Have you ever looked into your child’s eyes as they contemplate the plate of food you have served, and thought to yourself “what is going on in there?” Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to be a very picky eater, anxious about what challenges the next meal may bring?
Empathy is at the heart of my approach to working with picky eaters, because if we can’t put on a child’s shoes and walk around in them (as Scout puts it, in To Kill a Mockingbird...) we can’t hope to help that child. Seeing food from their perspective is essential.
This article is all about what it’s like to be a very picky eater, struggling with food anxiety. I wanted to share a child’s point of view, but with an adult’s insight and ability to articulate complex and emotionally difficult ideas. So I asked Leah (not her real name) - a parent in my facebook group for parents of picky eaters where I am co-admin - if she would mind recounting her experience of being a very picky eater as a child.
Leah told me how, until she was two or three years old, she ate pretty much everything. But then when her baby brother arrived, she explains that “in protest, I just stopped eating”. I have seen this before; sometimes big life changes can be incredibly hard for young children to process. They feel profoundly out of control and so they search frantically for something that they can control. Sometimes, this can be their eating. It’s one of the few things that a toddler can choose to do, or not do.
Leah moved from being a confident eater to accessing a very limited diet of less than ten foods, including yogurt, toast, crackers, orange-juice, smoothies and chips. It wasn’t until she was a teenager - and the social pressure to eat like her friends became more powerful than her food anxiety - that she began learning to accept new foods. Once she started branching out, Leah realised that eating a varied diet was not as hard as she had originally feared. Her confidence grew, and now she is an adult who is passionate about cooking and feeding her family great, home cooked food.
Her relationship with food was made worse after a traumatic experience with a babysitter who, when Leah was seven years old, physically forced her to eat everything on her plate, by holding her nose. This kind of abusive feeding practice is thankfully rare these days, but it illustrates how, while the short term goal of getting Leah to finish her food was achieved, the impact this had on her food anxiety took years to recover from.
The thing that came through most forcefully when I chatted to Leah was that she was more scared of being made to eat a disliked or unfamiliar food, than she was of actually eating it. And not only did the pressure come from being encouraged to try things, she told me that she experienced simply being the object of people’s attention as extreme pressure, too. She vividly describes the discomfort she experienced when her eating was a focus for other people around the table, leading to “intense anxiety and emotion… crying… not wanting to be there”.
Leah’s parents were actually fairly laid back about Leah’s eating, ultimately letting her make her own eating decisions from within the context of the food that they provided. They intuitively used the kind of good feeding practices that would now be recognised as falling within Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding; the gold standard for how to understand the adult and the child’s respective feeding roles. The family often ate together, they used family-style serving and they made mealtimes as relaxed and positive as possible.
Yet despite this gentle and supportive approach, food was still a huge source of stress for Leah. Not just meals themselves, but also the anticipation of meals: She told me: “I felt this dread when dinner was coming...” worrying about what was going to be on the table and what she’d be able to eat. She says: “It’s like I was a ball of emotion all the time, and so terrified about food and so terrified of people making me eat…”
Leah eloquently expressed the very real desperation she felt in relation to her eating. She wanted to be able to eat a varied diet so badly, that she even asked her parents to take her to a church to be healed of her picky eating when she was nine years old. This is heartbreaking. She says: “I was really desperate to get over it and I couldn’t”. Anyone who believes that extreme picky eating is a choice a child makes, needs to take note. For many children, their relationship with food causes them extreme emotional stress but it is just too big for them to solve without the right help.
I asked Leah what advice she has for anyone who is parenting a very picky eater. She suggests that they “provide everything regularly so they [the child] get exposure to it, but not to ask them about it, talk about it, make suggestions… have it there and leave them alone. Don’t watch them - I felt watched all the time... Looking is the worst pressure - you know that, you pick that up - you know they want you to eat it so desperately”
I wanted to know what it was like for Leah when she started discovering this whole world of food as a teenager, after so many years of a very limited diet.. She replied: “It was amazing, because I wanted to eat all along”. I found this very moving. For some children, eating is just so scary and they need our help and our compassion in order to learn to like unfamiliar or disliked foods. They need us to be patient and to be there for them, along what might be a very long and winding road. Leah’s story is sad but is tinged with optimism. It can and it does get better.