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Fruit and Vegetable School: When a Picky Eater is More Than Just Picky

When I tell people my oldest is a picky eater, I usually get one of three responses.

  1. The other parent tries to relate, telling me about their “picky eater”, who really is not, compared to mine, I promise.
  2. Out come the well-meaning suggestions. “Have you tried….” Insert your ending of choice here, the answer is yes… I have tried it all.
  3. 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!

6 Responses to Fruit and Vegetable School: When a Picky Eater is More Than Just Picky

  1. Courtney J Snow
    Courtney J Snow August 30, 2017 at 12:40 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Sarah! I think it’s great for other parents to know about this issue, so we can all support each other and be less judgmental. I’m glad you’ve found something that’s helping, even in tiny ways. Does she tolerate vitamins that are chewable?? It’d help with her nutrients 😉

    • Sarah
      Sarah August 30, 2017 at 4:53 pm #

      She will eat Flinstones… but only the purple ones.

  2. Kristin September 9, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

    I know this problem well. It sounds like the condition I have had have since I was a baby, much like you’ve described your daughter. The good news is that this condition finally has a name and is beginning to be studied. It was initially called Selective Eating Disorder (SED) but in the past few years has been referred to as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). It was included in the latest edition of the DSM, which means that it is now diagnosable. That is great news, because it increases the likelihood that treatments will be developed. And as silly as it sounds, it is nice to have a name to call an issue like this. When there is no name, people judge and consider it a fault of parenting, when the person is young, or a fault of willpower, when the person has grown up. Naming it gives it a sense of validity.

    Hang in there! Ignore all those people who don’t understand. What you are facing is real, and it sounds like you’re doing a great job. As a person who has this, I can tell you that you’re absolutely right in concluding that it is an anxiety and sensory issue. We just do not experience food in the same way that others do. I think the treatment you are seeking for your daughter is such a blessing for her, and I wish something like that had been available when I was her age. Keep up the good work and know that you are not alone. Consider joining the Picky Eaters Association Facebook group. There you will find a supportive community of others who have this and other parents whose kids have it. There is also some great research on ARFID now being done at Duke University and a few other places. It might be helpful to look into what they have found. Good luck!

  3. Elsbeth September 11, 2017 at 11:05 pm #

    Thank you for this! At 4 my son is on the low end of both height and weight and gained the bare minimum of weight in a year. We don’t do fruit or vegetables either and have had similar experiences. We’re still in the wait and see with the pediatrician but maybe I’ll ask about OT next time.

  4. Leslie October 19, 2017 at 3:33 pm #

    Sarah, thank you for being so open and honest about your daughter’s struggles. This hits so close to home for me. Every time I talk to others about it, I’m told, “Oh, he’ll grow out of it.” or “Well, just try x,y,z.” or “You’re just letting him walk all over you.” I’ve never been able to describe it in the ways in which you have and every time I’ve been met with one of those responses I’ve felt like a failure as a mother.

    I sincerely mean this when I say that reading this post is what has finally inspired me to seek help for him as well. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time, but your words helped to give me the final push to make that call. His evaluation will be at the begining of November… I’m nervous but hopeful about it. Thank you, again.

    • Sarah
      Sarah October 19, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

      Let me know what they say! It’s not a magic solution, but with realistic expectations, it has been so helpful for us as a family!

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