Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Why I cater to my picky eater

As a parent, it never fails that our children's eating habits come up as a topic of conversation. A poster on one of my online moms groups recently asked what other moms fed their kids for breakfast. Other moms wrote about strawberries and egg muffins, omelettes and oatmeal. Me? I wrote that my kid ate a granola bar and was too embarrassed to mention that it was a chocolate covered granola bar followed by pretzels.

That's because I have a child with long standing eating issues. Issues that make me silently roll my eyes when other moms say things like "I don't cater to my kids pickiness" or "I make one meal and they can eat it or starve" and the best line ever "They'll eat when they’re hungry".

I know that moms who say these things don't understand the scope of some children's food aversions and fears and they definitely have never experienced them first hand.

Phoenix's eating issues have been present from birth. Even as a newborn she refused to breastfeed and instead preferred the ease of the bottle. Purees were alright, but mixed foods with some smooth bits and some lumps were a no go. Although we introduced a variety of foods and textures, little progress was made in her eating.

We consulted with dieticians and occupational therapists, sometimes on a weekly basis. We tried a variety of foods, flavours and textures and finally found success with hard munchables like pretzels, rice crisps and veggie straws. We still consider veggie straws vegetables in this house. Vanilla yogurt has always been a safe food and continues to be a favourite to this day

As Phoenix grew it became clear that her issues around eating weren't limited to just skills. Phoenix has a deep and profound distrust and suspicion of food. Even at 5 years old she scrutinizes each bite of food carefully, as if an errant piece of vegetable may contain the poison that will finally kill her.

As much as we would like our child to eat a variety of foods, we consider 1 fruit or vegetable a day a victory.

We joke that Phoenix is growing on a solid diet of air and sunshine. But she is growing and has followed her same growth and weight curve for a number of years now. She's a fairly slim child but she always has energy to play and learn and her paediatrician isn't worried about her growth.

I frequently hear other parents say "I just make them eat" and I always wonder: How? How do you make a child eat who won't?

We have tried putting food in front of her and not giving her anything else until she eats what's on her plate. She will happily go without eating unless it is a food she deems acceptable.

Punishment also doesn't work for helping her accept new foods. It actually makes the food refusal worse by associating eating time with tears, frustration, anger and unhappiness. We just cannot in good conscience make every mealtime a torturous experience for her by expecting her to eat like other children. There comes a time where you have to focus on the success of the child rather than societies expectations of "healthy" eating.

The most success we have seen has been with bribery and other kinds of positive reinforcement. Her favourite food is ice cream cake, so in order for her to earn a piece she needs to eat a small plate of dinner. Lately we have seen a higher acceptance rate with the promise of ice cream cake, but it's not a guarantee. We don't mind if she eats a piece every day because it's a serving of dairy and she is still on the thin side.

We also take a lot of time to praise her when she eats challenging foods or tries previously refused foods. Part of changing her food refusal behaviour is changing her self-perception of herself as an eater. We want her to see herself as a good eater who can try new foods - just like I try to encourage my students to think of themselves as good learners who can tackle new topics. The more we perceive ourselves as being competent, the more competent we become because we are not afraid to take on new challenges.

I cook regular meals for the rest of the family, including our 16 month old twins who are excellent eaters. If I know that the meal is something Phoenix won't eat, I gladly make a small portion of something she will eat, while encouraging her to try what the rest of us have. I do this because we need to continue to make mealtime a happy event for everyone and because my child needs to feel that we are working with her to support her (painfully slow) growth.

We also celebrate the successes as they come. Today Phoenix tried a grilled cheese sandwich. Last week she tried banana. The grilled cheese was swallowed and the banana was spit out. It's all progress. And when I look back over the last 3 years, Phoenix has grown from eating maybe 6 foods including 1 fruit or vegetable, to eating a few vegetables, almost any protein, a variety of carbs and a few dairy products. That's a HUGE gain and is a testament to the fact that our approach is working.

So that is why I cater to my picky eater; because it is the only way that we have seen progress in her fear of food and eating. My long term goal is to have her eat a variety of foods and for her to learn how to create a balanced diet. But for some kids, like Phoenix, you need to give them time and support to do that.

                                              Here is Phoenix, enjoying her mealtime.

1 comment:

  1. Phoenix and Kyle have very similar eating habits! It drives my mom crazy. For fruits and veges, he eats only applesauce packets, fruit leathers, and broccoli bites (don't ask me how I figured that one out). Every time my mom is over she tries feeding him a piece of fruit. ("Do you ever try giving him a strawberry? A piece of cucumber?" YES MOM.)
    Sounds like you have some excellent strategies. One developmental ped told us for my older son to never fight over eating or toileting. If he wants to eat peanut butter sandwiches every day, that's fine. So for years I have made a family meal plus a peanut butter sandwich. No big deal. :)