I have two daughters. They are four-year-old identical twins. The fact that their natural voices are set at FREIGHT TRAIN volume notwithstanding, they are adorable, chatty little human beings full of lightness and joy … until dinner. Their Pavlovian response to the supper bell is not to salivate in anticipation, but to turn into Tasmanian hell devils with the whirlwind ability to break my soul.
Talk to any parent with children under the age of 5, and invariably the biggest gripes they have about child-rearing involve the two most important factors in keeping our children alive: Sleeping and eating. Sleeping is a disasterbacle for another day (although, check with a regular here, Alexis, if you ever have sleep problems with little ones), but there are some things I need to talk about when it comes to feeding children.
It’s a nightmare.
The first time I saw Inside Out, I thought it was odd that Disgust would be included among the controlling emotions of a child’s brain: Anger, Joy, Sadness, and Fear, I understood, But Disgust? She seemed out of place. Why give her equal footing with Joy and Sadness?
As I have learned in recent years, however, Disgust is actually the dominant emotion when it comes to feeding kids. Disgust is the bully at the dinner table wailing on Joy, triggering Sadness, taunting Fear, and shouting down Anger. She is the Caillou of emotions: A whiny little shit who has no respect for authority. Thanks to Disgust, trying to introduce a new food to a four-year-old is like giving an unwilling mental patient electroshock therapy.
Just the idea of a new food will put my daughters on an hour-long path toward a raging downward spiral that will eventually end in thousands of dollars in therapy bills (all for myself), and it’s not like I’m trying to force feed them cauliflower or candy corn. It’s a green bean, for god’s sake. Just take a bite! One goddamn bite, and I will let you eat whatever the hell you want!
But getting them to eat that one bite — the one bite that allows you to save face before you roll over and give them the plain pasta buried in a layer of shitty canned parmesan cheese — is a soul-consuming ordeal that requires cajoling, bribery, cons, and desperate pleading. I’m Jerry Maguire in a public bathroom begging Rod Tidwell to eat some motherfucking quinoa.
Feeding children is a full-time job, and it’s a full-time job because when they eat, they never eat more than four bites of anything. Every 20 minutes, they want another snack, but because of that one basic emotion — Disgust — there are only around 6 snack options in their repertoire — Goldfish, cheerios, a granola bar, popcorn, and graham crackers — and they never take more than a handful of bites of anything, which is why they are so hungry all the time, which is why I’m bothered to get them another snack every 20 minutes. It’s an endless cycle that will never end until they learn to eat a goddamn burger or a bowl of goddamn chowder.
Medical professionals, friends, and colleagues will often encourage us. “Just keep pushing new foods in front of them!” GTFO. We do! But we still can’t break them. Because Disgust is a stubborn, petulant green Trumpkin. And you know what? That one goddamn bite we eventually force feed them never makes them any more inclined to eat that food the next time it comes around. They’re appalled that we would even try again. “Daddy! I told you the last time that I don’t like broccoli! Why would you put it on my plate again? If I see this anything green on my plate again I will murder you in your sleep, Daddy!”
But other parents will say, “Just sneak those vegetables in,” like my kids aren’t going to notice that there are peas in their macaroni and cheese and reject it out of hand.
“But daughter, you can’t even taste the peas!”
“Dad! Of course we can taste the peas. Why did you ruin our macaroni and cheese with your life-sustaining agenda! If I see this anything green in my glowing, orange plate of pasta and butter, I will murder you in your sleep, Daddy!”
Other parents will also suggest that we make whatever we would normally make, and if our kids don’t like it, they just don’t eat. I think those parents underestimate the power of Disgust. Disgust does not GAF. All that means is sitting at a table trying to enjoy a meal you spent an hour making, with sobbing children screaming and begging for anything other than the delicious, home-cooked meal in front of them. They would literally starve to death before they will eat a single bite of risotto. Disgust is an asshole with no appreciation for decent food or the effort it takes to stand at the stove and stir continuously for 90 minutes, but she will eat microwaved rice. She’s a savage.
The problem is compounded when you have multiple children, because invariably none of those children will agree on one dish. There’s exactly one thing in the entire universe of meals that all three of my kids will agree upon: Pancakes (and even then, one daughter insists on pancakes with butter and no syrup and the other daughter wants syrup and no butter, and if butter and syrup commingle dinner is ruined). Unfortunately, there’s only so many times you can have breakfast for dinner, so on every other night of the week at least one child will be left a blubbering mess. There’s always one hold-out. They can’t even agree on pizza. PIZZA, people! We make three different breakfasts every morning. Three different combinations of lunches, and often even three different dinners, just so we can avoid the dinner-table meltdowns. Not that it works, because even when you give a four-year-old what she wants, it’s never what she wants by the time it arrives to her, because Disgust is a fickle bitch who will murder you in your sleep, Daddy.
We have tried everything short of an IV drip: Tough love, acquiescing, multiple meals, ordering in, surgical table straps and force feeding, and nothing works with any consistency, and it’s Mindy Kaling’s goddamn fault. Every meal ends the same: With a pile of unfinished food, the frazzled nerves of parents, and hungry, pantsless toddlers covered in weepy snot-bubbles.
Honestly, as little as my children eat, I have no idea how they have managed to survive (nor do I understand why they still need to go to the bathroom every ten minutes). Multivitamin gummies are their sole source of nutrition, while the six Goldfish they eat every half hour provides their only caloric intake. It’s a miserable, never-ending nightly process, and until we can isolate Disgust and toss her down the memory dump into the abyss of nothingness, every night will continue to be a living hell.