I used to be an insufferably picky eater. I hated all meat, most vegetables, spicy food, nuts — the list went on and on. I was afraid to try any new foods because, what if I didn't like them?
That apprehension made me reflexively dislike anything unfamiliar I put in my mouth, leaving me even more fearful of trying it again, a self-reinforcing cycle that left me living on a diet of cereal, fruit, and rice and beans.
As I've gotten older I've worked on expanding my palate, with the help of my partner, Charlie, who is a phenomenal and creative cook. Still, I tended to play it safe, culinarily speaking. Until our daughter came along.
It only took a few months for us to realize our daughter had food allergies. While not dangerous (i.e., not life-threatening), they made her incredibly sensitive. The merest trace of soy or dairy or corn, even filtered through my partner's breast milk, gave her rashes and stomachaches.
At first, I stuck to my usual diet and let Charlie take on the task of eliminating all our daughter's allergens alone. But when our baby started eating solid food and trying to grab bites off my plate, I realized I had to make a choice. I could either spend months or years playing keep-away at every meal, or I could start eating food that I could share with her.
Food in our family is social, joyful, and fun; we wanted our daughter to see it the same way.
My partner and I knew for certain we wouldn't do what my parents did when I became a vegetarian: They cooked whatever they wanted, and threw together a sandwich or bean burrito for me.
What's more, making food is crucial to Charlie, as both a creative outlet and an expression of love, and we don't want our child to miss out on that. A friend with severe food allergies described her childhood meals as deeply isolating, as she watched everyone else enjoy delicious-looking food she couldn't have. Food in our family is social, joyful, and fun; we wanted our daughter to see it the same way.
So we had to branch out, try new things, and find recipes that would be healthy for the baby and satisfying for the whole family. Almost all processed food was off limits; restaurants couldn't be trusted. We bought some new cookbooks and got busy testing out ingredients.
And a funny thing happened: In trying to stoke my child's enthusiasm for new foods, I realized I was kindling excitement in myself as well. I found myself experimenting with all kinds of herbs and spices to add flavor, where before I would have automatically reached for cheese.
Seeing my daughter venture into the world of food with an open mind made me reconsider long-held prejudices, too. My partner and I, the founding members of the We Hate Tomatoes Club, devoured a delicious pasta with heirloom tomato sauce.
Slowly, but surely, I'm overcoming my fear of cooking, finding new recipes I want to try and getting more confident in combining flavors and ingredients in satisfying ways. Now, I have opinions on the proper way to pickle vegetables — ones I'd never even heard of a year ago!
I'm inspired not only by finding creative and fun ways to work with my daughter's allergies, but also by her example. She will try absolutely anything.
I'm not at my partner's level in the kitchen and probably never will be, but I've gotten good at whipping up a fresh pesto using whatever herbs need to be eaten before they go bad.
I'm inspired not only by finding creative and fun ways to work with my daughter's allergies, but also by her example. She will try absolutely anything. I thought children were supposed to be picky, to prefer mild flavors and homogenous textures, but my kid has the most adventurous palate I've ever seen.
She loves spicy pickles, fresh mint leaves, spinach curry, and just today she happily gnawed on a lime wedge for 15 minutes. Even when her initial reaction to something new is skepticism (as was definitely the case with the lime), she always takes a few more bites to decide whether she likes it.
We've never had to encourage her to do this; she's just more curious than she is cautious. I love this about her and I want to emulate it.
While I once saw my daughter's food allergies as restrictions, I now understand them to be opportunities. In the absence of many of my favorite things to eat, I, like her, am trying something new on a nightly basis.
These days, dinnertime is never predictable, and not just because food is as likely to end up on the wall as in someone's stomach. It turns out that taking a few things off the table leaves room for many more.