After the jarred baby food left our house for chunkier textures, vegetables were reduced to a mashed concoction of sweet potato and carrots, seasoned with cinnamon. Lots of cinnamon. One day, in an effort to adjust my son’s taste buds to accept the vegetables, I reduced the amount of cinnamon. This was poorly received. Shortly after, in that tender window of being able to salvage my mistake, an offhand remark against adding cinnamon to yams knocked this saving grace of nutrition into the abyss of non-edibles for ever.
Beloved vegetable, your brief presence in our lives brought us much joy and vitamins. May you rest in peace.
We’ve been introducing different items, one at a time to his plate in the hopes that something will look good enough to sample, all without success. Still, progress is progress, no matter how small. It’s a huge achievement that as of just recently, he has been able sit at the table without any anxiety about the food on his plate. If he touches it, great. If he doesn’t, fine. The goal for this exercise was to maintain a state of calm, and calm, we have for the most part, achieved.
The Dietitian gave us a handout that describes the steps of eating as they occur on a ladder. Little did we know that once we abandoned the traditional advice for coaching a picky eater, we have been climbing this ladder, using the closely spaced rungs that lead closer to mealtime bliss and anxiety-free eating. Well, at least that’s where I’m hoping it leads. At the moment, the view from here is magnificent, as we ascend out of the darkness of not knowing why eating is so frightening and into the light of teaching our son that food isn’t the scary monster he is convinced it is.
The first rung starts with being able to tolerate food to learning to interact with it.
- being in the same room with food
- sit at the table with food on the other side of the table
- sit at the table with food half way across the table
- sit at the table with food in front of the table
- able to look at food placed in front of the child
We’ve been able to achieve all of these steps, especially since we made eating the unfamiliar food on his plate an optional activity. The next rung moves from interacting with the food to being able to smell it.
- assist in food preparation
- use utensils to stir food / use container to pour liquids
- use utensils or container to serve self
I’ve never had trouble getting help in the kitchen, especially if they are allowed to push the buttons make things whir around and make loud noises. We also try to encourage independence by letting the kids help themselves to beverages in the fridge, even though this also involves scaling the kitchen counter to reach cups in the upper cupboards. If I had a lower cupboard to store their cups in, trust me, they would be there already.
The third rung of the eating ladder involves moving from willingly smelling food to tolerating the feel of it.
- able to tolerate an odour in the room
- able to tolerate an odour at the table
- able to tolerate an odour in front of the child
- picks up and smells food
Allergies prevent a lot of smelling and detection of odours. Last night, the kids tried a new peanut butter and cinnamon spread. What would normally be an anxiety nightmare, the result of something unfamiliar in front of him, turned into a challenge to see if we couldn’t manipulate the flavour with more cinnamon to produce something a little more familiar and acceptable. Our culinary experiment failed, but we discovered just how effective cinnamon is at weakening monsters that lurk around the supper table. Better than progress, I’m hoisting the family flag in victory!
The fourth rung involves moving from touch to taste.
- touches food with fingers
- with whole hand
- able to allow food to touch chest, shoulder
- to top of head
- to chin, cheek
- to nose, underneath nose
- to lips
- to teeth
- able to let food touch tip of tongue
- able to put food on full tongue
This stage is where we are setting up camp, covered with a thick dusting of protective cinnamon armour. Many claim any dish can be salvaged with a little ketchup. Cinnamon is our ketchup, with its abilities to transform inedible and terrifying foods into palatable and tasty fare. As we recently discovered, cinnamon has magical properties, including the ability to temporarily revive the dead, or at least return discarded orange vegetables to the list of edibles, even if only in minuscule amounts.
Pureed Carrots and Yams
2 carrots, peeled and cubed
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1 cup applesauce
1 apple, peeled and quartered
cinnamon (add this slowly to flavour to your liking, about ¼ tsp at a time. I didn’t start getting cautious nods of approval until I had added a little under 1tsp.)
sugar (brown or white, for taste at your preference)
Boil carrots and sweet potato until soft and easily pierced. Drain and add to food processor. Add applesauce and apple. Blend into desired consistency.
From this point, taste test and add cinnamon and sugar as desired.
Eating was a series of sequential finger dips and completely dependent on temperature. I gladly reheated the puree a few times.
Thinking I might be able to add this to his school lunch, I wrapped the puree in phyllo pastry. You’ll need to stack 3-4 sheets, spraying each sheet with vegetable cooking spray or brush with butter and fold into triangles until all ends are closed. Bake at 350F for 10-12 minutes, until golden. The tasting was cautious, but ultimately well received.
More than welcoming the return of the vegetable, a monumental discovery occurred with dinner.
“Did you know that you tried something new?”
Shocked gasp of amazement. “I did?”
“You haven’t eaten carrots and sweet potato for a long, long time. I count that as something new.”
“Hey, did you notice something?”
“The new food didn’t kill you. Did it?”
More shocked gasps of amazement. “Hey,” he runs his hands over his chest to confirm, “You’re right!”
“Was it yummy?”
“Oh, yeah!” He says, distracted by the bag of chocolate balls on the counter, “Can I have one of those?”
The chocolate balls, unbeknownst to me, have a ju-jube center that induced an episode of gagging in disgust. Fortunately, the spit bowl was handy and the offending texture was quickly ejected. Another lesson learned. Anything you try only goes as far as you want it to, and U-turns are always an acceptable option.
Further into our future is the final rung of this ladder. The one that will help him move beyond tasting food to actually eating it.
- able to lick lips, tongue licks food
- bites off piece and spits it out immediately
- bites piece, holds in mouth for ‘x’ seconds and spits out
- bites piece, chews ‘x’ times and spits out
- chews, swallows small amount
- chews, swallows with drink
- chews and swallows independently
The final step seems ages away from the moment we are in. It’s nice to have a plan to follow and even more comforting to be able to see progress. Meals have a few new sounds that we are getting used to. There is some gagging, followed by spitting, things that other families might find disgusting. At our table, these sounds are confirmation that food made it past his fear and into his mouth. It’s monumental, and to me, it sounds a lot like this:
Source: Sequential Oral Sensory Approach: Steps to Eating Hierarchy, developed by Kay Toomey.