This week, I've been interviewing parents of picky eaters, as well as a few adults who are themselves intensely picky. And there's been an interesting moment in every conversation when I ask, "so, what do they eat?" Because almost every human, as it turns out, eats carbohydrates: Toast, pancakes, waffles, pasta, mac and cheese, bagels, pizza, some cereals, French fries, and maybe a heavily breaded chicken nugget. The most selective eaters may not be able to handle that whole list (one mother told me that the smell of pasta being dropped into a pot of boiling water can make her daughter gag). But they all eat at least a few foods on it, and often, very little else.
This makes a lot of sense. Every cell in our body requires glucose as its primary source of energy, and our brains, especially, depend upon it. (A child's growing brain, even more.) Plus, carbohydrates, especially the processed kind, are predictable. "Bagels are always round, always the same color, and I know they're filling," one adult selective eater told me. "They feel very safe." No other food group is as reassuringly uniform. The texture of a hamburger is entirely different from a steak or a chicken breast. Fruits and vegetables offer even more variety, as the flavor, color and smell of a single banana can transform completely from the day I bring it home, slightly green, from the store, to when I offer it for breakfast three days later, now covered in alarming black spots. Is it still the same food? Is it still safe to eat? My three-year-old doesn't have the life experience to navigate these questions and she is understandably suspicious.
Of course we continue to offer the banana, spots and all, because it's our job to teach kids that they can, in fact, trust and enjoy all kinds of foods in all kinds of ways. But in the process we have to navigate this weird disconnect between diet culture, which has preached the dangers of carbs for the past 20-odd years, and our kids' instincts about what's going to fill them up and feel good to eat. "I was hoping to find some easy to make, non carb meals for my daughter who seems to be a 'carbovore,'" one mom posted this week in a Facebook parenting group I follow. "She's 17 months and is starting to get a little Buddha belly."
I'll admit, I had some judgmental feelings when I read that, and I'm not proud. Because it's not really this mom's fault; we hear this alleged connection between carbs and belly fat all the time. (Exhibit A: The aptly named diet book, Wheat Belly, which spent a year on the New York Times' best-seller list and spawned a cottage industry of copycats. Exhibit B: Every women's magazine, ever.) Why wouldn't we start putting those same fears on our kids, especially when they so consistently gravitate towards these foods? This mom's comment is extreme, negative, and damaging — and it's also the exact same thing many of us think about ourselves, every time we eat a bowl of pasta.
I don't have a good solution because I think this is a symptom of our larger cultural guilt around food, and particularly around foods that give us pleasure. But if you're a parent worrying about your kids' carb fixation, you may find Maryann Jacobsen's sensible take on the matter helpful.