Location: Sydney, Australia
Every trip to our local grocery store was a scavenger hunt. After waiting in line for entry, I navigated the congested isles with a narrow shopping list to satisfy some uniquely challenging palates at home.
My three-year-old son, Hampton, was growing curious about trying new foods. I hoped to add some weight to his slender frame. A product of an induced birth, Hampton arrived tall and skinny, his viny legs entangled in each other while his long arms wrapped around his torso. He looked like a tree root made of flesh. His hair went from thin whispers to a thick, light-brown golden crown.
I stopped to read the ingredients of some muesli bars, knowing that it could cost me toilet paper, paper towels, or disinfectant spray in another aisle. Everyone around me was voracious, stockpiling household items as if the world outside was disintegrating.
But caution was key. Anything with more than traces of peanut butter would give Hampton an anaphylactic reaction. We’d discovered his allergy when he was one year old and had a taste of peanut butter on his lips from a sandwich. Less than a half hour later, a child health nurse was in our apartment after his lip swelled and he began coughing.
My other son, one-year-old Miles, had been born a little thicker than Hampton and nearly as tall at birth. His was a calmer, natural water birth. The first few months saw his thighs and stomach swell and a bushel of deep black hair rolled out of his head. But then, his rapid growth plateaued. During a regular check-up with a nurse, he was deemed underweight for his age.
Afterwards, I replayed all the times he’d shown no interest in eating. I’d tried oatmeal, yogurt, applesauce, rice, spaghetti, and hash browns—all foods we’d tried with his brother. But with Miles, our routine was that we would try to feed him, he’d chew up and spit out the food, I’d clean it up, and we’d resign to breastfeeding. We had yet to find what I thought of as his gateway meal: the first thing he really liked which would open the door to other food.
I doubted I would find such a thing during a pandemic.
Luckily, most of our typical go-to items for further trial and error were still on shelves when I reached them: ramen noodles, frozen hash browns, fruit, smooth almond butter, apple juice, and microwave popcorn. A few other healthier options completed my shopping list and I returned home to experiment.
My wife Tracina is by far the better cook out of the two of us. She treated me to homemade shepherd’s pies when we first started dating back in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the first dish she cooked for me. Later there was steak and eggs, spaghetti bolognese, shrimp tacos, and stews when the weather turned cold. We were married for barely a year before she accepted a job in clinical research halfway across the world.
Every trip to our local grocery store was a scavenger hunt.
When I got home, Tracina took out the hamburger patties and balled them up in her fingers before liberally sprinkling salt, pepper, garlic powder, cayenne, and onion powder—we always found that meat in Australia needed a bit of extra seasoning for our taste. Then, she reformed these thoroughly seasoned patties into thick disks for the grill, along with some carrots and asparagus.
“No, Hampton!” I warned when he tried to turn over a hamburger prematurely. “We flip it once when it’s ready or it’ll dry out.”
When he got bored watching me poke at the sizzling meat, he wandered off to open the screen door for Miles, who came trotting outside, smiling and pigeon-toed.
Minutes later, Hampton finally got his moment to flip the fat, darkened patties, now thoroughly sizzling in their own yellowed juices. I scooped up the limp vegetables into a baking pan to cool. I had little hope the kids would actually eat the veggies—but we had to keep trying.
For added motivation for the kids, we formed an ‘eating circle’ since our villa doesn’t have a kitchen table. Instead, we gathered around each other, sitting on wicker bar stools, Miles and Hampton in their highchairs. Facing them, we cheered them on, encouraging them as they ate.
To guarantee the boys would eat something, Tracina dropped some frozen French fries into a deep fryer while I sat a hamburger patty inside a plump brioche bun. I gave it a squirt of ketchup, then cut it into bite-size pieces.
Hampton went first, picking up a piece of meat and bun with his thin fingers, turning it around curiously with a grin, and then cautiously biting into it. A few drops of ketchup fell onto his shirt. He nodded his head excitedly, food peeking out from his teeth.
“It’s so good!” he said, smacking and taking another bite. I hoped that seeing him enjoy the food would motivate his brother.
Miles bounced a little in his highchair. He leaned forward, his little mouth opening with a popping sound. I guided a piece of burger just past the eight teeth he had to rest on his tongue. He worked the food around his puffy caramel-coloured jaws, deciding how to eat it. Then, after a few chews, Miles smiled and laughed, bits of bread flying from his mouth. He swallowed and scooted in his highchair for more.
Tracina clapped enthusiastically from across the bar as Miles finished a few more bites of the burger. I tried to sneak in a carrot too. He spat it out.
When they’d finished, I cleaned their mouths of grease and ketchup and gave them each Sippy cups of watered-down apple juice.
This was a breakthrough. I gave both boys a Tim Tam for dessert, a favourite in our house. Hampton demolished his while Miles ate half, gleefully sucking the chocolate before biting into it.
In all that time in isolation, we shared dozens of meals and taught our kids how to eat. In return, they taught us patience. My grocery list grew as the kids slowly embraced new foods and different flavours. Another small victory: they started looking forward to our eating circles and helped arrange their highchairs.
We are still working on the vegetables.