What’s surprising is how recent the fight is. The phrase “picky eater” first appears in the lexicon in 1970. Until the early 20th century, there’s scant evidence of concerns over children refusing what they were given, even though what they were given often was an afterthought of an adult menu. As the food historian Bee Wilson wittily put it, during the Victorian era, “Children’s food could be summed up by the word ‘scraps.’” This is something I think about after cooking three different entrees for various family members before eating my own dinner of rejected grilled cheese crusts over the kitchen sink.
If children or parents were unhappy with the older arrangement, their grievances don’t inform the historical record until the late 19th century. That’s when we start to find middle-class parents and experts worrying about children’s diets, as Scottish physician Thomas Dutton did in his 1895 book, “The Rearing and Feeding of Children: A Practical Mother’s Guide.” But his complaints sound like dream wishes to modern ears: “Children will eat anything and everything,” he wrote, complaining about the lack of a special diet for them. Families were feeding children “at the same table as their elders” and giving them grown-up food that he considered “not suitable” for little stomachs.
American pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt’s influential 1894 book “The Care and Feeding of Children” amplified the era’s growing obsession with children’s delicate digestive systems. In detailed charts, he laid out a diet of the blandest foods imaginable: barley gruel, a sort of pudding called rice jelly, oat water, stale bread and broth (which he called “beef juice”). Raw fruits and vegetables were out of the question—Dr. Holt called for them to be stewed—and oatmeal was to be cooked for three hours or more before it was safe for children. “All omelets are objectionable,” he added; eggs were OK only if poached or soft-boiled.
To be fair to Dr. Holt, in the days before reliable washing and refrigeration, he was hardly alone in suspecting fresh fruits and vegetable of causing digestive upset, or worse. British court records from the 19th century include cases of childhood fatalities attributed to “death by fruit,” and until vitamins were discovered, fruits and vegetables were considered empty calories at best.
.. To be fair to Dr. Holt, in the days before reliable washing and refrigeration, he was hardly alone in suspecting fresh fruits and vegetable of causing digestive upset, or worse. British court records from the 19th century include cases of childhood fatalities attributed to “death by fruit,” and until vitamins were discovered, fruits and vegetables were considered empty calories at best... Canadian pediatrician Clara Davis, who conducted a series of experiments in the 1920s and ’30s to see what would happen if small children, including babies, were allowed to pick their own foods. For her study, Davis was able to round up 15 infants from indigent teenage moms or widows and supervise all of their eating for periods ranging from six months to 4½ years, according to articles she published in 1928 and 1939 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and a 2006 re-examination of her work in the same publication.The children were allowed to choose among 34 items, including milk, fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beef, both raw and cooked. They made some rather eccentric choices, including fistfuls of salt, and most were apparently fond of brains and bone marrow. Sometimes they ate little, and sometimes more than an adult (notably, six hard-boiled eggs on top of a full meal, or five bananas in a single sitting). The tiny subjects varied widely in their self-chosen menus, but the idiosyncrasies evened out over time, and each child, Davis reported, ended up eating a balanced and complete diet.
Sickly and scrawny at the start of the study, they became healthy and well-nourished, she wrote, supporting a concept that was becoming known at the time as body wisdom. “For every diet differed from every other diet, fifteen different patterns of taste being presented, and not one diet was the predominantly cereal and milk diet with smaller supplements of fruit, eggs and meat that is commonly thought proper for this age,” she wrote. “They achieved the goal, but by widely various means, as Heaven may presumably be reached by different roads.”
For decades, experts relied on the study to support the claim that when left to their own devices, children naturally eat what’s best for them. What it actually proved, however, is that children naturally eat a healthy diet when they’re provided only with wholesome options. Davis’s study excluded processed foods, refined flours and sugar. She planned a follow-up experiment to see what would happen if children could choose from processed foods as well, but she never carried out the research.
Not in a clinical setting, anyway. In an uncontrolled and undocumented way, the study has been proceeding on a mass scale for the past 80 years. It shows that given enough choices, children are no more likely to eat what their bodies need than I am—which is not at all, unless my body actually does require Diet Mountain Dew and tortilla chips.
Benjamin Spock discussed Davis’s study at length in his 1946 classic “Baby and Child Care,” using her findings to encourage parents to take a more relaxed approach to feeding. By getting worked up about it, he wrote, you could turn a temporary issue into a lifelong problem.
Sam has a peculiar set of food sensitivities, but he also may just be giving us the business. Modern children learn very early that food is one area where they can wield some agency. Long before they can control what comes out of their bodies, they’re controlling what goes into them.
If this is Sam’s power play, it’s something I probably deserve, having used food as a cudgel for most of my own adolescence. I put my own parents through a good 10 years of mealtime torture. Though I ate without complaint the broccoli and squash that my mother served, being confronted with meat of any kind sent me into fight-or-flight mode (and still does). My carnivorous husband behaves the same way when presented with salad. Because we’re adults, we ascribe this not to pickiness but to preference. Meanwhile, our 9-year-old daughter, having watched us both, will eat neither meat nor most vegetables.
What ends up working in “Green Eggs and Ham” is leaving the protagonist alone. I can see the appeal of this approach. Ignorance seems to have worked for centuries; intervention, in the last hundred years or so, rather poorly. I sometimes wonder if it’s time to stop. This suits Sam just fine. He’s happy to make a meal out of four cotton-candy-flavored yogurts and a Popsicle, as he did recently.
On the other hand, I’d like him to reach his full adult height and retain his teeth, which means he’ll have to expand his menu. As Clara Davis demonstrated, children make good choices when all their options are good, but in modern America—and in our own home—that condition rarely holds. Sam is unlikely to start eating kale and quinoa if they aren’t even in the house.
But the new year brings the kind of zeal and optimism that sends a parent to the farmers market, to replace the Bomb Pops with bananas; the pizza, with peas. If we swap the bad choices with better ones, perhaps 2019 will be the year in which Sam learns to keep down exotic foodstuffs like cucumber or toast.
And maybe the rest of us will do better, too: cutting down on the relentless snacking that keeps us from eating more nutritious foods at mealtimes, and trying the healthier foods whose tastes can take longer to appeal. It’s still January, and one can still hope.