Having an eight year old who only eats a limited number of foods can be frustrating. We can’t just walk into any restaurant, or attend dinner at someone’s house, without first checking that one of his “safe foods” – normally plain pasta, bread or pizza - will be available. He has no underlying medical conditions and we’ve been told by friends, family and even doctors that this is just a stage he is going through. Whilst I really wanted to believe that, and whilst I knew he used to eat a greater variety of food when he was a baby, something still wasn’t right. He is eight – this “fussy” stage should have ended at about age three, maybe age four at the maximum.
New foods were being met with outright resistance and no amount of cajoling, bribery or even threat of taking away privileges ever worked. At home, I learned not to stress. I fell into a habit of making him separate meals, whether it was a cheese sandwich or scrambled eggs with toast. This sounds simple, but when you’re tired from a day at work, are juggling homework assistance and sporting timetables for a few children, it can be annoying.
I fell into a habit of making him separate meals, whether it was a cheese sandwich or scrambled eggs with toast. This sounds simple, but when you're tired from a day at work, are juggling homework assistance and sporting timetables for a few children, it can be annoying.
I did occasionally persist with forcing him to try a new food, but particularly in the case of meat, it would result in gagging and we would not make much progress. Unwanted foods, if they made it into his mouth, would also take a considerable amount of time to chew and swallow, sometimes having to be spat out. Hiding vegetables within the food wasn’t an option either. Firstly, we knew it was impossible to hide anything in his “safe foods” and secondly, even if we were to succeed, we knew that that would not be teaching him acceptance for the food.
In social situations, things were always more complicated. We’ve had to listen to armchair experts tell us that their children ‘eat what’s served or nothing at all’. We’ve been assured that other people’s children eat anything put in front of them, and have done so since they were toddlers. The implication always being that we are doing something wrong, and that our child is not eating well because we haven’t been tough enough.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of times when the disdain for my son’s eating habits was not very subtle either. These occurrences made us wary of eating out with people other than family and close friends who understand. As children’s nutritionist and feeding specialist Simone Emery says, feeding myths are not useful at all and only serve to increase the blame game for parents. She adds that food is an emotive part of parenting because “it is very much ingrained in us that this is one of our most important jobs” and “it’s something that we really push control over so quickly in the feeding dynamic”.
The implication always being that we are doing something wrong, and that our child is not eating well because we haven’t been tough enough.
After enduring years of this food frustration, we finally made a breakthrough when I learned about a condition called Avoidance/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). It blows open the myth that “fussy” eating is a choice made by children in the throes of egocentric behaviour. Whilst I had witnessed my son gagging and choking on certain foods, I never associated fear with his actual eating. I thought he feared choking, but I didn’t think he feared food. This is a hard concept to understand and accept, especially since my husband and I are foodies who love to try different foods and cuisines. We love nothing more than dining with friends at restaurants that treat food like a form of art, complete with flavour combinations that take us by surprise. We are also part of an Italian culture that holds food in high regard – it is the epicentre of almost every gathering. It is hard for Italian nonnas to accept that their grandchildren won’t eat whatever they put in front of them!
People’s relationships with food are complicated. Like other disorders, and anorexia in particular (which has similar traits to ARFID), food is linked to memory and to feelings. Just as we may no longer want a food that we associate with a case of food poisoning for example, a child can form negative food memories around a bad experience. Teething, reflux, medical conditions or sensory processing issues are just some of the factors that can lead to an overwhelming fear of food. Whilst I haven’t sought a formal diagnosis for my son, I know he went through a horrific time with teething. It makes sense that at that stage, he started to associate food with pain.
Ms Emery uses play based therapy to help children with feeding problems. She calls it the “bottom up approach where we increase our acceptance for foods and tolerance of foods, and move up towards eating.”
We are also part of an Italian culture that holds food in high regard – it is the epicentre of almost every gathering. It is hard for Italian nonnas to accept that their grandchildren won’t eat whatever they put in front of them!
This is what I’m doing more consistently, and with more understanding, since watching the documentary The Truth about Fussy Eaters, which looks at specific cases of children (and adults) diagnosed with ARFID.
Foods, which must seem strange and scary, are no longer just offered to my son, but discussed. We talk about what they look like, what they smell like, what they feel like. We offer new foods in manageable portions and alongside “safe foods”.
Whilst my son is not an extreme case, I now recognise that his unwillingness to try many foods is based around a fear that is well ingrained in him. However, we are finally making progress. Since watching the documentary and discussing it with him, we decided to implement a reward chart – something that had never worked previously. He has taken the lead in deciding which new foods he would like to try (although I also offer suggestions) and so far he has tried 23 new foods, albeit in very small portions, that he previously would have rejected outright. He has only gagged with one of the foods (pumpkin soup – he just didn’t like the taste) and has revisited a couple of the foods like fish, which during a recent dinner I thought he ate relatively comfortably.
Ms Emery is a strong advocate of “being on the same team as your child” rather than fighting a battle against them. Understanding that not every child’s relationship with food is an easy one is a huge step in moving forward. As parents, we need to trust our instincts but also block out the “food myths” and know that it’s okay for our child to just lick or smell a food for the moment, and work up to eating it when the anxiety they feel subsides.
It will be a long road, but we are finally starting to break down the walls of food anxiety.