All families have one or more children that seem to be reluctant to try new foods, complain about mushrooms in the casserole or refuse to eat peas. But some families have a child whose fear of finding an unpleasant food in their mouth goes to a level that seems to only be real in a sitcom. We were that kind of family.
In part I blame myself because when I was a single mom, we ate out a lot. The boys were little and could share one kids meal between them, and I was tired from working so eating at fast food restaurants was a regular part of our life. But whatever the reason, by the time my middle son was seven, he was without question the most dramatic picky eater I’ve ever seen. Dinner time would look something like this:
Me: Okay guys, dinner’s ready! Come sit down.
Middle (with look of suspicion): what’s for dinner?
Me: It’s something you’ve had before. There’s nothing weird in it. You’ll like it. It’s called Poppy Seed Chicken.
Middle: I don’t like poppy seeds.
Me: You can’t taste poppy seeds.
Middle: It looks weird. What’s in the sauce?
Me: It’s just sour cream and soups mixed together. Now quit asking so many questions. It’s a very normal chicken casserole and you’ll like it.
Cut to 30 minutes later, after pushing casserole around his plate and not eating.
Dad: Now that’s it. Take a bite of this dinner your mom made. We’re not asking you to eat anything weird or bad- it’s food. The rest of us ate it. Do it now!
Middle: (with tears) I’m trying dad. (more pushing food around plate) I ate some of my salad.
Me: Just take one bite. You can wash it down with your drink if you don’t like it.
After finally putting the smallest amount possible you could still technically call a bite into his mouth, he begins gagging. Then proceeds to throw up onto his dinner plate. We are angry. He is in tears. Lovely family dinner, done.
That is how dinner played out for about six months at the height of his extreme pickyness. So one night I was praying about what to do with this child. I hated how dinner time had become such a dramatic power struggle and yet, I did not feel good about just letting him continue to only eat three foods and cater to that. I had other children and how could I tell them it was okay for their brother to only eat what he wanted, but not for them? Not to mention I was legitimately worried about him becoming nutritionally deficit. And irrational. And spoiled. Then it hit me- straight from the Holy Spirit, because I am not this clever- a way to end the struggle, but maintain parental authority:
Here’s how it works: the child placed on non-eater status does not have to eat anything they don’t want to. No more guilt, pressure or threats of punishment. However, since there is no guarantee they will be getting adequate variety and nutrition, they cannot eat a single bit of “junk” food. No candy, ice cream, gum, pizza, chips, fast food. And if a child is placed on non-eater status it’s for a minimum of three months. So for three months the battle is over. The picky eater has relief that they don’t have to put yucky foods in their mouth. But they also have no options for junk. Eat what you want of the healthy food offered, or be hungry. Now I will tell you, I was really rigid with the junk part. The goal was not to figure out how to find a comfortable way for my child to maintain his pickyness. The goal was to get him to realize “on his own” that being picky wasn’t worth missing cake at a birthday party and to decide he was brave enough to try some foods.
At first, he just skipped meals a lot. He was so relieved to not be “forced” to eat, he opted not to. And we didn’t battle him on it at all. He usually like our breakfast options and would at least eat a sandwich at lunch, so I knew he was not going to starve to death. But after the first week, he began eating some dinner. Not the dreaded casserole’s, of course, but he’d eat some salad or his peas. Eventually, it began working. He missed out on cupcakes at a class party, chips and salsa when we went out for Mexican, sodas during movie night. After two months, we were approaching September and I began to fret a little about Halloween. If he didn’t come off non-eater status at the end of three months- would I be able to stick to my word and make him skip trick-or-treating? No Halloween candy at all? So I began to drop some little comments like, “you know, after this month you get to pick to be an eater again. I sure hope you feel ready, because I’d hate for you to miss out on your brother’s birthday treats and Halloween.” It worked. At the end of September, he decided he was ready to eat again. The rules were: no drama at meals times. You eat some of everything on your plate. You did not cry or gag or complain. If these rules were not followed, parents would place you back on non-eater status for another three months.
Well I am happy to report that we all survived this period in my middle son’s life. He is now a mostly normal eater- he has occasional panic about mayonnaise and has consistently refused eggs his whole life. But otherwise he will eat a wide variety and has generally conquered the fears associated with food. We laugh about the whole non-eater status now, but at the time, it rescued meal time and eliminated a ton of stress for all of us.