Thursday, September 02, 2010
Picky Eaters and Trusting Tomatoes
It seems that most kids have their favorite foods, and other foods they think are yucky. These food preferences do not present a problem for most children, because they eat a variety of foods and can get their nutritional needs met through different foods they willingly eat. For parents of picky eaters, however, you know the challenges, frustrations, and anxiety that can occur when a child has a limited number of foods they will accept. In addition to restricting the number of food items, some children refuse to eat unless the food is presented on the same plate each time and the drink must always be in the same cup. There are children who can tell the difference between brands of food, so even if you find a food the child will eat they may refuse it if you offer a different brand. For example, a child who eats chicken nuggets might refuse to eat them unless they come from McDonalds. For some picky eaters, the shape of the food is also important. They may eat round waffles, but not even taste waffles that are square. For some picky eaters, the color of the food matters to them. My son, Josh, has come a long way with his sensory processing and has expanded his diet to include most foods. Even as a young adult, though, Josh still has moments of uncertainty when he is presented with an unfamiliar food item. Just last week we were able to harvest some of our heirloom tomatoes. These tomatoes have a great flavor, but can be unusual in their colors and shapes. Josh loves red tomatoes and will eat them the way others eat apples. When Josh saw the yellow tomato I was offering him he was taken aback. I believe his exact words to me were, "Yellow tomatoes? Why are they yellow? I don't trust yellow." Trust can be a huge factor for picky eaters. Sometimes parents try to force the child to taste new foods and their pleas and threats backfire and result in even greater resistance. This is especially true if a child thinks he might be forced to do something that is uncomfortable or aversive despite his protests. Understandably, parents are concerned about their child's diet and the need for balanced nutrition. When a child only eats a few foods day after day, it's anxiety provoking. Worse yet, some children suddenly decide that a food they have eaten regularly is now on their long list of unacceptable foods that they will no longer eat. Mealtimes can become unpleasant and a battle ground for concerned parents who are trying to get their picky eaters to just take a bite of food. If mealtimes are that difficult at home, how can you ever go out to eat or eat at a friend's house? It's frustrating and worrisome. Books such as Just Take a Bite offer suggestions and strategies to expand a child's diet. One suggestion offered is to have your child help you prepare the food. That way he can see exactly what you put in the recipe. Another tip is to work gradually toward accepting new foods. Some children react so strongly that they become distressed just seeing a food item on the table that is not on their list of acceptable foods. A goal would be for the child to tolerate the food near them, then on their plate. Even at that point, professionals don't recommend that you insist that the child eat the food. It is a gradual process, with multiple presentations of the refused food over time. It's progress if a child will allow a new food to touch his lips. I used to tell my children that they didn't have to like a food, but I did want them to at least taste it. This may be a helpful strategy for a child with few or mild food aversions, but for the more extreme picky eater it won't be adequate. This degree of resistance goes beyond what typical children do. Considering that mealtimes happen every day, multiple times, it's no wonder that parents feel desperate to help their picky eaters.