Hard-boiled eggs. “Don’t open it Mommy, I want to eat it whole.” A cream-cheese sandwich. Hummus. Toast with avocado.
Are you jealous yet? Max’s diet sounds pretty healthy for a 3 1/2 year old, doesn’t it? But in our house, looks are deceiving.
Max has created strict rules around eating, and after years of watching him vomit up breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we’ve been lulled into allowing him to dictate what/when/where he eats.
We had high hopes for how we’d feed our first-born. Didn’t you? Organic, free-range, home-made. We scoffed at baby food jars and swore that Breast Was Best. Until our little guy actually arrived, and turned our perfectly imagined parenting paradigm upside down . He couldn’t nurse. He wouldn’t nurse. His formula came from a can. He couldn’t eat. He wouldn’t eat. Sean spent hours steaming, smooshing, straining sweet potatoes into tiny ice cube trays. Max took one bite and threw up everywhere. It was easier to experiment with jars of baby food that took .02 seconds to open, knowing that it was a crapshoot if he would actually swallow a food good spoonfuls before he puked it everywhere. You can’t do Baby Led Weaning with a child who has food aversions, texture issues, and severe reflux. Here, take a bite of my carrot stick, kid. My baby choked on a single cheerio. I’ll be damned if I was going to give him a piece of french bread to gnaw on.
As Max grew, so did his digestive system. Reflux, Delayed Gastric Emptying, and multiple food allergies turned into a kid who was medically cleared to eat anything but tree nuts. What three year old eats cashews anyway? But when a tiny GI system spends it’s first 2 1/2 years in pain, little bodies and little brains quickly figure out that eating suuuucks. When Max’s mouth should have been learning how to chew, sort, and swallow food, he was restricted to prescription strength formula. When Max’s tastebuds should have been trying to develop a preference for spicy, or sweet, or sour, he was being reintroduced to plain/smooth/non-acidic/easily digested foods like yogurt and real bread. We rejoiced when he could eat a banana. I cried the other day when he realized that he liked brownies.
The worst part of feeding a child with food issues, is what everyone else thinks. The flames of the mommy wars are fanned by strong opinions on how to feed your child. I thought that the heat would subside once Max was no longer drinking a bottle, but oh how wrong I was. An entire industry exists around how to “sneak” healthy food into your kid’s meals. How to make your own versions of those blasted kid staples like chicken nuggets and french fries. Let this be said once and for all, from every Food Aversion/Sensory Issue mom to every righteous, indignant wanna-be chef/mom of a toddler….
My kid knows when his english muffin pizza has thinly sliced veggies under the cheese. He knows when I’ve slipped pureed fruit into the pancake batter. He will only drink water, so those
fascinating disgusting veggie “milkshakes” that you make would go unsipped. We work on a baking project together at least once a week. He loves standing on his stool, helping me to crack the eggs. We sift flour, and throw blueberries in the batter. We mash bananas. We smell the chocolate chips. He stirs everything together as it flies out onto the counter. We talk about how the ingredients smell, and taste, and feel in our hands. He waits with eager anticipation as the muffins rise in the oven. And when the timer dings, and the warm aroma of something fresh and delicious fills the kitchen, he wanders in and says “Mmmmmm….that smells yummy Mommy!” And I unwrap/slice/offer…..and he politely says “No thank you”, and walks out. So don’t tell me that it might help him if we got up close and personal with the dreaded food. It won’t, Toddler Chef. But thanks anyway. And by the way, I’m getting really fat on muffins.
Max helps me cut veggies for salad, though he’s only ever licked them. He helps me choose and weigh fat ripe tomatoes and juicy peaches at the grocery store and farmer’s market. But he won’t taste them.
He’s immune to peer pressure. Though a few weeks ago we did have a major breakthrough, when we made brownies for his friend Edward and Max was jealous enough to actually try one. I may be the only mom on the planet who cried when her child decided that he liked brownies.
Children with food aversions and oral sensory issues don’t give a rat’s ass about sticker charts. They can’t be bribed with treats (nothing is important enough to risk their percieved sense of food safety). They will not simply “eat when they’re hungry”. They will go to bed ravenous, cranky, and frustrated. You will add to their already overwhelming loss of control by engaging in epic power struggles around food. They will win. And they will still be hungry.
So we do what we can. We’ve created a framework of healthy rules about food, and we let Max have flexibility within that framework. I try to apply many of the principles that I’ve read about it Ellyn Satter’s book “Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense”, while keeping in mind that it was written for “typical” children. In our house, the food rules look like this:
1) Food is offered, not pushed. There is no clean-plate club here. Grown-ups provide the healthy choices, and Max decides how much he will eat, or if he will eat at all.
2) Meals may be repetitive, but they have to be substantial. Even though I die a little inside when the dinner rotation never vascillates from mac n cheese, bean and cheese burritos, chicken nuggets, green beans, cheeseburgers, and tortellini, I will not serve snacks in place of meals.
3) Snacks are not endless. A full helping of goldfish crackers is fine, but if your belly is still hungry, you can eat a banana or some strawberries.
4) Our best attempt at introducing new foods has been the concept of “food chaining”. This means that if Max will eat hashbrowns, then we slowly try diced/roasted potatoes. If Max will eat chicken nuggets, then we try shredded chicken. If he likes macaroni, then we introduce rotini noodles. We build on what is familiar.
5) We respect Max’s need to have his food “in order”. I don’t mind if he eats yogurt, and then a handful of blueberries, instead of mixing them together. We serve food without sauce, or dip, or extra spices. At this point, if he’ll eat a damn meatball, I could care less if it has spaghetti sauce on it.
6) We try to lead by example. We talk about how food gives us energy, and why our bodies need certain things to be healthy.
Last week, Max’s preschool teacher took me aside to tell me that she felt terribly that he wasn’t eating his snack. “He’s really hungry by lunchtime” she said. I was shocked that it’s taken her two years to bring this to my attention. “I kinda figured he wasn’t eating some of what was offered” I said. When what I really wanted to say was “Fuck. I’ve been hoping all of this time that preschool served diced magic with their diced peaches and cheese cubes. This river of denial I’ve been treading water in is really fucking warm. You mean he’s not being peer pressured into drinking juice out of little cups and nibbling on carrot sticks. Damn.it.” “I just don’t want him to be hungry, I feel so bad.” she said softly. And I kinda love her, and I know that she really loves Max, so when she said “Maybe you can give us a bag of snacks at the beginning of each week, that you know he’ll eat, then we can offer that if he turns down what the rest of the class is eating.”
And while everything inside of me was screaming “Noooooo! I don’t want him to be different!”, I couldn’t help but think of the little toddler who couldn’t swallow a spoonful of sweet potato puree. And the big preschooler with the chocolate ice cream all over his chin. “Ok” I whispered, and walked away.
That night, as I packed the pretzels and the graham crackers and the strawberries, I cried for the tiny newborn who smacked his lips against my empty breast, trying to take a drink. I cried for the 3 1/2 year old who was undoubtedly sitting at the snack table at preschool, pushing away the paper cup filled with apple slices. I could imagine him going off to play quietly by himself, still hungry, not understanding why food was always so unkind to him.
I sealed up the snack bag, added it to his lunchbox that was filled with sliced grapes and a cream cheese sandwich, and turned off the kitchen light.
“He’ll eat when he’s hungry” I thought. Or maybe he won’t.