Let Them Eat Crackers

In the rhythm and the strife of serving three meals a day, there’s a choice to simplify.

I should be working, but this New York Times headline catches my eye: “19 Recipes That Your Kids Will Actually (Maybe?) Eat.” I take the bait.

Scrolling down the web page, the article’s images—each impeccably styled—lower my expectations. It doesn’t look like this food is about the kids. Every dish is covered in garnishes. There are so many garnishes! Cilantro, dill, pepper, feta, green onion, mint leaves, and big fancy salt flakes that children would see. I may be salivating, but my kids will take it plain.

I keep reading, holding out hope that the writer knows more about the 12-and-under palate than the art department does. Then she admits that “this list of dishes includes some that my daughters have eaten and love, others that I plan to make.” So, I think, she doesn’t have the secret sauce. She’s like the rest of us, bored of cooking the same thing. “I don’t know about you, but predicting my children’s culinary tastes from day to day is a nearly impossible task,” she says. Yes, and what’s impossible at my house is giving in to how darn predictable their tastes remain and keeping my cool while dealing with this fact multiple times each day.

No one told me about the stage of life when for years I’d be cooking for some really touchy taste buds. I read Bringing Up Bébé when I was pregnant, and it promised that I could raise diverse, vegetable-loving toddlers if I went the French route, introducing veggies before fruit and continuing to serve them regularly. When my baby started eating, I capably pureed squash with chicken, mushed up peas, and handed off whole green beans. My husband and I continued to eat as we always had, feeding our daughter some of this or that with a regular side of avocado. But then I started hearing things.

At a moms group, a lecturer with elementary-aged kids explained that one night a week, her family had tacos. Tacos every week? I thought. Why can’t this woman get it together? Then my pediatrician said with a smile, “If all they eat is crackers for a couple years, they’ll be fine.” Well, that’s odd. At preschool, one of the well-read parents started talking about how toddling humans evolved to crave fat and sugar and avoid variety (i.e., the kids who didn’t ingest poisonous plants survived). It’s not until puberty that they begin to lose the extreme sweet tooth.

So why am I reading this article? Recipe #1: One-Pot Broccoli Mac and Cheese. My kids, evolved as they are, would love just the mac and cheese.

When my own family crossed the threshold to the elementary school years of bland, I’d like you to know three significant details: We had a kinder student, toddler, and baby; I bought Yumboxes; I started therapy. Between preschool, half-day kinder, and car-seat naps, car rides were mealtimes. The bento-style Yumboxes feature labeled compartments with illustrations. A green snake sips milk from a straw for “dairy.” A blue monster offers up a strawberry for “fruit” and a little red guy with long arms slurps noodles for “grains.” Each morning I dutifully, correctly filled the compartments, even “veggies.”

My learning curve with three kids felt steep, and I was getting so much wrong. Except the lunch boxes. 500 points! They were perfect. It didn’t matter that in the evening I’d dump the veggies and proteins in the trash. I’d offered it. I’d done my part. Mom high score achieved.

Four years in, I beat the game and I don’t use Yumboxes anymore. Looking back, it’s clear that the food I served kinder year was for me more than it was for the kids. Don’t read this wrong, I’m pro Yumbox. But when it comes to kids and food, I give myself a break. My bento-box year was not the one when I was the perfect mother. It was the one when I was disregulated. I yelled, blew up, withdrew—and it showed in the perfection of those boxes. They had to be perfect! Now I throw prepackaged fruit snacks, Ritz crackers, and granola bars in a tote because it takes 15 seconds, and my kids will eat them. I no longer chop apples or wash grapes.

Around food and feeding, accounting for when and why is as crucial as counting grams of sugar and protein. Mealtimes are a litmus test for how everyone’s doing. When they become a battle royale or the last straw, fodder for marital strife, or too exhausting, it’s an opportunity to check foundations. Who’s in charge? Who trusts who? Who needs what? With my kids at mealtimes, I’m in charge. I trust them to eat. And I need a simple system. It’s like screen time, there’s a need for clear boundaries alongside space for kids to have what they like. I want my customer to leave satisfied, so I listen to their requests and grievances. I honor what I can, but not everything. Children will not starve themselves and remember, if infants have 30,000 taste buds, adults have maybe 10,000. Eventually we’ll be on the same page.

In the meantime, it’s common to fall into the food traps of forcing, bargaining, or bribing kids into eating all kinds of things. It helps me to remember that there are a few foods that kids do like. And it’s fine, while being mindful of their overall nutrition, to just feed them what they like—over and over and over. My husband and I will get back to good food, but for now simplicity works. We have pasta at least once a week. I bake chicken in barbecue sauce, or we grill. There’s always a starch, usually a protein, fruit for the kids, and sometimes salad for us adults. I get a sitter and go out to dinner for flavor.

If I liked cooking more, it could be fun to make inventive, flavorful meals and serve them alongside a plain-tasting side. But I’d rather be writing and editing, which reminds me to finish reading through the 19 recipes and get back to work.

Maybe the Potato Chip Omelet was a favorite of the author’s daughters? It’s three crowd-pleasing ingredients: eggs, potato chips, olive oil. I’ll leave off the pepper and salt flakes in the picture. And I’ll bookmark the Mushroom Chicharrón Tacos to try (maybe) when they’re older.