Our journey with severe food aversions began when my son, Matthew, was starting solid foods, around 10 months of age. He’d spit out anything that had the slightest texture to it. He loathed textured food.
Matthew would gag, choke and make such a fuss whenever anything textured touched his lips. It was a nightmare to transition him to anything beyond smooth foods. We even went through a period where he’d give trouble even for blended foods he liked. It was nothing short of a nightmare.
For the first time, I wanted to share my family’s experience with extreme food aversions and how it’s affected our lives. Perhaps you’ll gain some insight into what it’s like to have what society calls a “picky eater” and understand the depth of the statement: “My child doesn’t want to eat anything.”
15 Oh, He’s Just Picky
You know the type of child I’m talking about. He’s the one who sits staring at an empty plate at birthday parties, while all of his friends are scarfing down greasy pizza. He’s the one who freaks out when you purchase Multigrain Cheerios instead of the regular ones he’s used to. He’s the only one eating a homemade meal at a restaurant because he literally will not taste a single item of food on the menu. He’s been called the overly picky child, but it goes way beyond that.
He's my child.
A picky eater is defined as an adult or child who refuses foods or eats the same foods over and over again. It usually peaks in the toddler and preschool years. The picky eater will display adversity to trying a wide variety of foods, leading parents to worry about lack of nutrition. But a picky eater and a child with full-out food aversions are very different, as you’ll soon see.
14 It Goes Beyond Picky Eating
Food aversions can be very serious. Kids with food aversions have no troubles going on hunger strikes until the foods they feel comfortable eating are introduced again. The signs of food aversions include:
- Accepting only a narrow range of food choices
- Extreme preferences for certain brands of food
- Anxiety when faced with a new food item
- Failure to thrive
- Swallowing issues or gagging on food
- Will not eat for an entire day if it means trying something new
- Prolonged mealtimes
13 Aversions Aren’t Just With Foods the Kid Hates
We discovered early on that Matthew’s food aversions went way beyond textured foods. He gave us a hard time with literally ANYTHING he ate in those early years between 10 months and toddlerhood. He’d purse his little lips stubbornly together and refuse to open them. He’d turn his face away or grab the spoon from my hand.
So, feeding Matthew took some extra steps. No one wanted to be the unlucky person who was “stuck” feeding him. If I had to have anyone babysit him other than my parents or my in-laws, I would make sure he was fed before I went out. Our lives revolved around his mealtimes and I dreaded every snack and every meal.
“He’s going to be in kindergarten and still eating blended food,” I cried to our family doctor during a desperate moment one afternoon. I even had visions of him attending his prom with a little bowl of mush packed in a container – his date lovingly feeding it to him. “I’m sure he won’t be,” she said reassuringly. Fast-forward almost 5 years later, and our situation is not a whole lot different. And yes, Matthew is still eating mainly blended foods.
12 If We Distract Him, He Will Eat
It got to a point where it took a mountain of toys placed in front of him to get him to eat one bite. I’d cleverly attract his attention with a musical toy in one hand, and shovel food into his mouth with the other. His first impulse was always to turn his face away when he saw the spoon coming at him.
When I did attempt textured foods, I’d need heavy distraction, and more often than not he’d notice the chunks of food and spit it out right away.
In a moment of deep frustration when he was around 18 months of age, I yelled at him while trying my best to spoon-feed Matthew some chopped up pasta. He swiped his little hand and made the entire dish go flying. I sat with my head in my hands, pasta and sauce clinging to the ceiling, and cried. I cried long and I cried hard. He looked at me quizzically, sauce around his mom and pasta hanging from his highchair.
11 Upping Our Game
My husband and I knew the great lengths we were going to in order to entice Matthew to eat were keeping him at a good weight. He was remaining healthy because we were jumping through hoops to ensure it. We also knew our mealtimes were far from “normal.”
The circus of toys, the distraction – it just wasn’t how things should be. We felt like performers who had to keep upping our acts in order to keep our jobs. The montage of toys weren’t enough before long, and TV had to be thrown into it as well. We had helped create a world where absolute distraction had to be used in order for our son to eat. We were at our wits end.
10 Childhood Apraxia of Speech
By the time Matthew hit 2 years old, food wasn’t the only issue we were dealing with. He still wasn’t speaking, and I began to suspect his food troubles and speech troubles may be connected. After doing some extensive research on a serious oral-motor speech disorder called Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), I approached our family doctor and we agreed that this was likely what we were looking at.
CAS affects the planning, sequencing and executing of speech, but only a trained Speech and Language Pathologist could make the official diagnosis. Matthew began speech therapy at just over 2 years of age, and got a formal diagnosis of CAS roughly six months later. Children with CAS tend to have feeding issues, so it was an avenue my husband and I began to readily explore.
9 Occupational Therapy
With speech difficulties now being properly addressed, we had an assessment with an Occupational Therapist to see how we could conquer the textured food aversions. After a two-part visit, the word “sensory” and elements of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) became an important part of our vocabulary. SPD, formerly known as “sensory integration dysfunction” occurs when sensory signals do not get organized into appropriate responses.
You can liken it to a neurological “traffic jam,” that prevents part of the brain from receiving information needed to properly interpret sensory information. SPD can affect multiple senses, or just one sense. You may have a child who spins around and around and has a constant need to move, or one who dives under the table in fear when he hears loud noises.
A simple sock with a seam can cause chafing and much discomfort. Like many illnesses, SPD exists on a spectrum. Matthew didn’t have the full-blown disorder, but definitely had oral aspects of it. His feeding issues displayed oral defensiveness and hypersensitivity surrounding food.
8 Oral Defensiveness and Textured Food
The signs of oral defensiveness include the following, and Matthew definitely had a few on this list.
- Dislikes having teeth brushed and/or face washed
- Has a limited food repertoire and/or may avoid certain food textures - especially mixed textures
- Will take their food off the fork or spoon using only their teeth, keeping their lips retracted
- Will gag easily when eating and may only get food down by taking liquid with it
- May exhibit signs of tactile defensiveness such as; disliking being touched, avoiding messy play
- May not pick up eating utensil or food with a grasp that involves the palm of his hand
Matthew was the kid with his toys always in his mouth (even to this day, at age 5). He was constantly sucking and chewing on his shirt sleeve up until age 4. He continues to have a constant need to bite down on something for comfort.
7 Feeding Therapy
Special feeding therapy began when Matthew was close to 3 and it was a long journey. We had about six government-funded sessions, and the Occupational Therapist tried to reduce his anxiety surrounding trying new foods. He did manage to try a few things he hadn’t before (like cucumber slices), but then he would ONLY try them if the therapist was there.
My husband and I couldn’t manage to duplicate the moment, no matter what we did. When he reached age 4, he was phased out and we had to end the sessions. We continued to try the tactics taught to us in feeding therapy and hoped for the best. We hoped things would “fizzle out” as our family members kept saying they would.
6 The List of Foods is Limited
Like any kid with food aversions, Matthew’s list of “safe” foods continues to be very limited. They include:
- Chocolate chip cookies and honey-graham cookies
- Applesauce, or any blended fruit
- Birthday cake (depending on the flavour)
- Plain bun
- Certain chips
- Peanut butter or chocolate cream cheese sandwiches on whole wheat (and only these sandwiches)
- Blended creamed soups
- French Fries (McDonald’s only)
- Custard/vanilla pudding
- Apple slices, bananas, orange slices
- Powdered dougnuts
- Saltine crackers or Ritz crackers
- Toast with peanut butter
- Cream of wheat
- Froot Loops or Shreddies (and only these brands)
Birthday parties and other social gatherings continue to be very difficult, as most of our own food has to be supplied. A vacation other than an overnight visit has been deemed out of the question until things improve due to the feasibility of trying to pack all of our own meals.
5 Could Daycare Enrollment Help?
It’s been said that peer pressure can sometimes be a good thing. We decided to try Matthew in part-time pre-school in hopes he would start to try new foods. He was lucky enough to have some patient workers, who sat with him at lunchtime and coaxed him to try carrot medallions, rice and even whole pieces of fruit.
Seeing what all the other kids are eating did seem to have a good impact on him and helped prepare him for kindergarten, where he’d have to eat by himself and be more independent. Even today, Matthew remains pretty neutral to the fact that he has food aversions. He is aware that he doesn’t like “chunky food” and is okay with being different in that regard.
4 Starting School
I have never had more anxiety in my life when Matthew was starting junior kindergarten. He was so dependant when it came to mealtimes and the thought of him eating a packed lunch on his own made me cringe. I was at a loss as to what to pack for him.
The only sandwich he’d eat was peanut butter, and due to the number of peanut allergies in the school, all nuts and nut products were banned. The only thing I could think of was putting some soup in a thermos and praying he’d eat it.
For the first few days, the thermos came back untouched. He was spending more time talking than eating (considering he was in speech therapy just prior to starting school, that was ironic in its own right).
3 Using Rewards to Eat
In an effort to encourage Matthew to eat his lunch at school, my husband and I promised him rewards. He’d get stickers after school if he ate at least most of his lunch, or even little toys or lollipops once and awhile. Bit by bit, he began to become more independent and waited for that reward.
I had to ditch the creamed soup idea for lunches and switch to plain buns and he seemed satisfied with this. Much to my dismay, we have been criticized by others for his lunches.
“Why don’t you put something in his bread?” a few parents have asked. “Do you have an hour so I can explain?” I have been known to say. Matthew takes a plain bun as part of his lunch and that’s okay. He is doing what he needs to do and feels safe doing.
The most important thing I’ve learned throughout this food journey is educating oneself is key. If you think there is a problem, there may likely be and it’s worth investigating. I have always been one to take initiative and look for my own solution to things.
I don’t look for problems, but if I know there’s something not right, I’m going to search for a way to fix it. We may not have “fixed” Matthew’s problems, but we’re gradually adding more and more foods to his limited repertoire. We're slowly getting there.
Matthew is 5 years old, and as much as my heart leaps at the thought of him eating hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza and all the other kid-friendly fare on restaurant menus, he’ll get there in his own time, at his own pace. Trying to keep our cool when he refuses foods we think he should be eating has only made things worse.
Letting him know that “chunky” food is safe, delicious and won’t hurt him has gradually helped him make some bolder choices during mealtime. We’ll get there someday, and I no longer worry that Matthew’s prom date will have to feed him a dinner of blended, mushed food.