Progress. It’s so hard to see most of the time. As it moves along at an infinitesimal pace, it is easy to lose sight of an attainable goal in the blinding glare of what is considered “normal”.
We have made incredible progress since I started this blog this past August. Don’t be mistaken. Progress is slow and getting from then to now has included its fair share of tantrums and tears, a lot of them from me. Meals with a food neophobic child comes heavily sautéed in stress, for my son and for every member of this family. Finding the path that led us here, however, has been a journey unto itself.
There is a well known concept spoken in the world of picky eating known as the Division of Responsibility. It states that the parent is responsible for what food is served, where and when. The child is responsible for whether they will eat and how much. Personally, I hate it. Or at least I used to, until it was (very recently) explained to me properly.
The division of responsibility is often misunderstood as a basic exchange of “parent feeds / child eats”. I have searched and searched and searched some more for advice that will somehow transform TJ into a normal eating child, one that welcomes a plate of chicken nuggets and boxed macaroni and cheese. Heck, maybe even some raw veggies and dip. Whenever I find an article that describes a child that struggles with food, the comments that follow often demonstrate just how misunderstood the Division of Responsibility is.
“I say… give them what you eat, if they don’t eat it, they don’t eat anything at all till the next meal. No meal no snacks. My children eat decent servings and try everything we offer them.” (If your kids eat decent servings of everything, you’ve likely never had to deny them a meal. Why are you even here?)
“My son told me he didn’t like something he never tried ONCE!!!. I shoved it in his mouth using the back of his head for support, he was 4 at the time…. Call me mean, call me a bad dad… But I tell you now… He has never said he didn’t like something again without trying it first.” (You’re a mean, bad dad. You’re welcome.)
“I sneak some spinach or romaine in smoothies to give her some more veggies. I even freeze the leftovers and give them too her like ice cream. I like the sneak chef method since I know my kids don’t get enough veggies.” (What’s the plan when she finds those sneaked in veggies and no longer trusts anything you make ever again?)
“He won’t starve… when he’s hungry he’ll eat…” (I’ll see your hunger and raise you terrified, horrified and totally grossed out. Is that when you eat?)
Parent feeds / child eats. Sounds like some pretty simple stuff, right? There’s some common sense implied here that the Division of Responsibility neglects to mention in print. Let’s look at it again, shall we?
“Parents provide structure, support and opportunities.”
I’m the parent. I can provide a predictable, structured mealtime. I can provide support. I can provide opportunities to eat. Hey, steak sounds good.
“Children choose how much and whether to eat from what the parents provide.”
So what do you think is going to happen when I plop an 8 oz. T-bone in front of an infant?
See what I mean?
While it doesn’t specifically state the words, it is implied that the food offered will be age appropriate for the child. It also assumes the parent will consider the child’s ability to tolerate the sensory aspects of food. The Division of Responsibility is based upon one incredibly crucial element.
It’s just as unreasonable and ridiculous to expect a sensory challenged or food neophobic child to eat something they can’t as it is to expect a toothless infant to bite, chew and swallow a slab of BBQ’d beef. Clearly defining what each party in the mealtime experience is responsible for was never intended to create a harsh dictatorship.
Think of it in terms of a buffet restaurant. You browse the available selection and choose what you want and how much. No one stands over you demanding you take a helping of this or try a sample of that. There are no rewards for eating everything on your plate or trying something new. Everything is neatly labeled and if you are curious about what something is or what’s in it, all you have to do is ask. Whether you eat and how much is entirely your choice. In a sense, the restaurant trusts you as a patron to eat as much as you wish of anything they are offering. As a patron, you trust the restaurant to have food available and to make your dining experience as pleasant as possible.
This is what I believe the Division of Responsibility is intending. If the parent supplies age and texture appropriate, sensory friendly food, the child can be trusted to eat enough to satisfy their hunger.
If that’s not happening, there will be a very valid and medically sound reason to explain why.
Learning this has caused a polar shift in how we approach TJ’s food neophobia as parents. The result is a huge and monumental breakthrough worthy of fanfare and firecrackers and all the trimmings!
Yesterday, I roasted chicken thighs and carrots (together in a roasting pan, sprinkled with brown sugar. Add about a 1/2 inch of water to the pan, cover and cook at 350F for about 2 hours.). I served it with salad (plain for my daughter, ceasar dressing added for my husband and I) and french fries. As TJ helped me in the kitchen, I talked to him about what his dad and I mean when we say “try it“.
“Do you think you could take a bite and spit it out if it tastes yucky?”
“No!” he says, clearly disgusted at the idea. “No way!”
“Okay,” I say calmly. “Would you be able to kiss it and say ‘you can’t come in today. Maybe another time?'”
He pauses briefly in thought before responding with a disappointed, “No.”
“I’m really glad you told me that. Listen, nothing about eating should ever make you feel bad. You can tell me anytime if it does.”
“Really?” I’m wounded to hear this comes as a revelation to him. “Thanks, Mom.” The relief in his tone is heart breaking.
“What about smelling. Do you think you could smell it?”
“Hmmmm…. yeah. Yeah, I think I could smell it!” Then he inhales to prove his orthonasal prowress.
So this is our current plan to introduce TJ to new food. An attempt to “try it” means he will smell the roasted carrot placed on his plate, as far away from the meal of french fries (and him) as it possibly can be, and still have him comfortably seated within reach of his food.
And he smelled it!! From as far away as he absolutely could be without leaving the table, but there was most definitely a quietly performed, long distance carrot smelling. He also didn’t object to the presence of the roasted carrot on his plate for the rest of the meal.
That’s a huge difference from the terrified, distraught child I used to send stomping upstairs to his room so he wouldn’t ruin our meal. I am horrified that this reaction is encouraged as a behavioural remedy to parents of extremely “picky” eaters, and even more so that there a was time (and not that long ago) when I bought into it.
TJ is still the same food neophobic child who is very distrustful of unfamiliar food. We, his parents, on the other hand, have made some tremendous progress.