The Monster We Dine With

I am two days into the three day food journal we must complete before our first visit with the dietician next month.

In the meantime, I am still searching for that elusive savoir faire that makes food something worth exploring, maybe even eating.

My first clue is the silence. He’s trying to make his way around the chairs and the table, but although his little body and frantic pace suggest an urgency, he doesn’t know where to go. Then I see his face. His eyes are bulging, his arms are grasping, his expression is panic…. desperate.

He’s not breathing.

Suddenly, I am kneeling behind him… ribs, xiphoid process, fingers, fist, thrust…

The raisin sails out of his throat, through the air, and lands behind the sofa.

“Y’alright, Bud?”

“I okay mom”

Another successful use of the Heimlich. Dinner and a show.

This is the memory that sends the note delivered by brick. The Heimlich maneuver was one of the courses of dinner throughout the first three years of my son’s life. I’ve been reaching out, searching for ways to crack the stubborn will of my picky eater. I realize that I’ve been searching for a spoon in a drawer full of forks.

The forums on picky eating always contain the same concerns. “Little Billy only eats rice and peas or carrots”, “It’s hard to get Sarah to eat anything but macaroni and beans”. Hey, I get it. It’s frustrating when Little Billy and Sarah are faced with something really exotic… like lasagna. At least there is a chance they might pick out the peas or nibble on the noodles.

My son, faced with any of the above, will cover his mouth with both hands and curl up in a ball of anxious despair before fleeing the table in tears.

Maybe… just maybe, I am not dealing with a “picky” eater after all.

I google “fear of food” and the breadcrumb trail leads me to the little known world of eating disorders in children. The articles on Selective Eating Disorder read like the authors have eaten dinner with us before.

Selective eaters are more usually boys of normal height and weight for their age. They shun entire food groups, usually meat and vegetables. They tend to gravitate toward carbohydrates and dairy beverages, usually milk. They have experienced some food related trauma (heartburn, choking).

These children are not expressing their independence, or showing a preference for tastes or textures. They believe food is something that will hurt them.

This belief doesn’t diminish with multiple exposures to a particular food. It can persist through adolescence and into adulthood. It’s difficult to get help for the selective eater as their phobia is often mistaken for plain picky eater stubbornness.

As I read article after article, I felt less and less alone. Finally, I can put my finger on the monster that sabotages our meals.

And it is real.

Selective eating is part phobia and part obsession. There are a handful of “safe” foods that comprise the majority of the child’s diet. Unlike a picky eater who will eventually try something new after seeing it 10, 20, maybe 30 times, the selective eater isn’t going to try it no matter how many times it shows up on his plate.

While the description of Selective Eater seems to fit in our case, I am not eager to put a label my son’s quirky eating, nor am I qualified to do so. Finding this lonely corner of knowledge, however, does open up access to new strategies, hopefully some that actually work.

Introducing my son to wider variety of foods involves more than repeated exposure, more than withholding his safe foods and insisting he “take a bite” of something else. We must first somehow convince him that food isn’t scary. The champagne corks will fly when we are able to welcome all the food groups to our table and evict the monster we dine with.

(Lask, B. & Bryant-Waugh, R. (2008) Eating Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence, London: Routledge)

5 responses to “The Monster We Dine With

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