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Our fraternal boy girl twins arrived, after an uneventful pregnancy, and transformed our double income no kids lifestyle into an instant family. As a first-time parent and of twins, I relied heavily on the advice of family, friends and our family doctor. I started introducing cereals at 5 1/2 months, which my son took to easily while my daughter struggled to adjust to the different texture. By 8 months, they had both progressed through a wide range of pureed vegetables and fruits, my daughter being the one that displayed the most displeasure with certain flavours. Both were moving on to small chunks of table foods. Until my son choked on a chunk of sliced pear.
After my son choked on crackers at the age of two, my husband remarked, “There’s something else he won’t eat again.” I hadn’t really noticed the growing list of food my son refused to eat, it was just normal to expect TJ to not eat what we were having. My daughter frequently wanted whatever was on my plate and loved the experience of new foods, where TJ often appeared distressed at the mere mention of eating. His diet was limited to pizza (sauce and cheese), crackers, bread, French fries and chocolate milk. Slowly, he accepted apples and briefly, raisins until I had to thrust one out of his airway at 3 1/2.
By the time my son was four, there were about a dozen unique foods that comprised all of what he would eat. We tried advice offered from well-meaning friends and family, plus “tried and tested” expert advice from trusted Internet resources. The issue was always misunderstood as TJ’s attempt to gain “control.” We were told to deal with his eating in terms of a child simply being stubborn and manipulative. As the parent, I was expected to put my foot down and make him eat. I was told to bribe him with rewards, punish him for refusing what I offered, serve him the same meal and nothing else until he ate it, trick him, force feed him. He gagged, vomited or at best, just refused to eat. All this advice succeeding in doing was making a child anxious about eating even more anxious around food. Our family doctor reassured me each year, as his weight drifted into lower percentiles, and his bones became more noticeable, that he was growing normally.
We dined with a monster that we had no name for. My son would refuse to come to the table for meals. We came to accept that TJ was a “picky” eater and waited for him to “grow out of it.”
At five, we were still hopeful that TJ’s limited diet was nothing more than a temporary phase. We were told to serve him the food we were eating because no child offered food will starve. TJ reluctantly took his place at the table after much insisting, and I placed a plate of chicken, rice and peas before him. I knew he wouldn’t be happy, but this time, I finally saw the truth through what everyone else had been telling me to believe. I watched him curl himself into a protective ball, his eyes wide with fear, and his hands covering his mouth. How did I not see this before? This is not picky eating. This child is terrified!
I googled “fear of food” which led me to a scattered collection of information on something called selective eating. What little I was able to find agreed that selective eating individuals usually have a preference for breads, some dairy, few fruits, and virtually no meat or vegetables. This is not any deliberate choice or attempt at manipulation. These children will starve, despite being offered food because they would rather be hungry than eat something they can’t, much like most people would refuse to eat a live hornet. Food is divided into things considered “safe” and “not food”. Now that TJ was older and able to verbalize his food refusal, he told me that unless he was very familiar with what he was eating, he believed that food would kill him.
I found a newspaper article about a treatment program for food phobic children that uses desensitization techniques to gradually reduce the distance between child and food, and encourages interaction with food through play. For the first time, I felt like there were other children who shared my son’s fear of food, and there were physicians out there who understood what we were dealing with at mealtimes. That evening, I tried the technique the article spoke of with our macaroni dinner, a food my son has seen many times, but never eaten. I told him I didn’t want him to eat it. There would be bread for him to eat, and he could play with the macaroni as he wished. It was chaos, as noodles rained down upon us all, but for the first time in years, my son was happy at the table and a willing participant in the meal.
I started blogging about our food struggles, attempting to gather the scattered information on selective eating, and to find other parents who still felt alone in their mealtime struggles. I named the blog Mealtime Hostage, because that’s exactly how it felt. We were prisoners to our son’s fear of food. I joined some adult picky eating online groups and found support from thousands of adults, all of whom still had the same limited diet from their selective eating childhood.
It was comforting to know we weren’t alone in our struggles, but still, I didn’t know how to support my son through his anxiety around food. I was directed to a paediatrician, a dietitian, an occupational therapist, our family doctor, all of whom had no answers for us. Meanwhile, TJ continued to lose weight and after a bout of flu, dropped off the growth charts completely. Fortunately, help was already at hand.
My blog attracted the attention of Dr. Katja Rowell, who recommended her book, Love Me Feed Me and introduced me to the work of Ellyn Satter. Following their no-pressure feeding models and learning to trust TJ with eating has been, quite literally, a life saver. Meals are now enjoyable for everybody and it amazes and thrills me every time TJ expresses an interest in trying a new food. His diet has increased from 12 to almost 30 unique foods in a relatively short time, and his curiosity in new foods continues to grow. His weight has also stabilized, holding steady between the 25th his interest in food is expanding beyond the range of “safe” into things he once considered “not food”, learning that he likes to eat things like strawberry cream cheese, zucchini pancakes, and dried apples. At the table, TJ happily passes bowls with a cheerful, “Here you go,” instead of the terrified response we had grown used to.
We no longer dine with a monster. We can finally eat together as a family and everybody, especially TJ, looks forward to the meals can share together.
Mealtime Hostage Mom-to-Mom Support Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/MealtimeHostage/
The Nutrition Profiles on this site express the views of the individual authors and not SPOON Foundation. SPOON Foundation has not conducted any independent verification of the information contained in the Nutrition Profiles. As a result, SPOON Foundation makes no representations concerning, and assumes no responsibility for, the accuracy of the information or the appropriateness of advice contained in the Nutrition Profiles. You are encouraged to confirm any information obtained from the Nutrition Profiles with other sources, and review all information regarding any medical condition or treatment with your child’s physician.