When Picky Eating Isn’t Just a Phase

picky eating

I think as moms we have all gone through the phase of picky eating (unless you are still in the breast or bottle feeding months – lucky you!) It’s ridiculously frustrating to hear cries of  “I don’t like that!” or “That looks disgusting!” after you’ve worked hard to make a pretty edible family dinner. It’s a nightly battle that I hate participating in. 

But, is there a time when picky eating isn’t just a phase? 

After awhile it seemed that two out of my three kids (now 8 and 4) grew out of their worst picky eating phases. I won’t say that they’re perfect (far from it) but at least they are now occasionally willing to try new things. They don’t always like it (they are very clear about their opinions) but at least they’ll try.

Meanwhile my middle son (now 6) would go without eating a single bite at dinner because it either “smelled funny” or “looked weird” or something to that effect. No amount of rewards, sticker charts, bribery, torture (kidding), or reasoning would help. Most nights he sat at the dinner table and cried. 

I found myself pleading with him.

“Just take one bite of your chicken. Just one. Please.”

“You need some protein to make you stronger. You want big muscles, don’t you?”

I tried to bribe him.

“If you eat 2 1/2 bites of your <insert food item>, you can have a cookie!”

“The first one to finish their vegetables gets to pick a show!”

I used reasoning unsuccessfully. 

“You love tortillas and you love cheese. That’s what a quesadilla is. Cheese in a tortilla.”

“This is the exact same thing I made last week and you loved it.”

I even tried threats.

“If you don’t eat your pork chop, you don’t get <insert value item>.”

“EAT IT OR I’M NEVER GOING TO COOK DINNER AGAIN!” (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve actually said this in a really heated moment.)

It was frustrating to say the least. Not wanting him to starve, we sometimes relented and gave him some fruit because we knew he’d eat it. But then we wondered if we were giving in by letting him have his way. We couldn’t force him to eat what he didn’t want to eat. We withheld snacks after school or after lunch so he’d be really hungry for dinner. Everyone always said, “If he’s hungry enough, he’ll eat.” Nope.

At this point my 6 year old probably only had ten things that he’d eat on a continuous basis. There were other things that would come and go (bananas, cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, yogurt) but the same ten things remained as staples. 

I noticed that he was extremely sensitive to smells – even if it wasn’t food on his plate. My husband and I ordered something (truffle fries I believe) at a restaurant and when they were set on the table, my son could barely stand it. And not in the way of a typical 6 year old who is being funny by holding their nose.  We had to move the plate so he couldn’t smell it. 

If it weren’t for my neighbor and good friend, I don’t think that I would’ve pursued an Occupational Therapy evaluation for him. I constantly vented to her about his pickiness and how it didn’t seem normal. She mentioned to me that he could have some sensory issues. Sensory issues and food? I had no idea!

Before making an appointment for an OT evaluation, I did research on Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and food. When I read the descriptions of a typical kid with sensory issues, I about fell over. It described my 6 year old perfectly. 

We had the evaluation done right after he turned 6 years old. I feel like it told us a lot about what he goes through when he sees the food on his plate. I’m told that a lot of kids with sensory issues are also plagued with anxiety. So, when my poor son is staring at a plate of food his entire sensory system is often in overdrive along with the anxiety of trying new foods. It’s a double whammy of sorts.

As they say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Just knowing what he goes through is helpful for me so I can have more patience with him and understand that he’s not purposely being defiant. I am also learning from his Occupational Therapist how to best introduce new foods. I won’t pretend that it’s an easy journey and that suddenly everything is better, but we’re on the right path and for that I am hopeful.

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