The mashed potatoes sit in stiff, icy peaks on the plates, thin moats of beef gravy surrounding their starchy edges. A while ago, the combination of boiled potatoes, butter, sour cream and milk spun on the whirring whisks of the electric mixer, promising the tasty comfort of carbohydrates.
But now, the steam long dissipated, dinner mostly consumed, there remain two lumpy mounds of glop — as appetizing as papier-mache, or perhaps wet lint from the dryer.
After 15 years of parenting, the dinnertime battle rages on.
Besides the mashed potatoes, tonight's menu is pot roast and a medley of frozen peas and carrots — a reliable meal, nothing fancy.
Earlier, the lingering scent from the crockpot had everybody salivating like Pavlov's dog, subliminally suggesting a tasty dinner — except that two of my children won't eat mashed potatoes.
This is simply ridiculous. Who doesn't eat mashed potatoes?
Worse, they refuse to eat not only mashed potatoes, but any potato that isn't a french fry served in a paper envelope — not baked, boiled, hash browned, scalloped, au gratined, home fried or tater-totted; not with ketchup, sour cream, butter, salt or vinegar.
I've consulted the experts on this issue. My pediatrician advises waiting out their taste buds until they mature. Who knew taste buds needed puberty to allow consumption of one of the principal foods in our pantry?
Similarly, child development books say never to engage in battles over food. You'll only end up in a war of wills, and since you can't actually force someone to chew, you run the risk of losing parental authority. Instead, it says to offer healthy food choices to your child regularly, until he or she develops a taste for them.
So far, this hasn't worked. I think it's because to develop a taste for certain foods, you actually have to put some in your mouth.
Some of the best parents I know insist there's a better way: Serve what you're serving, if they don't eat, let them go hungry. Eventually, children learn to consume what's in front of them or starve.
I tried this, too, but my daughter subsisted on toothpaste for three days. Not very nutritious, but she had a great smile and fresh breath.
It isn't just the lowly potato that generates conflict around our table. Every child has some quirky food preference. One doesn't like the noodles in chicken noodle soup. One hates eggs. Another hates spinach. OK, they all hate spinach.
The point is, on any given evening, the best eater in the house is the disposal in the kitchen sink.
But not tonight.
Tonight I decide to ignore both my pediatrician and conventional wisdom. Tonight I'm force-feeding.
“Nobody gets up from this table until all the food on your plate is eaten. Period.”
Two heads snap toward me in horror. “All of it?” they ask in unison.
“Every bite,” I declare, drawing a line in the mashed potatoes.
“But I'm allergic,” my daughter cries as she scratches her arms and fakes a sneeze.
“I don't like potatoes,” my son protests, stating the obvious.
“Too bad,” I reply in a tone of voice that conveys I'm serious. They pick up their forks and push the spuds around on the plate.
“They're cold,” my son complains.
“They were hot when I put them in front of you,” I remind him.
My picky eaters reluctantly shovel some mashed potatoes onto their utensils and slowly bring the pasty food to their lips, their youthful faces contorting in anguish.
Their eyes water.
The color drains from their cheeks.
They subdue the gag reflex — an obvious effort to gross me out so I'll relent, which is not happening. Finally, I've had enough.
“Look, you two,” I begin, “there are kids all over the world who would eat those cold, mashed potatoes in one bite and wish for more. They don't get hot meals every night like you do. They go to bed hungry and hurting, and you don't have to cross an ocean to find these children; you only have to go across town.”
My sermon on the mound of mashed potatoes continues for a few minutes as my son and daughter gradually wash down forkfuls with big gulps of milk.
I mention the monthly food cupboard they donate to at school. I remind them of our annual holiday baskets for families in need of staples for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I tell them they're lucky because they never worry about whether there will be enough food, only whether it will be something they like.
Frankly, I'm amazed I feel so strongly about potatoes — my reaction conveys a depth of emotion I didn't know I felt for produce — but of course, it's not really about potatoes.
It's about abundance, and what it does to gratitude.
Living as we do, in a culture that feeds our desires, we're blessed beyond all reason. We've grown accustomed to indulging our preferences, blurring the line between what we want and what we need.
Living gratefully means recognizing abundance — even in a plate of cold potatoes.
I excuse my now-nourished children and send them up to get ready for bed. One of them asks about dessert, but I respond with a look that says, “Are you kidding?”
After all, who has room for ice cream after all those yummy spuds?
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)