasions with celebrity chefs in a fundraising event for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. I MEAN, THIS IS A KID WHO DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO USE A KNIFE A FEW YEARS AGO! She now loves food and is constantly expanding her tastes. She loves cooking. She loves reading cookbooks and she’s even growing her own vegetables in the summer. Come on! I can hardly believe it, but I love it.
And now, as a gift to me, she has asked me to do a food blog with her. This blog. I am humbled. And thrilled. Is it possible I did something right in this journey? A little part of me hopes so. It doesn’t matter now though. My girl – my beautiful, smart, fun, enthusiastic, charming girl – has arrived. Time for me to relax and enjoy this next journey…