According to Jennifer Traig, author of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, there is very little evidence in the historical record for “concerns over children refusing what they were given” to eat much before the 1880s. That makes Betty MacDonald a seeress when she invented “The Picky-Eater Cure” in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957). This cautionary tale zeroed in the sin of Will Pemberton,which was eating nothing but boiled noodles. His distraught parents consulted Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and came home with magic crystals, which when sprinkled on Will’s dinner, turned everything on the plate into his favorite (only) food. In time Will grew tired of nothing but boiled noodles and was forced to dig into other dishes. Before Will, there was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Suppenkaspar, who would not eat his good soup and wasted away for lack of nourishment. The marker on his grave was a tureen, naturally.Picky eateritis is surely a disease of affluence, but the condition’s psychological aspects must be of equal importance. Casual observation suggests that the child who turns down what’s on the plate is a child who knows full well that there are plenty of options in the refrigerator that are more to his liking. So begins a battle of wills between child and parent, the child reasonably confident that his mother-combatant will throw down her lance rather than let her baby go hungry.
Let’s suppose that abundance of choice is at the heart of picky eateritis. Then there ought to be evidence in the literature of parenting before 1880s that elite parents were tussling with children at mealtimes. I didn’t find a Will or Kaspar in my quick and unscientific survey of late eighteenth-century sources, partly because the experts were concerned chiefly with the diet of infants and toddlers. Among the problems that did preoccupy them were the prevention of letting children consume too much sugar or drinking wine and spirits.
There being no fast foot industry to point the finger at, the blame for getting children off on the wrong foot fell squarely on the shoulders of adults. In 16th edition of Domestic Medicine (1798), Dr. William Buchan thought the practice of sweetening babies’ food with sugar encouraged them to overeat: “Their excesses are entirely owing to nurses. If the child be gorged with food at all hours, and enticed to take it, by making it sweet and agreeable to the patate, is in any wonder that such a child should in time be induced to crave more food than it ought to have?” Some parents, he observed disapprovingly, “teach their children to guzzle ale, and other fermented liquors, at every meal.” Buchan’s advice was considered sufficiently authoritative to have been regularly repeated or plagiarized.
The good news was that sensible mealtime management was possible to establish and maintain, even before children could comprehend why restraining their appetites for certain things was good for their health. Richard Edgeworth and his co-author/daughter Maria discussed this topic in Practical Education (1798-9), an late eighteenth-century forerunner to Dr. Spock, based on their experience raising a brood of twenty-two: “if they [children] partake of the usual family meals, and if there are no whimsical distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome dishes, or epicurean distinctions between rarities and plain food, the imagination and pride of children will not be roused about eating. Their pride is piqued if they perceive, that they are prohibited from touching what grown up people are privileged to eat…. In families where a regularly good table is kept, children accustomed to the sight and taste of all kinds of food, are seldom delicate, capricious, or disposed to exceed.” The thrust of the passage is that children observe the food preferences of adults and are likely to imitate them. Picky children pick it up from picky adults.
A mother of twelve, Mrs. Trimmer weighed in how to get children to eat in An Essay on Christian Education, which was published in installments in her children’s book review journal, The Guardian of Education (1802-1806). She made a couple of observations which sound as if they were based on long experience with little people: “Children are generally averse to food which they have never tasted; and, in this case, the difficulty is to get them to taste everything.” Another interesting remark she made was that “it is next to an impossibility, except in a very secluded situation, to keep a child in ignorance of the taste of rich cakes, &c. &c. and when these are placed before him in profusion, and set out too in the most inviting manner, they are real temptations.” True words, indeed,
Did children’s book authors portray children who were bad eaters as negative examples? Yes, indeed. Here is the opening of “The Boy with the Sweet Tooth” from Profitable Amusement for Children (1802): “Luke Lickerish was so very fond of sweet things, that, whenver his father or mother gave him a few pence, he immediately ran to the grocer’s or confectioner’s, and bought barley-sugar, licorice, sugar-candy, or something else of the sweet kind. Besides, at breakfast and tea-time he always watched the sugar-basin; and, whenever he was his mother’s back turned, he slily filched three or four lumps of sugar, thrust them into his pocket, and afterwards ate them in private. By continuing every day to eat such quantities of sweets, he injured his health very much and spoiled his appetite, so that he seldom relished his meals, ate very little of wholesome food, and was growing very thin, weak and puny.”
Luke sounds a lot like children now who crave heavily sweetened cereal, marshmallows, and Swedish fish. Perhaps children who do not know hunger haven’t changed as much in certain respects as popular historians suppose…