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The Food Critic’s Daughter

A professional adventurous eater copes with a kid who just wants a piece of toast

By Troy Johnson

The Food Critic's Daughter

The Food Critic’s Daughter

Illustration by Chantal Bennett

She’s eating it. Really going for it. Sitting on the couch, bed-headed but fully conscious, my eight-year-old daughter takes one eager spoonful after another until it’s gone.

“Was that good?” I inquire, playing it far from cool.

She nods her head excitedly. That’s a full yes, not a polite yes. It’s just Honey Nut Cheerios, which have enough sugar to taste reasonably good in a bowl of radiator fluid. But small wins matter when you’re the parent of a picky eater.

“Great news,” I say. “Babe, that was almond milk! So now you know you like almond milk! Awesome, right? Your world just got bigger!”

She’s only half listening, so I stupidly press on, going against every piece of child psychology I’ve read: “You never know what you’ll like unless you try new things, dude. You didn’t know you’d like donuts until you tried them.”

This gets her attention.

“ALMOND MILK?” she gasps, lifting her hands to her now-injured mouth. She clicks her tongue repeatedly against the roof of her mouth, trying to squeegee it all away. (She’s not allergic.) Ask her now what almond milk tastes like and she’ll probably say “trust issues.”

As a food writer, I often have to swallow super-niche ingredients before I can Google them. I’ve eaten ant-egg tacos and crunchy larva tortas. I’ve willpowered my way through dried crickets with lime, goat brain tartare, eyeball sashimi, chicken hearts, beef tongue on a stick with dried tuna flakes, organs and glands of all sorts. In my peculiar job, I can’t say “Oh, sorry, nope.” My mouth is a turnstile.

To keep me humble and frustrated, the universe gave me a daughter who has christened about six foods on earth fit for consumption, at least four of which are white carbo­hydrates with cheese. I’m a cobbler, and this beautiful girl burns shoes.

She doesn’t like chicken. Or oranges. Or milk (which takes cereal down with it). No thanks to eggs. Peanut butter gets in the way of her jelly. Broccoli is fine raw, not cooked. No, wait, now she doesn’t like broccoli in any form. Bananas are only good “when they’re kinda green.” Soup is too soupy. Green beans have marbles in them. Rice, or any grain, is too textury. Plums too purple. Avocados had their moment in her grace, but they’ve fallen. For decades, parents have been able to get kids to eat vegetables by dipping them in ranch dressing. Not in her house.

A big part of a parent’s job is to get our kids vital nutrients. I started tactfully, serving as the hype man for various fruits and vegetables. But eventually you hit a point where you’re just trying to jam nutrients into your child, like a crumply bill into a vending machine. I resorted to loading her morning smoothie with chia seeds and hemp seeds. I once added three almonds, and she sniffed them out.

Child psychologists say picky eating is a control issue. I’m a devout live-and-let-live dad. You wanna wear pajamas to the funeral? Sure, why not, they’re dead. Still, we tell them when to sleep, when to play, when to live. Her dinner plate is one space she can exert a tiny bit of power over the marionette existence of being a kid. I know pushing too hard will make her resent food, one day finding herself eating a cake in the bathroom at her place of employment.

And so I make her mac ’n’ cheese, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, quesadillas, pancakes, fettuccine alfredo (I once tried to add broccoli, and just ended up a lonely man eating two plates of noodles). I act like the hummus I’m eating tastes like ice cream. More often, I’m the food critic standing in a Chipotle.

The good news is, we’ve discovered one clean, healthy meal she’ll eat: salmon sashimi. But not Scottish salmon. She prefers New Zealand king salmon. I learned this a few months ago, spending $80 on her lunch.

Paying that bill, the epiphany hit me. The girl isn’t a picky eater. She’s a food critic, just like dad.

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