Backchat: Foodfight

Sometimes fussy eating is nothing to do with wilfulness, as this mum explains.

First up I must confess, I do everything wrong. Everything. Ask any expert. Hell, ask any other parent. They’d shake their heads in a slow, super-judgemental way as they watched me making my kids’ dinner. Or, possibly more accurately, ‘dinner’ if all white food can count as a meal. All the advice, all the tips, all the boundaries, all the research, if you were observing you might think I don’t even seem to be trying. I know this. I’ve pretty much given up. Fussy children. These words are not adequate for what I deal with in trying to feed my children.
A doctor asked my seven-year-old son: “What fruit do you like?” He just looked a bit confused. He knows about fruit – SpongeBob lives in a pineapple under the sea – but he doesn’t eat any. My children’s attitude to food is not so much fussy, as freakish. I suppose
I should give you a few examples so you understand what we are dealing with.
My daughter only really eats white food. Plain pasta with olive oil. It must also be made to her very strict specifications. It’s the only thing she will eat on local restaurant Prego’s menu, but when the olive oil tasted a bit ‘funny’ – expensive virgin oil – she wouldn’t eat that. She exists on banana flavoured Up & Go. But it has to be the small Tetra Pak containers. The slightly larger cartons are not acceptable.
She is also not happy with any kind of change. She likes Toffee Pops but when I gave her a packet to take on a play date, they were rejected because they now had ‘20% more toffee’. They’re not normal. “That’s too much toffee.”
For a long time she’d only drink water in a cup with three cubes of ice – just three – and a green straw. It is like living with a mini Gordon Ramsay who has lost his tastebuds but not his tyrannical attitude to food. I can imagine you’re thinking of reporting me to CYFS about now. But let me give you a bit of background on how I have ended up with the food freak children.
From the first time I tried to feed my children solid food as babies – puréed food at about six months – they acted like I was trying to poison them. They would just spit it out. No matter what I tried – mashed this, tinned that – all bleugh. I have a theory this suspicion of food is quite adaptive in an evolutionary sense. It would have been the ancestors who were sceptical about eating any old berries who didn’t get poisoned. And thus, their genes were passed on.
Both children have developed their own particular approved foods and these must be made according to strict specifications, about texture – either very crunchy or very smooth, nothing in between. My son likes ‘crunchy toast’ which is bread fried in olive oil. He will also eat fries. I can also feed him puréed vegetables now, but he refuses to eat them unless I shovel them into his mouth like a little bird. I know about now you’ll be thinking I am a candidate as a dunce parent who needs Super Nanny. But like most things to do with children, it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems. Both my kids are highly sensitive to sensory inputs: they will only wear certain clothes, must always have labels cut out. They are hyper-sensitive to noise, to textures and to smells. If I am eating my breakfast muesli and yoghurt, my son will refuse to sit anywhere near me because of the smell. You can imagine how the smell of curry goes down.
Their attitude to food seems to me to be an extension of their desire to feel secure by knowing the food they eat will be familiar, with no surprises and no change. To that end, it is not an indulgence or being naughty, but is driven by a deep-seated fear. Of course I’ve tried to get them accustomed to other foods, many, many, times, but the reactions seem to be so destructive they outweigh the benefits.
My daughter wouldn’t stop vomiting when I forced her to eat carrots. Experts have the most hopeless advice as they are obviously not used to dealing with children of this personality type. My kids would far prefer to starve than be compliant and get a reward. Rewards do not have a lot of significance for them. They are both very thin, and food is not a big attraction to them.
I did ask a specialist nutritionist for advice and even she seemed rather taken aback at the extreme nature of my problem. Apparently I needed to instigate a multi-disciplinary approach with a team of specialists of various sorts using sensitisation to get them to eat normal food. To tell the truth, it all sounded too hard. I also didn’t really like the attitude of the so-called experts. There seemed to be an assumption children were being little minxes and deliberately trying to manipulate their parents. There didn’t seem to be any empathy or awareness that for some super-sensitive children, eating unknown or repulsive foods is terrifying and their fear is real, not put on.
One expert said: “Even the biggest drama queen can choke down one little mouthful.” Categorising these children as ‘drama queens’ seems to me to invalidate their quite reasonable fears of being forced to eat unknown foods. The damage of growing up in an ‘invalidating environment’ is actually more wide-ranging and profound than that of living on plain carbs.
Lots of people all round the world do live on a staple carbohydrate: rice, millet, pasta. The expert also said: “Many kids will make a great show of nearly vomiting, but it rarely actually happens.” Well, they should visit my household and they might revise that view. But then my children also have a super- sensitive gag reflex and find brushing their teeth a trial as it makes them retch so much.
On the plus side, they are healthy in other ways and, despite their shameful diet, they are both thin: so at least I don’t have to bear a pompous lecture about obesity. But now they are a bit older I have all my hope set on the power of peer pressure to broaden their palates. My daughter ate a bread roll on school camp! I was so happy.
I comfort myself with stories of other family members who lived on plain pasta as children and have grown up to be accomplished chefs and eat every type of food. But if another so-called child nutrition specialist, who deals with ‘normal’ children tells me the answer is to ‘make food fun’, they might find to their detriment that their theory about vomiting is proven quite messily wrong, from parents if not from children.
Words by: Deborah Hill Cone
Photographs: Getty Images

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