I have three hippie princesses. Two of them are under the age of ten. Their eating habits are weird. Not that the other one’s isn’t (See “I Married A Foodist”), but we’ll get to that later.
By adult standards, children are clinically insane. They talk to imaginary friends; make faces without rhyme or reason; pretend they can fly; suddenly cry or break into peals of laughter. If I did these things at work they would cart me off to the funny farm in a heartbeat.
Foodwise, they are equally nutty. They love things like Chicken McNuggets which, to my way of thinking, are so far off the food-like substance register that they don’t even register.
We are conditioned for this kind of thing as children, which explains the almost cult-like devotion kids (and adults) often have for McDonald’s. My little hippie princesses like Lucille’s and Abu Sid, but given their choice of restaurant, they will say McDonald’s four times out of five. How come?
The answer is the toys in the Happy Meal, and the fact that as Eric Schlosser points out in Fast Food Nation, the McDonald’s corporation practically invented the art of advertising to children. Add to this the “cradle-to-grave” marketing strategies like convincing high schools and universities to open fast food joints on campus and it is easy to see how we become hard-wired to desire Chicken McNuggets.
My youngest was born a foodist, a trait she happily developed in gleeful opposition to her food-averse sister as she instinctively sought out an unoccupied niche in the family culture.
Her highest rating for any culinary experience is four thumbs up, which is pretty high. Disconcertingly, it also seems to be her only ranking for any culinary experience. Seeing that we pestered her older sister to eat fruit and vegetables—to eat anything really other than pizza and chocolate and chicken soup—and that this had become a war of wills: pretty quickly the little one figured out she could get lots of love by becoming the I’ll-eat-anything kid.
It worked like a charm, but I worry. Her favourite food is everything. She is vaguely aware that some stuff is bad for you, but dreams it wasn’t wishing, as she recently told me, that Nutella was good for you and that it made you strong.
The flip side of the coin is the neophobia that her sister suffers from. This is a real condition, the fear of trying new foods, one which many grownups share. I suspect that half the adult male population of this country subsists entirely on chicken and rice; I have friends who travel with cans of fuul and get hotel kitchens to heat it up for them; and I would be willing to bet that if a survey was done as to which people kilo-for-kilo stuffed their suitcases with the most food, Egyptians would win the gold medal with ease.
But trying new stuff can be rewarding. In my Food in World History course, I take out my frustrations at not being able to get my eldest to try anything new by forcing my students to do it. Yes, it’s on the exam. And I make them cook too because in the modern world we often end up being alienated from our food. In the US over the summer the impact of the drought on farmers was on the news every night, yet I listened incredulously to a woman in a gas station remark that she didn’t see what the big deal was when you could get everything you needed from the supermarket. Perhaps I should not have been surprised since Americans spend 90 percent of their food budget on processed foods.
Here it is just as bad. At many homes the dining room doors are closed while dinner is being prepared and then, voila, they are dramatically swung open and the table is laden with a bounty of steaming dishes. No wonder some of my students nearly faint when I present them with a raw fillet of beef or ask them to wash a chicken. They don’t want to touch it. Hence, it’s on the exam.
My eight year old’s refusal to try new things has taken on a life of its own. Unfortunately I have come to believe that she actually likes the attention she gets because it vexes me so much. At a recent party for one of her classmates, after happy birthday had been sung and the candles blown out, she declined the slice I offered her, saying, “No thanks Dad, I’m allergic to cake.”
I see lots of chicken and rice in her future.