The Ultimate Privilege

My mother would have called me a picky eater, if the term had been popular when I was a kid in the early 1980s; instead, people often said I was spoiled. I turned my nose up to onions, didn’t care for orange juice, and had a physical aversion to ground meat (that was my mother’s fault, though; she brainwashed me to believe, from a very young age, that ground meat was dirty). Many years later, and after a couple of near death experiences, I realized that my aversion to onions was actually an allergy and oranges cause anaphylactic response in me. It only takes a few times of not being able to breathe after inhaling orange vapor that the light bulb clicks on and you realize maybe you shouldn’t eat oranges. Or be near them. Or be in the same room when someone is peeling one.

Even my three children, as young as 4 years old, notify servers at restaurants, “no onions or oranges on my mom’s plate, please. She’s ‘lergic.”

Food allergy is real and deadly; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

When I was a kid, food allergies were often seen as children being “spoiled” and ungrateful. They were terms I didn’t understand. I had violent physical reactions to certain foods; why would anyone think that I was “spoiled” if I didn’t like oranges because they made me vomit?

I know food allergies. Let me make this clear: the following is NOT about people with food allergies.

We’ve largely lost the term “spoiled” when describing a child who refuses to eat certain foods, mostly due to a better understanding of food allergies, and I would argue that that is a positive step forward for kids everywhere. But I’ve noticed a trend since my daughter was born almost 7 years ago that has made me rethink the phenomena of picky eaters. I used to think that picky eaters were like me: they didn’t like a certain food because they probably had an allergy or sensitivity to the food. But more recently, “picky eaters” seem to be everywhere, and at a much higher rate than what is statistically possible to account for food allergy. An estimated 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. has a mild to severe food allergy; in the real world, I see a much higher rate than that of children who refuse to eat certain, common foods in America. My theory about picky eaters having undiagnosed food allergies just doesn’t fit.

I’ve spent the last quarter century raising and feeding children. No, I am not a nutritionist, but I am a sociologist who studies the Sociology of Agriculture and Food; I watch for patterns in food consumption both at the macro and micro level. I’ve watched my kids and other children’s food habits long enough to notice different patterns.

My kids have fairly broad palates, despite my own issues with certain foods, and in fact, they’ll actually tease me about how tasty burgers are and laugh when I say, “no thanks!” They’ll eat everything from Octopus to hot dogs at the ball park, Brussels sprouts to beets and everything in between. I’m grateful that my kids have broad palates.

But in other kids, I see, what I would identify, as narrow eating patterns.

As example, my husband and I visited family members a few years ago and the only thing their 5 and 8 year old children would eat were things that were orange. And protein shakes. Grilled cheese sandwich? It’s orange: yes. Quesadilla? It’s orange: yes. Mac and cheese? Yep. Chicken nuggets? Of course, they’re orange, but only the ones that come frozen in bags. So while the parents and my family (except me, I just ate salad) ate amazing homemade meat loaf, the mom made grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids.

I thought this family was an anomaly, and then I started hearing stories and complaints from other families. Many of my friends with children report feeling like short order cooks, because they make different meals for each family member, every night, because no one will eat the same thing as another family member. Child only likes chicken nuggets and carrot sticks? That’s what he or she has every night. For a year. Narrow eating. 

Look at a child’s menu in most American restaurants and you’ll see the same, unhealthy items repeatedly, despite going to restaurants of varying national or ethnic origin. What are the most common menu items at major chain restaurants in the U.S.? Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken tenders, french fries, and macaroni and cheese. Narrow eating.

But guess what? At home, children eat largely those same foods: pizza, chicken nuggets, and pasta (macaroni and cheese) are among the top ten most common foods children eat in America.

We’ve created a generation, or maybe two generations, of narrow palates where children and adults prefer to eat only a narrow scope of food, and because we live in the land of plenty, we have the ability to turn our noses up to other food.

A few years ago, I started feeling weird about this trend, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable with children refusing to eat food that was offered to them in the course of a regular meal if they didn’t have allergies to that food. For what it’s worth, I do make accommodations for my kids, as long as they still eat what I serve at dinner. You don’t like ranch dressing on your salad? Fine, you get to choose your own dressing. But you’ll still eat the salad. And no, there is no other food option in the house.

A few nights ago, I served my family beef stew with cooked carrots, potatoes, and celery. As I set a plate of food in front of my nearly 7 year old daughter, a very interesting thing happened.

“Do I have to eat the carrots?” she asked me, her arm draped across her forehead in despair. I stopped serving the other plates, and had an epiphany moment and realized, ‘ah, this is why I am uncomfortable with children refusing food. This child is ungrateful. She is privileged, and is ungrateful.’ The thought occurred to me, ‘this is what it means to be spoiled. This is what everyone was talking about when I was a child. They didn’t realize certain food made me sick; they thought I was ungrateful for what was offered to me.”

That epiphany moment began several months ago, when I happened on a book I was reviewing for one of the classes I teach. I am interested in Southeast Asia, and so when looking for new books on the topic, found a memoir titled, When Broken Glass Floats. The book begins in Cambodia just prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation in the mid 1970s. For 5 years, the book follows a pre-teen girl as she is forced from her comfortable city life, into the work camps under the Khmer Rouge, and finally, to freedom. I thought I would learn about the politics of the Khmer Rouge, but instead, I learned about real privilege, or the lack thereof. The book is a testament to the will to survive, and a stark glimpse into the tactics of starvation and work used by the Khmer Rouge to control the people of Cambodia. It is a heartbreaking account of children stealing away from their huts in the middle of the night to hunt for food, of pilfering more broth to curb their growling stomachs, of praying for death to end the suffering. It is here, in these pages, that I cried at the thought of my own three children being worked and starved to death, separated from their family.

Slowly, we wade in, with both hands stretching the mosquito net open. The pan floats in front of the net, guided by the arching top of it. Our plan is to scoop the net up beneath the branches. The fish are usually there during the day when it’s hot. Under her breath, Ra whispers urgently to me to hand over the pan. After pushing the pan to Ra, I reach out to touch the dark shadow in the center of the net, wondering what we’ve caught.

 

“Prawns, lots of prawns!” Ra’s excited.

 

The thought of prawns lifts up my spirit. I can’t wait until we finish fishing. Hungry, Ra and I eat some. I grab a few from the pan and shove them in my mouth. They struggle, their tails flick against my tongue. Some are the size of my little finger. Others are bigger.

But it is also here that I saw how privileged we are, that we have a safe home, and abundant food. And that is a privilege.

My children will often try to bargain with me to not eat certain foods, and eat other food instead (“no carrots, but I’ll eat the potatoes, Mom”), and even decline healthy meals at home if they know they are headed to school, where they will be offered more palatable food. They know there will always be enough food, and so they decline food; that is privilege.

As my daughter stared disdainfully at the plate of food I had prepared for her, a plate that will likely never be empty, I contemplated how to respond to her.

I wanted to tell her, “Evelyn, darling, you are privileged. You are so privileged that your belly has never felt the real pangs of hunger, that you’ve never had to go without a meal, that you’ve never had to beg for food, that you have the choice of a hundred different items of food in our home. You are so privileged to live in a home where your parents have been privileged with the opportunities presented to them, so they could provide for you. You are so privileged, that you turn your nose up to food when millions of others would grovel for a bite, just one bite, of what you have.”

As I suppressed my urge to tell my daughter of her privilege, I realized that “picky” eating, narrow eating, is not picky at all: it is privileged. My children, and I, have the luxury of choosing not to eat, if the smell is off or the texture is wrong or the temperature is slightly too cold. There will always be more food to choose from either now or in the very near future. We are privileged.

“Evelyn, be grateful for what you have,” I tell my daughter, “others don’t have even this.” She stares at me uncertainly, picks at her food with her fork, and finally eats her carrots.

It is a privilege to reject that which would sustain life for others, and to look disdainfully on it, and be ungrateful in the face of it. That is the ultimate privilege.