When I tell people my oldest is a picky eater, I usually get one of three responses.
- The other parent tries to relate, telling me about their “picky eater”, who really is not, compared to mine, I promise.
- Out come the well-meaning suggestions. “Have you tried….” Insert your ending of choice here, the answer is yes… I have tried it all.
- The unintended judgment a la “I just make one meal for the family and they eat it or they don’t;” which suggests our situation is the fault of bad parenting.
To be fair, I probably shouldn’t call her picky, because it’s so much more anxiety/sensory based than that. She has NEVER eaten a fruit in her life. Even as a baby, she refused to eat those sweet purees (and I made them from scratch!). She never loved her veggies, but we could get her to eat green beans, but only green beans. I introduced avocado, sweet potatoes, a variety of fruit. I introduced pasta sauce, hummus, smoothies and anything else I thought stood a chance in hell of being received well by my precious little one. She wanted nothing to do with any of it.
I don’t remember exactly when the gagging started, but it was early. She was maybe three. I would give her a bite of a fruit or veggie and she would gag until she would spit up. I talked to her pediatrician numerous times and he would assure me that it was “normal.” That I should continue to put it in front of her and she would eventually eat it. It may take years, he said, but she would do it. And so we did. However, she was still opting to eat NOTHING. The child was living on chicken, carbohydrates and the occasional scrambled egg.
Over time, our meal times started to look like this:
Feeling desperate that she needed SOMETHING with some sort of vitamin in it, I would make her take a bite of something healthy to try it. She would cry and resist and get so anxious about eating a half a grape or a bite of the green beans that she used to tolerate. I would get mad and tell her to stop crying and eat it. She would take a bite and chew, then gag and eventually throw it up on the table. I would get FURIOUS and send her away from the table. The cycle was unhealthy for all of us. Eventually, I gave up because it wasn’t worth the fight.
At her 7-year-old well check, I brought it up again to the pediatrician as I had every year since toddlerhood. This time, I think he could tell I was on the verge of tears. Her BMI was steadily increasing and she was getting nothing of nutritional value in her diet. I was failing her as a mother. I finally got a referral to see an OT at Cincinnati Children’s who specializes in picky eaters. I wanted to cry tears of joy.
I remember feeling so relieved at our initial consultation. Finally, someone understood that it wasn’t bad parenting and it wasn’t normal picky eating. My picky eater did not share my enthusiasm. She was so tearful about going to this appointment. My kid, who is not fearful of doctors AT ALL, hid behind me when the OT came out to get us. By the end of the appointment, after she realized she wasn’t going to be force fed a salad, she relaxed a little, but she still aptly named the sessions “Fruit and Vegetable School” and was not excited about going.
Fruit and Vegetable School is run like a support group for kids. In the sessions, a variety of food is introduced. The idea is that the kids don’t feel pressure, but instead support one another in their shared struggle. Each has a significantly different palate. The OT started by having my picky eater hold the vegetables in her teeth. Then she would have to chew but could spit it out. She had to give it a label: “big taste,” “medium taste,” or “little taste”- also, thumbs up or thumbs down. Each week we would have a challenge of new foods to try; I could pick one and she could pick one. None of this was easy or anxiety free, but it felt structured and because it was part of “school,” the cooperation was higher.
We have only completed one full semester with the OT and have seen progress. Our expectation has never been to get her to love fruits and vegetables. I will be thrilled if she picks one of each she can consistently tolerate. The anxiety is much better though, although it is definitely not gone. She no longer gags and throws up, but there are still tears and resistance when fruits and vegetables are even set on the plate. We don’t have any sort of quantity close to what is necessary for nutritional value. She still will not touch fruit, but, I can get a carrot stick in her at dinner if it’s smothered in peanut butter and that is progress.
We still have a lot of work in front of us, but I am grateful to have the local support to help us work on it. It continues to be a daily struggle, and I continue to feel like I am failing her in some way. It’s definitely not easy… but nothing worth the effort usually is… especially parenthood.
However, next time your picky eater is scarfing down grapes, but refusing to touch the hummus, please be grateful for those grapes!