Updated: January 31, 2013 6:21AM
My 5- and 6-year-old sons survive on a horrendous diet. Chicken nuggets, waffles and pizza are staples along with a few other regrettable menu items.
As a parent, I feel both responsible and ashamed. Occasionally, I’ll stand my ground, mandating the consumption of a healthy meal. I took such a stand last week, only to be reminded of the reasons behind my mealtime predicament.
The battle occurred over a plate of rainbow rotini pasta. The cupboards were bare, but I managed to scrounge up a meal of corkscrew noodles, tomato sauce and Italian sausage. Considering my nearly empty pantry and refrigerator, I was quite proud of the makeshift meal.
Neither Bubba nor Peter shared my enthusiasm. When called to the table, they both looked into their bowls and reacted as though they were being punished. I didn’t mince words. This was what was being served for dinner, and I expected them to eat.
Bubba could tell I was serious and made a modest attempt, whereas his younger brother choked down small bites only when I insisted he do so. Tears streamed down Peter’s rosy cheeks throughout most of the meal.
Had I been serving raw oysters, I could understand this reaction, but twisty noodles in red sauce is standard fare. And I wasn’t backing down.
With two bites left to go, Peter started dry heaving. Undeterred, I insisted he finish his dinner. Instead, he barfed.
Now, I was angry — angry my kids didn’t appreciate the meal; angry I had to mandate every bite; angry that an otherwise commonplace meal turned into a battle; and angry for having to mop up vomit.
This isn’t the first time my sons have puked foods they don’t like. Bubba puked when I made him eat a sweet potato French fry this summer. Peter puked the final bite of an English muffin pizza last month.
I shared my story with several parents the following day. They all had their own stories of mealtime nightmares. Some had even shared my puking phenomenon.
I also reached out to a couple of experts looking for answers. Dr. Leo Heitlinger chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition. The Pennsylvania-based doctor offered some practical advice.
“The first question is does this represent a problem? If he (Peter) can have a balanced diet without red sauce or other things he brings up, I would leave it alone for a while,” Heitlinger said.
But this is part of a larger problem. The primary reason I cave in to their dining demands is because I don’t want to fight, and I really don’t want to have to clean up barf.
Emily Koziarski also offered some advice. She grew up in Chicago’s Beverly community and works as a pediatric clinical dietitian at Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago.
Koziarski said some children are sensitive to textures in food. Perhaps there’s something about noodles in sauce that makes Peter queasy. But I’ve seen this same reaction from a variety of foods of various textures.
“There could also be a psychological component, I suppose. Your little guys may have figured out that you won’t make them eat something if they puke it up,” Koziarski said.
Dr. Heitlinger agreed, saying bulimic teens and children who ruminate (the bizarre habit of chewing one’s cud when bored) often engage in such behaviors for reasons that have nothing to do with food. One theory is that consumption of food — or lack thereof — is one of the few things children can control.
“(Puking) is an interesting skill that likely has some advantage to them, even though it does not seem apparent to us,” Heitlinger said.
I’m a bit of a control freak and most of this gets dumped on Bubba and Peter. I control when they wake up and when they go to bed. I control what my boys wear and what they do throughout the day. I even control what’s being served for dinner.
If the only way for them to take a bit of that control back is to puke up their dinner, so be it. They win. I’m not going to push them to eat. As much as I’d like to sit around the table sharing a well-balanced meal, it’s simply not worth the fight.
Perhaps they’ll come around someday. If not, I’ll be the old man who treats his adult children to McDonald’s on their birthday.
Howard A. Ludwig is a former SouthtownStar business reporter who traded his reporter’s notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.