Sometimes, picky eating is more than a phase. If you have a problem feeder, a selective eater, or a child with ARFID, take heart. It can be managed with patience and love.
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A handful of Cheerios for breakfast. Snack at preschool was a food she wouldn’t touch. We were going on 15 hours of fasting, and she had eaten only crackers the day before.
Frantic doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of how I was feeling.
I had made a sandwich before I left for pick up; handed it to her after buckling her in. I kissed her forehead, shut the door, and prayed silently.
Please. Let her eat. Just a few bites even. Something.
Halfway home and nothing. The untouched sandwich sat in her lap. She was talking about Pink Duck; I wasn’t really listening. I had chosen a hill to die on, and it was made of bread and jam.
Honey, take a bite of your sandwich.
Pink Duck gave me flowers. Can I wear my pink shirt with two flowers?
Just take a bite, love. You might like it.
I’m not hungry. Today is Pink Duck’s birthday.
Yes, you are. Take a bite.
I don’t want it.
Eat the sandwich, kiddo.
She dropped it on the floor.
When Picky Eating is More Than a Phase – An Introduction to Problem Feeding
I’ve mentioned before that my oldest is a problem feeder, but up until this point, I haven’t explained what that means. The day I had my ridiculous meltdown in the car, my beautiful daughter ate six foods.
Bread. Milk. Cheddar cheese. Crackers. Pancakes. Cookies.
I called her a picky eater, but in my heart, I knew it was something more. Turns out I was right: she was a problem feeder. But unless you live it or are familiar with it, it’s not easy to understand.
Problem Feeding (also known as Selective Eating and ARFID) is distinct from picky eating
Most children go through a picky phase between the ages of 2 and 6. While they have definite favorites and are reticent to try new things, they will generally eat a few selections from each of the four food groups. A typical picky eater might have a regular diet of carrots and green beans, apples and strawberries, chicken and fish, yogurt and cheese, and oatmeal and Cheerios – with variation.
A Selective Eater, on the other hand, avoids entire food groups, or foods that are similar in some way (like taste, texture, or color). A selective eater might have a standard diet of tortilla chips, hot dogs, and milk for every meal, and as a result, they are at risk for nutritional deficiency.
Problem Feeding is Common in Gifted and Twice Exceptional Children
Gifted children display a variety of sensitivities which can impact the intake of food. Colors, tastes, and textures are brighter; empathy and emotional sensitivity are high. My 7-year-old, for instance, can taste onion residue in food, even if I’ve thoroughly washed a guilty pot.
My 11-year-old has compounded issues. Sensory processing disorder heightens her sensitivities; her deep drive for perfection makes attention to preparation a must. Foods cannot touch. She won’t eat anything with “bits” in it. And her excellent memory retains objectionable experiences she has had around food, whether they are physical or not.
Lastly, Problem Feeding Is More Common Than You’d Realize
It has a variety of triggers which can’t be seen:
- Trauma and emotional connection/reaction to certain foods
- Undiagnosed food allergies
- Medical history, including acid reflux as an infant
- Chronic Constipation
For us it was a perfect storm of issues, beginning with a routine blood test at 2.
The pediatrician discovered a lead level of 7 – not high enough for treatment, but enough to warrant monitoring and minor action. On multiple occasions, we had to restrain our screaming daughter while frazzled lab techs searched for a vein. At home, we had to feed her certain foods to leach the lead out.
She didn’t want to eat them, at least not right then. Overwhelmed and beyond anxious, I started force-feeding.
It did not go well.
This is when we lost almost all of it, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, to start. Meat and seafood quickly followed suit. I could do nothing right: I was hopeless, desperate, and angry.
I had ruined my baby. She would almost certainly starve.
Fortunately, we found our way to an occupational therapist for an evaluation. Our OT worked with the whole family, teaching us how to build the kind of environment where a selective eater can grow. She introduced us to the book Food Chaining and the Ellyn Slatter Institute, whose philosophies encourage a shared responsibility approach to feeding and family meals.
It hasn’t been without struggle, but our daughter has made huge strides over the past six years.
Her list of safe foods has grown to 35, and we haven’t been forcing her to eat, nor do we let her go hungry until her next meal. Instead, we involve her in food prep, provide healthy choices at every meal, and leave the intake of food to her.
The Truth About Problem Feeding
We’ve walked this journey for what feels like forever, and I’ve gathered a few takeaways to share at-a-glance. That way, when well-meaning advice givers offer suggestions, you can help educate them on the truth.
Problem feeding doesn’t just encompass food types, but brands as well
Selective eaters adhere to what is familiar, down to the packaging and brand. For us, this means I buy two different brands of granola bars: Costco and Quaker Chocolate Chip. This also applies to homemade alternatives: I once saw a forum commenter tell one mother of a problem feeder she should search the internet for homemade chicken nugget recipes. I had to laugh to keep from crying – unless that recipe has the exact same ingredients as McDonald’s, down to the breading, it isn’t going to go over well.
It isn’t really about the food
Instead, it’s about having control over chaos. It’s about avoiding sensory aversions. It’s about anxiety, fear, and self-preservation. These kids need love and understanding, not pressure or shame.
It might get better with time
Some problem feeders can overcome the issue at home. Children will become more comfortable with different foods through family-style dinners, experience in the kitchen, and learning how cooking works.
Or it might not
On the other hand, some problem feeders will need more specific intervention, and I often recommend parents seek an evaluation first. Typically, this involves screening by an occupational therapist and a Speech and Language Pathologist, then feeding therapy, either individual or group.
Regardless, your child is still your child, and he will benefit most from your love
I know it’s scary and frustrating. But patience, love, and a whole lot of support will win the day, even if he remains a solidly picky eater. The fact is, some children carry this into adulthood and grow up to become picky adults. That’s okay – what matters most in the world is our heart and compassion for others, not whether you eat your broccoli at 40.
When our children are born, they are handed over to us to love and feed and diaper and care for. We have expectations about how things will go.
We read forums and books; join Facebook and mom groups. And then life hands us something different than what we bargained for. If you have a problem feeder, it is not you nor your child’s fault. It is a part of life, just like anything else we’ve been handed. It will either get better, or you will learn to cope with it. Trust your gut, and always handle with love.
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