We spent some time on Saturday hanging out with the 24 baby goats that were born this week. In the nursery, there were babies just born a few hours before — some frolicking and wagging their tails, nursing — others sleeping in the hay in their adorable little goat sweaters, their bellies still dripping from their just detached umbilical cords, the mommy goat licking at the placenta over in the corner…..
These days so much learning is sanitized, using only pictures and words. Sights and sounds, but no smells, tastes, or touches. No germs or dirt or blood. No soft fur or nuzzling noses.
Our relation to food is distant too. I’ve seen many children with diets consisting of Tyson Chicken Nuggets, McDonald’s French Fries, Oreo Cookies and milk. The more adventurous might eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Skittles. Many children will only eat pre-packaged pancakes and waffles, refusing the ones lovingly made by mom.
All of this uniformly colored and shaped food is different from picking raspberries and sugar snap peas out of your backyard. It feels odd drinking milk that came from your friend Daisy’s udders, or eating an egg that you gathered and washed.
Picky eating in young children is complicated. Careful detective work can uncover an underlying cause: delayed oral motor skills, allergies, reflux, constipation, strong reactions to sensory experiences, and the drive for sameness in autism can impact eating. All of these need treatment before you will see any improvement in eating. Children develop aversive reactions, gagging, choking and vomiting if forced to taste or smell certain foods. When a child is backed into a corner over a food, he will ramp up behaviorally. Children scream, cry, clamp their mouths shut, turn their heads, and throw food in order to defend themselves. Parents feel guilty and stressed, and doctors and grandparents give useless advice like “he’ll eat when he’s hungry”. Parents dread the nightly battle, and see their failure to create a pleasant family dinner as leading to a life of ill health, obesity, and criminality for their children.
Once the underlying problems are addressed, I have been surprised to see how quickly the negative patterns can be reversed with simple food activities. No forcing, no nagging, no crying. Just some fun cutting, peeling, grating, crushing, sorting, mixing, pouring…..with no pressure at all to eat. This is key: it has to be fun, and you can’t have a secret agenda of getting the child to taste the food. Just enjoy the moment and the time together. You don’t need to actually “make” something, as that will limit your imagination as to what can be done with the green pepper in front of you. See if you can drink water through a rigatoni noodle. Trying cutting up a potato with a plastic knife, or grating it . Mix food coloring into little containers of water. Smell spices and mix the ones you like into dough. I remember spending hours growing up combining dirt, water and plants to make soups and cakes in the backyard. But if you don’t like mud, you and your kids can mess with flour, spices and water at the kitchen table. Grow cherry tomatoes in a container on your deck if you don’t want to dig up your grass.
With one or two sessions per week, I have seen negative behaviors connected to food and eating gradually disappear, and numbers of accepted foods increase. Why does this work? One behavior analyst stated confidently that food exposure/desensitization approach like this can’t work, because the child can forever avoid actually putting the food in his mouth. So….it shouldn’t work, but… it is working. Maybe kids end up tasting a little of the food that’s on their hands. Or maybe backing off from the conflict frees both parent and child from a learned pattern of offer and refusal. When children start following directives involved with playing with food, this might create positive momentum. My belief is that kids are more willing to try foods when they can touch and smell them first, and when they learn how foods change when they are mixed, broken, boiled or baked. Kids start enjoying the contact with food and can try it on their own terms.
I love re-reading Little House in the Big Woods. The narrative details Laura Ingalls’ daily experiences with her family’s food: hearing the pig squeal while it is slaughtered, the delicious taste of a toasted pig’s tail, the smell of venison being hickory smoked in a hollow tree, the sweetness of just-made maple sugar, the squeaky feel of cheese curd in her mouth while making cheese with her mother.
All kids need direct real life experiences, but kids with autism need them…..more. Learning from pictures is clean and neat and orderly, but so much is lost.
Disclaimer: Some children can be treated for selective eating at home, with professional advice and input. Children who are vomiting daily, who are losing weight or not growing, need additional assessment and may need more intensive treatment. Be persistent in seeking help, and don’t accept “watch and wait”.
“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” Ursula Leguin