While I’m still rather new to the game, I have quickly caught on to the ups, downs, victories and fails that surround a selective eater. As I navigate my Ladybug’s food aversion challenges, I am finally starting to understand her behaviors, patterns and anxiety triggers surrounding food. And it has made a huge difference in how we handle mealtime and more. Because of that, I feel like this post may not only help another parent in my shoes, but also parents of picky, selective toddlers in general. So here are some things to consider when trying to understand why a child might reject or fear a food.
In my house, there are tricks, lies, and stories behind foods. I fib a little as to what something is made of or sometimes flat out tell Ladybug it is something other than what it really is. I’ve passed kale as spinach, carrots as sweet potatoes and yogurt as ice cream. After she has eaten that sneaky food for a good month or so, I reveal what it actually is and more often than not, she continues to eat it. It’s the fear of what she is eating that is our road block, so unfortunately lying is the easiest path around that fear. I will add that my lies are usually explained as “Oh, mommy just realized that this is actually that food and not the other”, in hopes she will not start to distrust me.
I’ve found that food brands matter, stores we shop from matter, food temperature and even time of day matters when my kiddo eats. I cannot count how many different brands of peanut butter, hummus and string cheese have been rejected by Ladybug. Part of her issue is comfort and control, so she gets quite apprehensive when introduced to an unfamiliar brand. The same goes for temperature or how a food is prepared. This kid loves cheese as long as it’s not melted, mixed into something flavored or touching another food. That is when it no longer can be considered cheese in her mind.
Food fun is an important and helpful tool for us. The steps we learned in occupational therapy combined with play have been key. Ladybug will feed her toy a bite and then perhaps taste it herself. Or, we pretend to be animals eating, such as a bunny eating a carrot or a horse eating an apple. And one of the best influences on her willingness to try a food is media. If she is enamored by a book/tv character or a movie, I try to find a food associated with it to tempt her.
Through all of this, meeting the daily nutritional requirements is challenging. Most parents of selective eaters I’ve come across supplement their child’s diet with a nutrition shake which is a great idea. Unfortunately, Ladybug has decided that she wants nothing to do with those either…of course. The important thing to remember is that ONE day without certain foods won’t hurt. Sneak in the veggies or grains tomorrow and just try to make up for missing nutrients where necessary.
As for support, I feel like I can somewhat relate to parents whose children have food intolerance, allergies and/or sensory issues, in the sense that meals (even small snacks) have to be planned to great detail for every occasion. I relate to the stress, judgement, and fear of acceptance and exposure when my child is away from home…away from me. I try to be open with my 3 year old and explain her issue with food to her in a very relaxed, no-big-deal kind of way. Sort of like, “Everyone has a different brain; your brain tells you that you can’t eat certain foods and that’s okay. Your brain just needs time to learn that those foods are good.” I feel it’s better she has an explanation when questioned by outsiders than to feel like something is wrong with her.
Again, I am still fairly new to all of this and am learning as I go. There are many parents dealing with selective eating and food aversion on a more severe level, and I have so much empathy for them. It is a long, exhausting process and altered lifestyle that can be frustrating at times. The bottom line is that we just need to continue holding out hope that things will get better with time and patience. We need to support each other through it all. Celebrate the highs, vent about the lows. And last but not least, we need to educate and share our experience with others and help them to understand the difference between a picky toddler and one that has a food disorder.
Tips from an amateur:
- Find one food they love and build around it. For us it’s chocolate. My kiddo tolerated raisins, but didn’t really want them, so I gave her chocolate covered raisins and they were a hit! We treated them like candy too so she craved them even more. We then expanded to dark chocolate covered yogurt raisins – healthier for her and she doesn’t notice the difference.
- Don’t compare! Stacking your kid up to the other kids who do willingly eat pizza at a party or sandwiches at lunch will only add stress to the situation. When watching other children eat, keep in mind that they all have at least one food that their parents struggle to get them to eat.
- It may be unconventional, but it works. My daughter gets her main sources of protein and fiber from baby food purees and those convenient puree pouches. She prefers the smooth texture and familiarity. But even those are sometimes rejected and that is when we get creative. Drinking the puree with a straw instead of eating it with a spoon for example. Meals are a little less ordinary at our home, and that’s totally fine.
- Distractions aren’t always bad. I have rarely allowed my child to watch a show while eating at the table, it’s just something I worried would become a bad habit. However, a couple of Youtube videos or short episodes of Ladybug’s favorite shows have made the hardest meal moments more bearable.
- ALWAYS pack back up food. Alternative food is a must when leaving the house. There have been times my sweet girl skipped entire meals and cried sadly from hunger pains because she had nothing that suited her. Now, I always pack at least a snack just in case. And I’m going to say this very clear…the commonly used, “if they’re hungry, they’ll eat” line is completely false in many cases such as ours.
- Seriously, buy the book! This food chaining book by Cheri Fraker, along with exercises we learned at food therapy sessions, have been our guiding light.