I think I’ve mentioned before that P. is becoming a “dipper” at mealtimes.  More accurately, these days, he’s becoming a condiment connoisseur — meaning that he very much enjoys having something on his plate which is intended as a dip, but which he will probably eat completely on its own, as a side dish, using the would-be dipping food as a utensil.  He scoops marinara sauce onto eggplant sticks and sucks it off; dabs mustard onto bits of rye bread and licks it; and endlessly dips chips into salsa, then sticks them into his mouth, until the chip disintegrates and he’s forced to either find another chip for his game or just eat the salsa with his fists.

No condiment, however, can match the wonder that is ketchup.  In P.’s world, ketchup makes any meal complete.  I can sympathize a bit; I recall, as a small child, eating many things with a little ketchup on the side.  Where some kids ate vegetables dipped in ranch dressing, I dipped raw green beans into ketchup.  I ate it on my scrambled eggs and used it as a condiment for grilled cheese.  (Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, by the way.)  P. appears to be taking after me, and I’m not going to stand in his way.

I’ve heard many people who are much more “expert” at this kids-and-food thing than I am say that you shouldn’t mask the flavors of food with condiments — better to let little ones develop their palates based on the way things are really supposed to taste.  I can understand that theory, but in reality, all I want is a semi-peaceful dinner table and a shot that P. will put something in his mouth and actually swallow it (rather than chewing it for a while, then grinning at me and spitting it out…usually into my hand).  And for whatever reason, ketchup seems to do the trick.

Obviously we don’t give it to him every night, but lately I’ve been sizing up his plate before bringing it to the table and trying to get into the mindset of my gastronomically creative child.  If I think there’s anything on the dinner table that P. might see as a vehicle for condiments, I’m inclined to put a little dab of something on his plate (provided, of course, that it won’t make me completely ill to watch him mastermind his bizarre food combinations).  And when he chooses to eat his ketchup with a spoon, as he did the other night, I don’t say anything.

In raising P., I’m discovering that it’s essential to his well-being, and our sanity, to let him explore with his food as much as possible.  Yes, he’s messy; yes, he’s sometimes gross; and yes, he often leaves on his plate the one thing that I was really hoping he’d eat.  But I think that with children, especially very (*ahem*) spirited, curious ones like P., setting too many boundaries around what one can and cannot do with one’s food at the table, too early in life, can backfire.

Toddlers explore the world in many ways, and food is a particularly interesting medium, since it satisfies so many senses.  It’s got taste, smell, visual input, and textural appeal; some foods even make a sound when they’re squished, crunched, or splashed.  All parents know that it’s perfectly natural for little ones to want to play with their food, yet too often, we restrict them from doing so at too young an age.  Do I let P. throw his dinner on the floor and splash it all over the curtains?  No, of course not.  But if I let him eat his ketchup with a spoon, or use it to finger-paint on the edge of his plate, he sits at the table for much longer (and much more happily) than he might ordinarily, giving us a more pleasant family dinner experience and a chance to impart some of the other values that get communicated around the table — talking, listening, sharing, modeling how big people eat.  He also tends to eat at least one other item on his plate when he’s been allowed the opportunity to mess around a bit.

I can understand it, I think, from an evolutionary standpoint and a child development standpoint.  I’m sure primal instinct demands that P., and other toddlers, fully examine “new” foods (or foods that they haven’t made their minds up about, or foods that are served on Tuesdays, or foods that are touching, or…) before eating them to determine that they are in fact safe to consume.  If they’re not able to do that, then children like P. — who tends to be suspicious of most things in life unless he’s gotten a chance to scout them out first — just aren’t going to accept Mommy and Daddy’s judgment that the broccoli and fish are okay to eat.  Also, since most childhood eating issues are really about control, giving P. the opportunity to play with his food just a little beyond what “good manners” dictate means that he’ll be more willing to compromise with what I want him to do, which is to just please would you for the love of God just once in your life sit and eat something at mealtime like a normal human being and no don’t stick the mashed potatoes in your ear, thank you very much.

Of course this all applies at any given meal, ketchup or no ketchup, but this week, at least, the red stuff  seems to be the hot item.  J. shrugged at me the other night, reading the label: “It’s a vegetable, right?” he said, somewhat wryly.  Technically, he’s right — I think it was Ronald Reagan who proclaimed that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable in the USDA Food Pyramid, though how anyone, even P., might actually consume enough ketchup to even remotely approach a meaningful serving of veggies baffles me.  And to be even more technical about it, the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, so…

I looked over at P., who in that moment, was shoveling a spoonful of ketchup into his mouth.  He paused to grin at me, a little goatee of red smeared across his chin…then picked up a whole-wheat crusted piece of haddock and took a bite.  In that moment, I could sort of understand the parental desperation that might lead one to the delusion that ketchup counts as a vegetable, or a fruit, or whatever.  For my part, I didn’t care.  Watching him gleefully dismantle his dinner, ketchup and all, I was just thankful that we’d found something to keep him interested in sharing a meal with us.  For this week, at least.