Learning To Enjoy Eating (Even With Spiders)

When we first bought this house, the unfinished basement was home to a variety of spiders.  Somewhere in the expansive realm of Google, there is a documented fact that the average human is never, at any time, more than four feet away from a spider.  No need to thank me for that comforting little bit of information.  I, personally, can function quite adequately with a spider hiding four feet away from me.  That all changes, however, when they get up close and personal.

Like the day I was working away at the computer and a spider decided to investigate the space inside the back of my shirt and settled into that coveted spot that nobody can reach with their own arms.  There was a lot of screaming. And wild flailing. And record setting clothing removal. The spider didn’t survive.  I fared just barely better.

Black Widow Spider

Soon after my harrowing ordeal, I read a status update about a friend who frequently finds black widow spiders inside her house.  She mercifully and gently collects them and returns them outside, unharmed.

It made me think about how an individual’s temperament affects how we react to the same stimuli.  It made me think about all the feeding advice parents look to for guidance.  It made me think about which feeding strategy may be most effective for the selective eating child.

So I thought it could be educational to choose two feeding strategies we have tried and apply them to my selective eater.  Not for the intention for saying one is better than the other, instead, as in the case of my friend and I and our different reactions to spiders, to examine why one style of feeding advice may be more successful for us in particular than another.

For this challenge, I’ve chosen Karen Lebillon’s “French Kids Eat Everything” only because these are the mealtime directives that I grew up with.

french-food-rules-kids

My mother’s maternal grandmother immigrated from France after marrying her Canadian husband.  These rules have been passed down through my family’s line of moms for generations.

I’m pitting what I grew up with against a radical change in thought about eating in general.  Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility is quite possibly the most widely misunderstood information I’ve ever come across, probably because, as Ellyn puts it, “this doesn’t exist in a bubble.” Routinely, I come across barely recognizable fragments of the original intent. For example, as one parent explained the Division of Responsibility to me, “my son would not eat vegetables until he was in his teens.  When he was younger, I served vegetables with every meal beside a pureed vegetable soup.  If he chose not to eat his vegetables, then he had to eat the soup. It was his choice, but he had to choose one or the other.”   The DoR is not so much an absolute set of instructions as it is a clear definition of who is responsible for which part of the eating experience.

DoR Both Lebillon and Satter agree on the parents’ responsibility to provide opportunities and structure at mealtimes.  Neither method disputes the importance of eating together as a family, having regular, predictable mealtimes or allowing a little hunger to build between meals and snacks in anticipation of the next eating opportunity. Both methods recommend approaching mealtimes as an enjoyable experience, slowing the eating experience down and removing stress from the menu.

Lebillon stresses the importance of food education. “The French believe that teaching a kid to eat is just as important as, and just as time consuming as, teaching them to read.” explains Lebillon.  “When you teach a kid to read, you teach the alphabet, then words, sit with them, read with them. The French feel that way about eating. They have a long-term view. They also don’t get frustrated when there are bumps in the road. Some kids take longer to read than others, but they don’t give up and say “This kid is a picky eater, she just doesn’t like broccoli.” You don’t treat fear of foods as a personality trait, you treat it as a phase.”

Learning to enjoy a wide variety of foods takes time and the French approach eating as a skill that is acquired with practice.  When a child balks at the strong taste of something new, the French approach is to reassure that it’s okay to not like the flavour today, but as a child grows and their sense of taste matures, that same food may be enjoyed when they get older.

I can get on board with the French approach of “You Don’t Have To Like It”, but we get thrown over the side with “You Have To Taste It”.  I am genuinely curious how Lebillon proposes I should accomplish this?

In my house, getting to that inaugural taste experience is an impassable hurdle.  I have a child that not only does not like broccoli, but any vegetable, all meat, and all but a handful of locally grown, fresh, in-season fruit. This “phase” is going into it’s 6th year.  Demanding of my son to “Eat Your Vegetables” is as futile as expecting me to spontaneously grow another two pairs of arms (which, by the way, would be an incredibly useful evolutionary development).

Lebillon believes that after several exposures, (somewhere between 10 – 20), a child will become more comfortable with a new food.  When the request to taste is refused, “the French would say take it away cheerfully, tell them to enjoy their next meal, and that will be scheduled in a few hours. I always put things I know they like on the table, then there’s a new food that appears. OK, they’re interested but not sold, we’ll try it again next week. Don’t build it into a battle of the wills.”

It takes TJ, on average, about 300 exposures before he is ready to taste a new food.  According to Lebillon, it is theoretically possible to expand his diet beyond the 12 individual items (17 if I count items I can mix into a smoothie or a pancake) he will currently accept.  Whoops, make that 11.  We recently bid a (hopefully temporary) farewell to strawberries.

Satter, on the other hand, focuses on developing a healthy relationship with food.  She is less concerned about what is being eaten, and stresses focusing on how parents feed their children.  “Today’s parents feel obligated to get their child to eat certain foods and grow in a certain way. They learn it from health professionals, family, and each other.” Rather than insisting parents encourage their child to eat their vegetables, Satter recommends granting the child complete freedom to explore the available selection of food. “Let your child have seconds of something before finishing firsts on something else. Until they get quite a bit older (and maybe not even then) children don’t know what they want to eat until they taste it.”

The DoR puts how much of any available specific food item will be eaten squarely on the shoulders of the child without any pressure to taste anything.  If TJ wants to fill up on one particular item, he should have full permission to do so, as well as the same permission to decline servings of anything he is not comfortable eating.  He can still see the other foods. He can interact with unfamiliar items by helping to pass bowls to other family members and smelling what’s in them as they move from person to person.  This exposure at a safe distance qualifies as “trying” something new and slowly ticks away at the hundreds of exposures he requires before he’ll consider willingly ask for a taste.

Eventually, TJ may choose to try something he hasn’t before, but not until he is ready to do so.  Keziah, an adult who has been a selective eater since childhood, explains how any form of pressure can add to the anxiety already experienced at the table.  “If people are trying to persuade me into trying something, chances are I will shut down and politely refuse. I’m much more likely to try something if I can casually put a small piece on my plate and take a bite when no one is watching.”

There is nothing wrong with either of these strategies.  Both acknowledge that using  pressure to expand your child’s diet is ineffective. The DoR puts how much should be eaten in the child’s control and acknowledges that there will always be disliked food, where Lebillon gently insists on repeatedly tasting food until the child learns to like it.  Lebillon’s gentle “you have to taste it” approach would be well received with my adventurous eating daughter who doesn’t like everything she eats.  Using the same technique on my son would create a disastrous meal.  Satter’s method clearly defines our respective responsibilities, and has helped every member of this family (cook, selective, adventurous and dieting) feel better about eating in general.

Consider these two strategies the context of my selective eater.  If you were asked to swallow a live black widow spider, would you be excited or nervous? Would you do it just because you were hungry?

Would you do it for money? A sticker? A chocolate chip cookie?  Probably not. You would, however, need to be certain that eating the spider would not hurt you.  (Both Lebillon and Satter discourage the use of food as a reward or bribe.)

Wouldn’t it be nice to know there would be no repercussions (you would still be loved, there would be no ridicule, teasing or punishment) if you declined with a polite “no, thank you” without having to taste it?

Would you like to have an alternative option available, in case you just couldn’t eat the spider? Would it be comforting to know that another eating opportunity, one that doesn’t include arachnids, is just a short time from now?

This is the level of anxiety we face at every meal.  TJ is not any more likely to eat a black widow spider than he is to take a bite of broccoli.  Insisting he does either will elicit the exact same response.

Whether one of these two strategies, or something else, works for your family depends on the temperament and eating competence of the people in it.  I may not be able to transform my selective eater into an adventurous foodie, just as there is no one-method-fits-all solution that encourages a selective eater to try something new. I can help TJ relax around food by being patient, predictable, and supportive. I can help TJ develop a healthy relationship with food by encouraging him to enjoy the foods he can tolerate and not pressuring him to eat a wide variety of foods.  From personal experience, removing all forms of pressure from the eating experience has made all our meals a much more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Even in the nearby proximity of spiders.

* * *

Karen Lebillon on French Kids Eat Everything

Ellyn Satter: Division of Responsibility, Raising Competent Eaters, What Is Normal Eating

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9 responses to “Learning To Enjoy Eating (Even With Spiders)

  1. This (and similar posts by you) make me feel better about my child’s eating problem and help me see it from his perspective. He won’t eat (or even try) ANY fruit or ANY vegetable and I’m also convinced that he’s about as likely to try it as he is a black widow spider.

    • I’m a selective-eating adult, and when I was a kid it was severe enough to stunt my growth. It’s only in the last 2 years that I’ve gotten comfortable eating a reasonably wide variety of veggies, and I still can’t handle fruit or most raw veggies.

      The black widow spider analogy is bang on. As far as my brain is concerned, raw fruit and most raw veggies are pretty much not food, and new cooked veggies and fruit are still in the “possible food, but unknown and scary” category. I have gone without rather than eating things my brain said were not food, at a summer camp, and I have pretty major emotional scars from it.

      I’ve gotten comfortable with more cooked fruits and vegetables in the past couple of years with the help of my boyfriend, who is an excellent cook. He makes me well-cooked food, spiced in ways that complement the dish, and often with the fruit or vegetables mixed with other things. When I was a kid, my parents would just steam the veggies and serve each veggie separately, but my boyfriend puts a whole bunch of complementary ingredients in a skillet and cooks them together. Especially in the beginning, mixing small quantities of fruit or veggies with other things was key to my becoming able to eat them, because the flavours were milder and combined with other things that felt safe.

      Here’s an example that will illustrate what I mean. When my boyfriend first asked me to try mango, he drizzled some raw mango with balsamic vinaigrette and thought that would help. However, I couldn’t stand the taste or texture, and had to gulp water just to get the food down. Then, later on, he cooked a rice dish with little bits of mango mixed in with the rice. I ate that with pretty much no problem. Cooking tones down the flavours for me, and mixing with something “safe” helps a lot too.

      Another thing that’s helped a lot is that my boyfriend just serves me the food, and doesn’t make a big deal about it if I eat it. He’s disappointed when I truly can’t finish something (which has actually been pretty rare–notable instances were with liver and snails), but he doesn’t guilt-trip me about it, and he doesn’t pile on exaggerated, contrived-sounding praise when I try new things. My mother does the latter, and I avoided trying new foods around my family well into my 20s because I didn’t like the constant exaggerated praise when I did.

      If your kid can’t deal with fruits and veggies at all right now, what happens if you include them–especially dried versions–as minor ingredients in something that otherwise feels “safe”? I like blueberry muffins, and my boyfriend made couscous with dried apricots recently that was really good–I was nervous about the apricots, but I hardly felt the fruit texture at all. What about dishes with herbs, like lamb with mint? Can you make a spaghetti sauce with veggies/herbs in it–even just onion and basil–and then puree it? Will he eat smoothies with fruits or veggies in them?

      Right now, it may just be too scary for your kid to try any fruit or veggies at all, even with the methods I suggested. If that’s the case, I’d try just taking the pressure off completely, like Katja Rowell suggests on her site The Feeding Doctor, and seeing where that goes. He’ll probably add some new foods that way–maybe different meats or grains. And after that, once his anxiety about food goes down, some of the methods I suggested might work.

      Worst comes to worst, his sense of taste may become less intense and his diet expand at the end of puberty. That’s when I went from zero fruits and veggies–just apple juice and tomato sauce–to adding potatoes, corn, and broccoli.

    • Thanks for your comment 🙂

      I appreciate your suggestions and will give them a try (as my son permits). He will tolerate more fruits cooked in things like muffins and pancakes than on their own. Smoothies are a good option when he’s in the mood for them. Frozen smoothie pops are usually a good bet, but it’s too cold here for those at the moment.

      In the sauce options are not acceptable at the moment. It’s amazing what he can find, no matter how well it’s puréed. That’s an option I’ll hold on to for later.

      Small is a suggestion I’ve heard a lot. Small portions (tsp size) of new stuff he’s curious about, small pieces mixed with safe food (with his knowledge and consent). Lots of trust. From him to know that he’s had enough (exploring, adventure, to eat) and from me (no sneaky ingredients, no pressure, always something he can eat).

      We’re getting there and again, thank you for sharing your experience and progress. I would like to add your comments to a future post, if that’s okay?

    • You’re very welcome!

      And yes, trust is key. You can’t lie to your kid about food. My mother, once when I was 5, tried to sneak carrots under the cheese in my pizzaburgers (hamburger bun halves with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese on them). I tasted them and decided I didn’t like pizzaburgers anymore. Kids who are hypersensitive to taste can’t really be fooled about what’s in things, and it’s counterproductive to try.

      Since your son can tolerate fruit cooked in things like muffins and pancakes, I wonder if it would help for you to pick up a cookbook on savory baking–that is, baked goods that are savory, not sweet. That would allow you to introduce fruits, veggies, herbs, and other unfamiliar items within baked goods, without having your son overload on sugar. My boyfriend bakes a really nice loaf with chorizo sausage and (I think) rosemary, which is especially tasty if he adds in some cheese. Things like that might help your son get used to the idea of “Hey, there’s a little bit of green in this, but it still tastes good.”

  2. This is lovely! So well put! The temperament piece is critical, which I thought was missing from the usual “you have to try it” or “two-bite rule” thinking. Temperament, sensory issues, etc. are often missing entirely. I find that particularly with children who are anxious at the table, or, with the population I work with a lot with children who are adopted or in foster care who are also working on trust, in addition to many other challenges that are more common, those rules can make matters far, far worse. (Phew, sorry for the grammar, I’m in a rush.) Many children will fight rather than eat, and we can’t forget that anxiety kills appetite! If you have a securely attached, easy going child, the French way can be perfect. If you have a more cautious child, or a fiercely independent child, they may prefer to engage in 90 minutes of “hostage negotiations” rather than lose face and eat a bite of broccoli. I also think that the French culture overall expects children to progress with eating skills and support that effort far more than American culture does, with our kid menus and the expectation that kids will be picky. Though I have visited France, and they ALL have a snack at 4 pm, called, the “quatre-heures” and it is often a chocolate baked goodie eaten standing in the school parking lot. (So not sure where the “no snacks” rule comes from, perhaps she means no grazing, which Satter, and pretty much every childhood feeding expert agrees on…) In France, I also saw a lot more convenience and snack foods (aisles and aisles of it!) on my last visit to see my family. It’s complex, as you say.
    The nice thing is, I have never had to force, or even asked my child to try a new food, and she is a competent eater. She is adventurous and enjoys food, but is also fiercely independent. I tell the Kohlrabi story in workshops: M was three, and at her most finicky, which is totally developmentally appropriate. Kohlrabi was in our farm share one summer, so every week for 7 weeks I made it (simmered with butter and chicken stock and slice like fries) and the first 6 weeks, she politely declined (My rule? You don’t have to try it, but you do have to be polite, just say ‘no thank you…’) On the last week, she pulled a piece on her plate, and as I was getting up to clear dishes, she popped a piece into her mouth and said, “I love kohlrabi!” I did not praise or get excited, at least so that she could see, I just said, “That’s nice.” I am convinced had I forced her to try it, she would have refused, made a scene, engaged in a power struggle etc, and probably not liked the kohlrabi for years maybe. Like Keziah, who said that pressure to try foods turns her off, but when she is allowed to be a participant at meals, she is more likely to try something when no one is looking. Thanks so much for this piece. I will refer families to it!

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