First I want to say unequivocally that I love macaroni and cheese, and I have since I was a very young child. My mother used to joke that the year I was four I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese and green beans. When Panera added mac and cheese to their menu…man that was a good day.
When I was young the blue box of Kraft was the way to go. As I got older I put away childish things and discovered “Grown Up” versions of my favorite comfort food, including multiple types of cheese, bacon, carrots, spinach, and other mix-ins that added new flavors while leaving the basic creamy goodness the same.
Things changed shortly after my first child was born and we discovered he had a significant dairy sensitivity. Since I was exclusively breastfeeding, this meant that I couldn’t have even a small amount of dairy for nearly an entire year. I didn’t really miss the milk in my cereal or the cheese on sandwiches or even the pizza. But going without my favorite comfort food was really tough!
Luckily, by about 18-months-old my son had outgrown his sensitivity and I was able once again to partake in my first food love. However, by the time he was 2, my relationship with my favorite dish again began to change. You see, around that time my kiddo began seriously restricting his food variety. At first we figured it was all part of the normal 2-year-old exertion of independence and that he’d quickly bounce out of his picky eating phase. But when he got himself down to a point where he would only eat three foods (Cheerios, cheese, and lunch meat turkey) we knew we had a problem.
By the time he was about three he did discover and come to love macaroni and cheese. At first I was excited. This was an easy dish that was chock full of protein, fat, and calories that I knew I could count on him eating every single time. As long as it came out of a blue box, there was never complaining. Quickly however, it became one more rigid food choice that couldn’t be varied. If the sauce was too thick or thin or the noodles were a different shape there was a fight. And, more frustratingly, it became a battle each supper time in explaining that we couldn’t have macaroni and cheese every single day. So even though I love macaroni and cheese, I also started to hate macaroni and cheese.
When you’re the parent of an extremely picky eater, you learn pretty quickly what you have to do to get by.
Sometimes this meant serving macaroni and cheese or chicken noodle soup seven times per week. I have brought peanut butter sandwiches and Easy Mac to more than one family gathering. So many well meaning people try to give you advice like “Just hide the vegetables in things you know he’ll eat.” Or “Put the new foods in front of him and eventually he’ll try it.” Or “Give him two choices and make him choose one.” Or “Your job is to give him healthy food, when he’s hungry he will eat it.” Or (my favorite) “Picky eaters would just go hungry at my house.”
Some of these are actually good pieces of advice. However, they don’t work for kids with serious issues with texture, sensory processing disorder, or other health problems.
My son had some pretty significant difficulties with textures in food, and he literally would rather go hungry than put foods he deemed offensive into his mouth. Even when he would try, he would gag and choke and give up after one bite. Mealtimes were very stressful as my desire to widen his palate was constantly at odds with getting calories into a tiny little boy who was quickly slowing his growth velocity more than was healthy. I often wondered how much of his food behaviors were my fault.
We did a lot of things over the years to help my kiddo improve his relationship with food, and he has come a very long way. If you’re the parent of an extremely picky eater, I have a couple of pieces of advice that I’ve learned in our journey.
1. It is not your fault.
There are many things you can do to set up a healthy and positive view of food, but you cannot make a child eat.
2. Routine and predictability are helpful.
Three meals and two snacks, and food is served while sitting down at the table. We found that preventing “grazing” did help increase food consumption at mealtimes, but skipping snacks had the opposite effect.
3. Find a good feeding therapist to help you.
This might be an occupational therapist or speech therapist. These professionals have can provide education and tools to help you move your child to be more accepting of tastes, textures, and smells. We ran a whole gamut of food exploration techniques, including smelling food, touching food, licking food, and finally biting the food.
4. Lower the pressure.
With young kids, playing with food can help, especially if there is no expectation or pressure to eat.
5. Set your expectations and mealtime rules, but don’t make mealtimes a battle.
In our house, rules often include one or two “have to” bites of a food that has been tried before, and a lick or smell of a new food. While I won’t make a separate meal for my picky eater, I will provide a peanut butter sandwich after those conditions have been met.
6. Respect your child’s efforts and limitations.
When our kiddo would successfully swallow a new food, even if he gagged it all the way down we would praise him and let him know we were proud. Likewise, we tried to recognize situations that might be challenging and not the right place for new food explorations. Times when kids are tired, overstimulated, or overly excited might not be the best places for success with new foods.
7. Do what you have to do for the health of your family and child.
If this means bringing a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup or Kraft Easy Mac to Thanksgiving dinner, then Mama…know that I’ve been there too.
Four years after he got himself down to three acceptable foods, our kiddo does have a much better relationship with textures, tastes, and food in general. He still isn’t a very adventurous eater, but at least he has a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and main dishes that are generally acceptable. And he’ll take a bite of a new dish when asked. But don’t mess with his macaroni and cheese. 🙂
To the parents of picky eaters out there, I salute you in your efforts. It’s not an easy journey, and it is one that many people judge and do not understand. Do what you have to do to get food into your kiddo, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And remember that there are other parents out there with their own love/hate relationships with certain foods. We’re all in this together!