Getting to know our monster has been a process. Where I once loathed its presence at our table, I am now learning to accept it as part of who my son is, and more importantly, how it feels to sit in his place.
I don’t know why, but I’ve been grieving; for what reason, I’m not sure. The loss of an appetite? Of entire food groups? I know it sounds ridiculous, but getting to know our monster has been a five-year long process that looks a lot like this:
“He’s just a picky eater. He’ll grow out of it.”
“You haven’t even tried it! It’s your fault if you go hungry!”
“If you eat your dinner, I’ll buy you a toy.”
“Why won’t he eat? Where did I go wrong? I have failed as a parent.”
“It’s going to be okay.”
My husband and I come from a family of adventurous eaters. We’ll try almost anything edible. From this perspective, it’s difficult to understand why TJ refuses to try something we consider hardly threatening, like pasta. How could anyone be afraid of a noodle? From his seat at the table, they probably smell strange, feel weird, or look distrustful. Adventurous or not, I wouldn’t eat anything that smelled strange, felt weird or looked distrustful either. TJ just has more things that fit this description on his “not-good-for-eating” list than we do.
I have yet to meet anybody who doesn’t have at least one thing they don’t like to eat. Taste is a uniquely personal sense, and takes into consideration the temperature, texture, smell and flavour of the food offered. Even among selective eaters, who usually shun meat, fruit and vegetables, preferences for likes and dislikes vary widely from person to person. This avoidance of entire food groups is very different from say, a vegetarian, who by choice, deliberately removes meat from their diet.
A study funded by Cancer Research UK theorized that selective eating in children could be explained as an evolutionary protective instinct to avoid poisoning from plant and meat sources. The same study observed that selective eaters consumed less calories eating primarily bread and grains than their less neophobic peers who ate from all the food groups.
There’s also more than one reason for resistant or selective eating. Autism spectrum disorders and other sensory issues would suggest a neurological cause, while a phobia of food could indicate a psychological reason. There are those who know certain foods will induce an unpleasant gag reflex and anxiety because of the food’s sensory qualities. The reasons behind resistant eating are as varied as the the preferences and dislikes for different food.
Where selective eaters are united, however, is their irritation with being expected to eat like their less neophobic peers. “Don’t make it your mission to try and get me to try something as it will just make me feel very uneasy.” says Mary, an adult selective eater, “If I knew nobody would question my choices I could enjoy myself more and be able to eat in front of others. Typically at social gatherings I don’t eat as there is usually nothing I care for unless there are rolls served.”
Mary, and the many adult selective eaters like her unanimously despise being pressured to eat. Some are able to add new items to their diet under very calm and self-controlled conditions. Insisting that they try anything out of their safe zone is guaranteed add to more anxiety to an already stressful situation. It’s not surprising that a large majority of adult selective eaters describe eating as a tedious necessity and prefer to avoid social occasions that involve food.
So, what makes food enjoyable for a selective eater?
“Restaurants are easier for me vs. social gatherings,” reveals Mary, “I typically can find something I will eat. I ask for it my way and ask them to leave off things I don’t want on my plate. If I say no pickles that means not on the plate either as the juice will get on the food I want.”
As the parent of a resistant eater, I don’t find Mary’s insights to be unreasonable, or even all that weird. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to enjoy their food the way they like it? Since Mary shared this very useful information with me, I have been very careful not to pressure TJ to eat or try anything new. The options are there, but the eating and the trying are entirely his choice. It has made a noticeable difference.
Diet has a huge impact on TJ’s behaviour, so I try to put a balanced meal on his plate as often as possible, although it often doesn’t look like the socially accepted standard of meat, potato and vegetables. One of the more balanced versions is a black bean brownie, Eggo waffles and strawberries with a glass of chocolate milk. Granted, it looks more like dessert than a main course, but it includes all the iron, protein and vitamins he would find from more traditional options. The difference is, the meal gets eaten, sometimes twice in one sitting, because he enjoys eating it.
And that, folks, is what eating is supposed to be. Enjoyable.
When TJ is eating, our meals are enjoyable and relaxed. When meals are relaxed, he eats until his belly is full instead of stopping when he gets overwhelmed by the pressure to eat. His dinner tonight was french fries and a Pediasure, followed by a new and previously rejected item. A strawberry fruit roll up.
Our grieving process is complete. It’s time to accept the little victories we win and celebrate them when they come. Eating disorder be damned. As a family, we are all going to be just fine.