A small miracle happened recently in my family.
During a dinner at an Italian restaurant, my niece Julia — soon to be 10 — shocked us all by asking whether she could order an adult meal of linguini with clam sauce.
The people at nearby tables surely must have wondered what was happening when the gasps rose from our corner of the room.
This child has survived more than 9 years on a steady diet of oatmeal, Cheerios, bread and butter, and pasta with tomato sauce (sometimes she eats the accompanying meatball, sometimes not).
Her food repertoire is a limited and confusing jumble that changes with her mood.
I’ve watched her strip pizza of every smidgen of cheese and pepperoni to dine on triangles of saucy crust. But she will plow through a double helping of baked beans like a vegan at a rib fest.
She can eat her weight in cheddar cheese but eschews macaroni and cheese, unless it is the microwaveable-cup variety. She refuses all candy except plain chocolate; her ice cream must be vanilla.
Julia could teach Morris the Cat the real meaning of finicky.
This linguini breakthrough, then, was a stunner.
When her pasta arrived, she negotiated the little neck clams from their shells with her fork like a pro. During the same meal, she even shocked herself when she munched on both her salad and the orange slice that decorated the glass of one of the adult’s cocktails.
“What is going on with me?” she exclaimed, smiling broadly.
What is going on? I had to wonder. Are Julia’s taste buds finally blossoming? Is she just growing up?
Finicky eaters can be puzzling, said Ihuoma Eneli, a pediatrician and the director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“I wish I could give you a simple answer,” she said, “Every child is different, and I think when you have a picky or finicky eater, they come to it through different routes.”
Every person’s relationship with food develops differently and is subject to many influences, Eneli said, starting with the variety of foods he or she is fed when young and including the environment at the dinner table. Eating should be a joyful experience, so mealtime battles over what a child eats rarely help, she said.
Parents are responsible for helping a child develop a healthy relationship with food, Eneli said, but even a parent doing everything right might struggle with a child’s eating habits.
I had my own issues with linguini with clam sauce as a child — which culminated in my dad once paying me a dollar to eat what was on my plate.
I suspect that Eneli would not approve of his bribery, even though it did work on me. I held my nose and focused on the cash — but, really, I think I was just hungry and had no other choice.
Hunger, Eneli said, is one of the best motivators for a picky eater. Making sure a child arrives at the table hungry is one of the surest ways to get him or her to eat, she said.
The good news is that most kids improve as their exposure to a wider variety of foods increases, Eneli said.
Perhaps that’s what is happening with Julia.
My sister, Julia’s mother, prepares linguini with clam sauce at home. For a long time, Julia simply ate buttered linguini, but recently my sister started serving her pasta with the clam sauce and hoping for the best.
Her tactic seems to be working.
LINGUINI WITH CLAM SAUCE
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound linguini, cooked according to package directions
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
2 small yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cans (6.5 ounces each) minced clams in clam juice
1/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and pepper, to taste
Juice of half a lemon
1 dozen little neck clams, in their shells, scrubbed clean
Chopped fresh parsley
While pasta is cooking, heat oil and butter in a large skillet over medium. Add onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and minced clams with their juice and bring to a simmer. Add wine, broth and lemon juice and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add whole clams, cover and continue to cook a little above a simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until clams open. Discard any clams that don’t open during cooking.
Drain pasta, and pour sauce over hot, cooked linguini. Arrange clams in shell on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
PER SERVING: (Based on 6) 577 calories, 32 g protein, 63 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 4 g sugars, 20 g fat (6 saturated), 65 mg cholesterol, 507 mg sodium.
— Lisa Abraham writes about food for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @DispatchKitchen.