When I recently snapped a picture of my daughter, Clio, embedding her mouth in the pink icing of a cupcake at her third birthday, I realized I’d been photo-documenting–and worrying over–her eating habits for three full years.
The exercise began with mundane enough intentions. How could I miss a picture of Clio, in the postpartum ward of Southampton Hospital, taking her first meal of breastmilk just a few hours after birth? Or the photo-worthy novelty of Clio gumming her first bagel, taking her first spoonful of avocado, wincing from her first bite of tart applesauce, learning to blow on her oatmeal with raisins, or even slurping her first raw oyster (at just 20 months, to boot!).
But, although Clio wasn’t a picky eater, she didn’t exactly eat in quantity–at least at first. And according to the scales and growth charts in pediatricians’ offices, Clio was particularly small. (Pipsqueak is an endearing term I like to use. And so is “half-pint” borrowed from the vernacular of Little House on the Prairie’s Pa Ingells.) In fact, Clio measured up so small that hand-wringing pediatricians pressed us on her eating habits, encouraged us to consider supplements and high-calorie shakes, and in general made us worry a lot.
So the pictures took on a new meaning–they were a way to document what and how much she was eating, and how that changed over time. Our exercise is by no means exhaustive or scientific. But, along the way, we discovered:
- the Berkeley Parents Network (an invaluable resource on all things parenting, including eating habits), and we learned that “banana-shaped” and “apple-shaped” are both completely normal and healthy kid body types.
- that a growing kid can consume mountains of fatty foods—Hudson Valley duck, Pacific salmon, Organic Valley pasture butter–and still be skinny.
- that allergies tied to dairy and eggs don’t necessarily apply to goats milk or duck eggs.
- that the shape of a food—balls, strips, patties—is nearly as important as what the food is.
- quirky food traditions, like desserts of dark chocolate and a Shaklee vitamin, and Clio’s bottle of warm honey water in the morning to go with mom and dad’s coffee.
Opinions do vary on these matters. At times, we relied on medical expertise. We also relied heavily on commonsense wisdom from other parents, like Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema and regional food thinker Gary Nabhan, who both advised making a diversity of great food available to the growing child at all times—from chicken bones to beans to fruit and cheese and to even stuff too spicy for them to take more than a tiny bite. Our septugenarian babysitter, who has raised generations of kids, seconded this advice, telling us to ignore the pediatricians: “Today, they are worried about her being too skinny, and then they’ll worry about her being too fat.”
So, like “Fishing with John” and “Cooking with Dexter,” I hope these pictures-paired-with-parenting-advice are both entertaining and educational. Like all parenting, “Eating with Clio” has been a mostly-joyous adventure that is a constant learning process and that, in the better moments, gave real insights into how kids learn to develop. Ours wasn’t a Jessica Seinfield-eque effort to hide healthy food (although her cookbook offers its own wisdom and the brightly colored pages continue to be extremely popular with Clio). This was all about presenting good food at all times, in all forms, and to encourage a love of it through cooking together, shopping together and gardening together.
That’s what I hope to share, in this series over the next few months, and would be delighted if you would share your own photos or stories with us of cooking with your kids in the city, as well.