Mealtime Musings: Needs Matter

Anxiety is a typical response to any situation perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable. Taking a test, giving a presentation, or any situation (including eating) where the outcome is unknown will create a sense of nervousness and apprehension.

In an educational setting, anxiety serves no useful purpose. Besides the fact that it can be debilitating, it is not a recognized exceptionality, (defined as something that significantly impedes learning), and is therefore ineligible for support. Instead, anxiety is a clue that something else exists (autism, AD/H/D, learning disability). In the absence of ‘something else’, what is a typical anxiety response (avoidance or ‘flight’) is frequently misinterpreted for deliberately defiant behaviour. When the perceived threat cannot be avoided, another typical anxiety response (‘fight’) is seen as aggressive and violent behaviour. While many conditions do contribute to anxiety, anyone can experience anxiety in any environment, and is often the result of neglected needs.

What exactly are “needs”? Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs parallels several other theories on human developmental psychology, and for lay-speak, I find, is the easiest to understand.

Physiological Needs

These are basic needs that should be met before and above all others. Air, water and food are required for survival. Adequate rest is necessary for stable mental health. Shelter provides protection from the elements. Child or adult, no one functions well when hungry, tired, sick, or homeless.

Providing for physiological needs seems obvious – feed the hungry, shelter the homeless… Some families can’t afford medical care; hospitals are under staffed; food banks are sometimes in higher demand than they can supply. Homelessness has a significant impact on the outcome of mental illness, both of which are plagued by stigma and discrimination.

In the United States, 1 in 7 people live in poverty. That’s approximately 44 million people who struggle to find adequate food, shelter and access to health care in just one first world nation.

Safety Needs

After basic physiological needs for survival are met, the need for safety has a significant influence on behaviour. Living in a traumatic situation (war, natural disaster, abuse), economic instability or lack of disability accommodations create barriers that impede access to physiological needs. Even the behaviour of children between six months and two years of age becomes goal-directed to achieve the conditions that make it feel secure. (Prior and Glasser).

In any situation where we have little (if any) ability to influence our environment, trust is essential to create a sense of safety. A person will not eat food they do not trust; a child who doesn’t feel safe at school will not learn. Neglecting the individual’s need for safety can have long lasting, traumatic repercussions.

Social Needs

Humans are social beings who seek to create and maintain emotionally significant relationships. Social groups provide for the individual’s need to love and be loved. Many people become susceptible to social anxiety or depression when denied their need to belong.

Social anxiety is very common among selective eaters. A lifetime of being publicly shamed for their food choices makes social eating extremely uncomfortable. Not only is the need to build connections (family and friends) denied, but also the need for safety, and to satisfy hunger.

Children will use maladaptive behaviours to satisfy their need for attention and to feel included. Turbo, one of my daycare kids, is an excellent example. What appears to be defiance is more an attempt to create his own ‘community’. By accepting him unconditionally as a lovable and valued person, I created a place where he feels he ‘fits’ and feels safe. Consequently, the defiant behaviours have diminished significantly.

Self-Esteem Needs

Not only do we need to feel like we belong to a community, humans need to feel accepted and valued by others within that community. Self-esteem relies on a sense of personal competence, and the ability to accept our self for our unique gifts and flaws. Feeling unaccepted and devalued can lead to a sense of helplessness and depression.

Self Actualization

When physiological, safety, belonging and self-esteem needs are secure, the individual is unencumbered to pursue their aspirations, and strive for personal achievement (fame, success, creative, athletic, academic…). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are often displayed in a pyramid, where one level must be attained before achieving the next. While fulfilling each level before the next has been shown to have an impact on one’s happiness, needs on the higher tiers can be achieved before obtaining lower, more basic level needs.


Maslow believed that the only reason people would not move toward self-actualization is because of hindrances placed in their way by society.

The Rosenthal study tested the theory that children would become smarter if they were expected to. When teachers were told that certain children had greater academic potential, those children tended to be treated more warmly, and were made to feel more safe. The chosen children formed more trusting relationships with their teachers – they were protected from public ridicule when they gave the wrong answer, or received more help to verbalize a correct one. They were encouraged through verbal feedback, and non-verbal cues to strive for a higher standard of educational excellence.

Essentially, teachers believed in the chosen children’s ability to be competent students, and so, they were.

This works the same way with eating. Providing a safe (shame-free) eating environment ensures TJ eats for his physiological needs. Creating a warm, social mealtime atmosphere helps him feel safe around food. Respecting his food choices, his current eating ability, and accepting him unconditionally regardless of what’s on his plate supports his ability to become competent with eating. I believe he can, and so, he is.

“If we take peo­ple as we find them we may make them worse, but if we treat them as though they are what they should be, we help them to become what they are capable of becoming.” -Johann Goethe

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Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.

Prior V, Glaser D (2006). Understanding Attachment and Attachment Disorders: Theory, Evidence and Practice. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, RCPRTU. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Stowing The Feeding Agenda

It was my birthday recently, and as a treat, Hostage Dad suggested food from The Mandarin (a local Chinese restaurant). We ordered in, because while we stopped to celebrate yet another successful trip around the sun, we were also painting both of the kids’ bedrooms. In the midst of paint cans and roller trays, cooking was not high on the list of priorities, but eating certainly was!

The Mandarin’s portions are generous enough to feed our family of four several times over, and the containers are handy for storing left-overs. All in all, good bang for a buck.

We all sat down to dinner, and I laid out the variety of delicious food on our lazy susan. Mandarin food is something my son has seen many times, but never eaten, so I added some leftover lunch options for him. He won’t eat sliced bread from a loaf, so the first of several meals included french fries and pizza.

As I laid out the food, I noticed TJ looking with interest at the different dishes. That has never happened before! I know he worries about disappointing the adults in his company, me especially, so I wanted him to know that whatever he wanted to do with this meal was his choice, and he had my blessings. Content with permission to explore at will, TJ devoured half a dozen fortune cookies.

Gently testing the waters, I asked TJ which of the 5 bowls on the table were the most interesting to him. While he pondered, Hostage Dad prodded with a hypothetical scenario where we were trapped on an island and this food was all there was. Seeing TJ’s eyes grow a little wider, I countered by suggesting that if TJ was going to sit in front of a selection of food, it was only fair that the bowl he is most interested in is closest to him. He relaxed and chose the noodle dish. He didn’t take any, but in making that decision, he had a good look at all the options. The most impressive part of this whole exercise was TJ’s ability to remain calm and matter-of-fact about the food placed only inches beyond his plate.


Our second dinner (photo above) included mini hamburger buns with a side of butter.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if TJ would be able to manage the occasional meal of available food without the safety net of his familiar food. The line between catering and considerate meals with a selective eater is extremely fine, and I wonder how close I am to crossing it when options that are appropriate for TJ have nothing in common with the meal on the table. I know better than to take safe food away, but at the same time, I would like to see him perhaps making a decision based on some actual gustatory input.

And then I came to my senses. The problem with that idea is my agenda to increase dietary variety in another individual. What I want has little, if anything, to do with what TJ wants, or is even ready to do. Pushing my wants onto my son’s eating is a sure-fire way to send up an insurmountable wall of resistance and undo all the progress we’ve made.

For our second meal of Chinese take away, TJ helped himself to several of the mini hamburger buns, and again, he declined servings of everything else.

And I call that a huge WIN!!!

Progress with extreme food selectivity can be very difficult to see. If I mark progress by increases in dietary variety, I will be disappointed. Looking at progress in terms of attitude is more realistic and ultimately, more beneficial for all concerned. Building trust takes a really, really long time, and fates willing, we have plenty of that.

Our ladder to increasing food acceptance looks like this:

  1. Being relaxed and well behaved at the table
  2. Eating enough food to satisfy hunger
  3. Being comfortable around unfamiliar food
  4. Trying new food occasionally, usually outside of mealtimes
  5. Experimenting with safe food at mealtimes
  6. Matter-of-factly trying new foods that have similar characteristics to safe food

There are many meals ahead of us yet. Before TJ ventures into the realm of the unfamiliar, he has to see eating as something he enjoys, and something that doesn’t threaten his personal safety. Every small step is progress in a positive direction.

Keep Calm & Buffet On

As dinner is winding down and we prepare to tidy up, TJ asks, “Mom, can I have a sip of your beer?”

Of all the things on the table, what is it that makes my beer so enticing? It’s not ever been forbidden, although it is an unusual dinnertime beverage. He took a small sip from the bottle, and promptly made a face of disgust. It was no big deal, after all, I will never expect him to like everything he tries. ;)

(By the way, the kids’ new bedrooms look amazing.)

Dear Healthcare Professional: What You Need To Learn About Feeding Children

Dear Healthcare Professional:

Recently, we visited your office about our child’s selective eating. We asked for help on weight, nutrition and feeding. Unfortunately, you seemed unable to answer our questions and instead attempted to address development, behaviour and your opinion about what our child should be eating. While these issues may be relevant to our case, your suggestions of “he won’t starve himself,” “just feed him fruit and vegetables for snacks,” and “he’ll get hungry eventually” contradict the best practice guidance I have been investigating since we met.

First, you did not seem to be aware of the DSM-V diagnosis of “Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder” (ARFID). While a diagnosis is not in itself particularly useful, it does highlight that certain cases of “fussy eating” may be on the extreme end of normal or indicate the need for more rigorous analysis than the more straightforward cases you might commonly see. Regardless, there is always a reason why a child struggles with eating and very rarely, if ever, is it because the child is using food to manipulate the parent.

Second, you may not be aware that issues such as sensory aversions, post traumatic stress, anxiety and temperament are very relevant. In such cases, behavioural approaches can do more harm than good. You may also not be aware of studies by Dr. Irene Chatoor that show coercive and pressured feeding approaches are more likely to exasperate feeding issues. I also strongly recommend the work of family therapist and registered dietitian, Ellyn Satter, creator of the Division of Responsibility in Feeding and her approach to developing Eating Competence as a proactive and preventative model for your clients. Learning to feed our family from a place of trust has benefited not only my child, but our family as a whole.

Parents coping with a feeding challenged child live in a state of long term stress and anxiety themselves. I respectfully ask you to reconsider encouraging coercive feeding methods and to acknowledge the impact feeding struggles have on the entire family. We were unable to follow much of the advice you gave us, as your recommendations increased my child’s anxiety around food, and elevated the overall family stress to intolerable levels. I sincerely hope you find the linked references useful and beneficial as part of your continuing professional development.

Mealtime Zen: Experimenting with Novel Food

Experimenting with novel food for personal reasons is at the higher end of the eating competence scale. It means I am certain of finding acceptable food in sufficient quantity, and I am not stressed about wasting a little food to try something I’m not familiar with. I trust that if I eat a variety of food that appeals to my senses, in satisfying amounts on a regular basis, I will very probably do quite well supplying my caloric and nutritional needs.

Further down the eating competence ladder, I have a child who is confident about finding enough to eat, and comfortable with finding acceptable food. Life, in all her sadistic irony, has hinted that gluten might not have a future at our table, conveniently as TJ starts to experiment with food that tastes good.

TJs anemia might be it’s own unique thing, or it could be the symptom of another issue, such as an inability to absorb iron. This complication is common with gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

TJ eats a lot of gluten. Croissants, crackers, bread, bagels, muffins, pizza… Gluten is a HUGE source of calories! I am not willing to sacrifice his trust in a reliable food source by eliminating gluten from his diet on a hunch. However, should this become something we need to take seriously, I would like to prepared.

I spent some time this weekend looking at gluten-free flours, determined to have a few recipes in my arsenal should we need them. There is quite the variety to choose from, one that I found especially interesting is chia.

Chia flour (or seeds ground into a powder) can replace the flour in a recipe 1:1. (BTW, chia can be used in place of eggs.) This is one concern already solved, as gluten-free to wheat flour conversions involve more math than I want to commit to. I can’t seem to get around the expense factor of avoiding gluten – a small bag of ground chia seeds (about 1 3/4 cups) is $14.99 at my local supermarket. (yeesh)

Chia seeds are marketed as a nutritional powerhouse. They are rich in omega-3s and full of fiber. Recipes describe the texture of goods baked with chia flour as “light” and “fluffy”. You have my attention.

More than how nutritious any one ingredient is or how a combination of ingredients create nutritional paydirt, if it doesn’t taste good, no one is this house is going to eat it. Chia has a big responsibility if it’s going to become a welcome part of the kitchen contents:

  1. Chia seeds must meet or exceed stringent criteria to pass critical assessments of texture and taste, and
  2. It must achieve this high standard using wheat flour’s crowning creation.

Chia PowerHouse Banana Bread

1 cup softened butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
4 frozen (slightly thawed and mashed) bananas

2 cups ground chia seeds (chia flour) *
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder


In a large bowl, combine butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs and bananas. Mix well.

In another bowl combine chia flour, baking soda and baking powder. Add to banana mixture and mix well. Let stand for 15 minutes. Use this time to pre-heat oven to 350F and grease 3 loaf pans.

Pour batter into loaf pans 2/3 full. Bake for one hour.

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* In defense, this is my first attempt with gluten-free baking and the bread didn’t set quite as well as I had hoped. I had to use 1 3/4 c chia flour + 1/2 c quinoa flour because I didn’t have enough chia on hand. (I am holding quinoa responsible for the goo-factor). My wheat-flour banana bread is a moist, mouth-watering, world-renown delicacy (for reals). This, despite the flour quantity and my inexperience, was surprisingly close. Some recipes call to let the batter stand and give the seeds time to absorb the liquid, which I’ve added to the instructions.

Adjustments to perfect this recipe are welcome. Enjoy!

The Mealtime Hostage Pantry: Add Zen To Your Table

Feeding your family well starts with a relaxing and enjoyable environment. The Mealtime Hostage Pantry has an assortment of items dedicated to putting the zen into family feeding.

In the Pantry, you’ll find an assortment of tableware, utensils, cast iron pots and pans, highly recommended reading and more. The cost is the same to you, but when you purchase items through the Mealtime Hostage Pantry, a small portion of the sale helps us continue to support families with feeding struggles around the world.

I’m loving the lazy susan that makes serving meals buffet style not only functional, but also fun. Click here to visit the Pantry and find some zen for your table.

lazy susan