Learning to Eat

I wrote this for my magazine article writing class in ’06.

My son gnaws on rocks, chews on stairs, sucks on muddy shoes, but offer him a plate of mashed potatoes, and he’ll shove it away and gape at you as if to say, “What are you, NUTS?!”

Will started out like an ordinary kid. Up until four or five months he progressed normally, but then a parade of ear infections impeded his development. Over the next year Will had his adenoids removed, tubes inserted twice, and much to Will’s dismay, cleaned out several times. He also began an allergy medicine regimen.

From 12 to 18 months Will didn’t gain a pound. He dropped right off the weight percentage chart, and his pediatrician diagnosed him “failure to progress.”  After approximately 10,000 tests (okay maybe only 500 or so), scores of trips to the hospital, and some Googling by three dedicated pediatricians, it became clear that Will had a zinc deficiency. Apparently large amounts of antibiotics will do that.

Will’s zinc deficiency became fantastic news because unlike almost everything else he tested for, this is easily curable. You simply feed your kid more meat! Ahh, ha,ha,ha,ha,ha—are you kidding me?! My son wouldn’t touch meat if it bit him on the leg! Seriously!

Thankfully we soon heard more good news, nowadays balanced pediatric nutrition drinks are available, and even though they smell like horse vomit, Will loves them. He drinks one a day, eats a junior vitamin, and we mix instant breakfast powder into his milk.

Pumped full of calories, vitamins, and nutrition, over the next two months Will thrilled and amazed us all by battling his way up to the 20th weight percentile, a huge victory and a huge relief for all of us. Finally our son would be “healthy and normal,” or so I thought. I soon found that the past year and a half had taken quite a toll on Will’s psyche.

Eating punished Will for so long that he’d developed serious textural issues about food. I thought that all kids loved pasta, but my kid’s Mac and cheese instinct was missing. Will thrived on crackers and pretzels, pudding and yogurt. He accepted anything dry, crisp, or pureed but refused any texture in between.

His father and I nourished him as best we could within these parameters, but knew that we were not doing a good job. Other than the nutrition drinks and vitamins, Will existed on chips, popcorn, nuts, baby food, applesauce, and other similar foods. Something had to change. Will needed to develop eating habits that would sustain him throughout his life.

At one point I decided enough was enough. The time had come for him to eat real food. I’d heard over and over that picky eaters were eager for power, and if children get hungry enough, they will eventually eat what’s put in front of them.

For a day or two I geared myself up with some big talk, and Sylvester Stallone–style air boxing. I could certainly handle a power struggle!  After all, I was the grown–up here, right?  I ought to be able to outwit a one-year-old!

Bring it on! I created the most appetizing pancakes I could, full of squashed bananas and chocolate chips. I knew that in no time at all Will would be won over by my amazing culinary masterpieces.

At breakfast time I put Will in his chair and told him to get ready for a special treat. He giggled and clapped with glee. So did I. Then I brought a plate of beautiful, warm pancakes over to my anxious son whose face immediately furrowed into confusion. “Where’s the treat, Mom?” he seemed to say, “I thought this was gonna be good.”

Undeterred I took a bite and told him how delicious it tasted. Will’s authoritative stare told me he knew I’d lost it. He let out a knowing sigh and reached out his hand. After one tentative finger found pancakes were a bread-like texture, Will wanted nothing more to do with them.

For one entire day I offered him just water and pancakes. I chopped them up, I left them intact; I covered them with syrup, and tried leaving them dry; I gave him control of the fork, and offered to help him with it; I stood by for encouragement, and tried leaving him alone for a while. Nothing worked. As the day ended, I counted my losses, gave him a little milk, and put him to bed.

I called all my girlfriends for reinforcement. They all assured me I was doing the right thing and tomorrow would be better. I’d lost the battle but refused to concede the war.

The next morning I arose refreshed and ready to go again. I made a brand new batch of pancakes. At breakfast Will took one look at the pancakes and whimpered softly. I tried to be tough and unfeeling, but I didn’t see defiance in my son. He wasn’t looking for power, and by the middle of the second day my heart ached for the sad eyes that said to me, “Why are you starving me?  Why won’t you bring me some food?”

By dinner I decided my girlfriends didn’t know everything. This was not war. Something else was wrong, and I wanted work with my son to correct the problem than to fight him. On that note I went to the cupboard and brought out some pureed carrots and applesauce. And with the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas, Will devoured the offerings.

I now recognize a myth: Eating is instinctive to children; children will not starve. This is not true! While sucking and swallowing is instinctive, eating is a complex learned behavior. For some children, maintaining a stable position in space takes priority over chewing or drinking which require a change of balance. Others feel that breathing is compromised by swallowing. At first, my son’s chronic congestion complicated eating beyond his capacity. Then later the anxiety and stress associated with eating were so ingrained in my son that, for him, trying new foods wasn’t possible.

After floundering in the dark for a while, Will’s father and I started collecting information from pediatricians, counselors, research, and Early Intervention (A therapy program for children under age three).

Our first goal became to stop Will’s grazing. Up to this point we’d let him snack all day long in the hopes that he would eat enough food. I anticipated two or three weeks of struggle, but imagine my delight when my son happily conformed to an eating schedule within a single day! And the bonus is he eats more when on a schedule.

The next goal was for Will to eat only when sitting at the table. Again we found that he appreciated the consistency and ate better.  He even conjured up some interest in using utensils and a cup without a lid.

Our ongoing project is to increase his tolerance for different foods. We’ve learned a lesson about consistency. Will eats each meal off the same kind of plate, the super-cheap paper plates from the dollar store. Both his grandmas and the babysitter have a stash.

At each meal we dish him a small portion of the same foods we are eating, but we also give him some of the foods he is comfortable with. We try to match colors and shapes when possible. For instance: he loves fish crackers, so we serve them with mandarin oranges, hoping the fish make the oranges appear less threatening.

We play with food a lot too. We do just about anything to get the food closer to his mouth. I’m sure that someone eavesdropping on dinnertime at our house would think we’re loopy!  We push hotdog pieces around with our noses. We walk lettuce up our arms. We squish macaroni between our fingers. As a result, Will has expanded his food repertoire to include apples, whole bananas, peanut butter, pineapple, chewy granola bars, and other things.

At the end of the meal comes the all important “throwing away of the food” ceremony. We bring the garbage can to Will, and one by one he throws away each food item left on his plate. This trick makes food less threatening, because he knows it’s going away. He’s almost always willing to touch it in order to get rid of it. Sometimes he’ll even blow it or kiss it into the garbage can. We whoop and holler at that.

Will is turning two next week.  After a year without change, he is finally progressing. Each victory is real. I reach for patience each day and keep working for normalcy. Maybe by the time Will goes to first grade he’ll be ready to tackle school lunch. Maybe that’s asking too much. We’ll see. Oh, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to go celebrate, Will just licked a piece of cheese!


2 responses to this post.

  1. I would suggest that you let your audience know that many of these crazy ideas – the playing with the food, for instance, were a part of that early intervention program. They may feel it is more worthy than if it were just something you guys dreamed up. I know you mention that you sought advice from many places. Just a thought.


    • You make a very good point. And to anyone, with children under age 3 that seam to be a little behind their peers in one way or another, please find Early Intervention in your area. Their influence has been invaluable to my family!!!


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