One evening, when I was 7 years old, my mother served peas for dinner. I hated peas with a passion. I ate everything else on my plate and then stared at the peas for a good 20 minutes. My mom made it clear that eating the peas was nonnegotiable.
I slipped a few onto my 2-year-old sister’s plate. But there was still a mound of peas on my own plate. So I did what children have done since the dawn of dinnertime. I dumped the peas into the napkin on my lap, balled up the napkin and then hustled to the kitchen, where I threw it into the trash can.
Of course, I got caught. My mother was incensed that I would throw away perfectly good food simply because I didn’t like it. Food cost money, my mother reminded me. And further, I had been dishonest by throwing it away, an even bigger transgression.
My punishment? My mother took the entire pot of peas off the stove and dumped them onto my plate.
“Eat them all,” she said. “And don’t get up until you’re done.”
I ate all the peas. I’m pretty sure I cried during the last few bites. That was 1980. I haven’t eaten a pea since. Honestly, I’ve had a strained relationship with all green vegetables through adulthood since that experience.
We all have those stories. Because of economic insecurity and a culture of punishment for dishonesty and disrespect, many of us were brought up in eat-it-all-or-else households.
Today, mealtimes are a lot different in my house.
Recently, a friend stopped by during dinnertime and overheard me discussing with my daughter what she would have for dinner.
“How about stir-fried tofu with vegetables?” I asked.
“I don’t really want that tonight,” Emmy said.
“Hmmm. Steamed rice and carrots with tofu?”
“Daddy made that for lunch yesterday.”
“Grilled chicken and string beans?”
I went into the kitchen and began taking out the ingredients while my girlfriend looked at me in horror.
“Aliya,” she said. “You are not a short-order cook. Why isn’t your 8-year-old eating whatever the hell you place in front of her?”
Once again, I found myself defending my parenting style because it didn’t match up with the traditional idea of black parenting. As far as she was concerned, children are expected to eat what, when and how much their parents tell them to eat—no negotiating and no choices.
As far as I can tell, that method didn’t turn out so well for my generation. So many of us have issues surrounding food that stem from a childhood of being force-fed and not given ownership and choice when it came to food.
Emmy doesn’t always get to pick what she’s going to make. But if I have the time and energy to give her what she wants, why not give her options? I don’t believe that this automatically makes her spoiled or gives her too much control.
There are times when Emmy doesn’t have options. If I make a casserole or a slow-cooker stew and I have no time or energy to entertain her individual choices and she doesn’t want it, she’s on her own. She can make herself a bowl of cereal or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich or other options she can prepare on her own.
I also allow Emmy to decide if she doesn’t want to eat something new. We have a three-bite rule with new foods. If she doesn’t like it after giving it a chance with three bites, she doesn’t have to finish it. (But we’ll revisit the food later to see if things have changed.)
Since she knows I won’t make her finish a serving of something she doesn’t like, she’ll try just about anything. Whether it’s a spicy chickpea curry, Greek yogurt, baked kale chips, fruit and veggie smoothies, crispy tofu, black bean soup or other things a picky 8-year-old might not be interested in, Emmy will give it a try. (Eventually she came around to liking all of the above.)
With my approach, I see a distinct difference between Emmy’s relationship with food and my own when I was a child. When Emmy chooses her meal, she doesn’t dawdle over it and I don’t have to tell her to clean her plate. Because she can take ownership of her choices, she digs in with no complaints. I could take the same meal and put it in front of her and she might pick at it. Using the Jedi mind trick of allowing her to decide makes her feel empowered.
I don’t mind being a short-order cook if it means that (most of) Emmy’s meals will be filling, nutritious and healthy. Especially when she cleans her plates and asks for seconds—of vegetables.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.