Imagine you are visiting a new country. You are staying with a friendly group of people that enjoy fried grasshoppers as part of their culture and cuisine. They love fried grasshoppers. Watching these people crunch into the big, juicy grasshoppers with bits of legs and tentacles breaking off makes your stomach turn. Sometimes during mealtimes, you feel like gagging, as you are not familiar with this food. They keep telling you how delicious the grasshoppers are, and they constantly pressure you to just “try it”.
New foods are like fried grasshoppers to kids with feeding issues; they are scared of the food. The sight of a new food might make their stomach turn. They may gag or even vomit when pushed to “try” a new food. Foods that are familiar to you and me, like carrots, berries, and pasta might look like fried grasshoppers to a child with a feeding disorder. These kids do not have the same frame of reference that we do when presented with a new food. As experienced adults, we know how carrots taste and crunch and behave in our mouth; however, to a child with severe picky eating, a carrot can be terrifying.
Now imagine that you lived among this group of lovely people for many months and you continued to participate in group (family) mealtimes and watch them eat fried grasshoppers. Perhaps in time you would be able to watch them eat the grasshoppers without feeling like gagging. Maybe you would be able to have a fried grasshopper near you on a side plate? In time, you might feel comfortable to poke the fried grasshopper with a fork or your finger to see what the texture was like…maybe you would progress to breaking it apart to have a look inside. After repeated exposures, you might progress to smelling it, licking it, or taking a tiny bite and spitting it into a napkin. Who knows? Perhaps after several tries, having watched others eat and enjoy the crunchy little critters, you might eventually eat fried grasshoppers and learn to enjoy them. If you did reach the point of eating and enjoying the grasshoppers, it would be because you were in control: you gradually learned to accept this new cuisine at your own pace, through repeated exposure, family meals, and small sensory steps. You were not pushed, forced, or tricked to “try it.”
Eating a new food can create a great deal of stress and anxiety for kids. As adults we are often focused on the final step of accepting a new food: The Chew and Swallow Step. There are many smaller steps that kids can accomplish before chewing and swallowing a new food. When we constantly say “try it” to kids, there is an expectation that they will chew and swallow the food…this can be waaaayyyy too big of a step for many kids. As soon as we say, “try it”, we have introduced pressure and per my previous blogs, the research has demonstrated that pressuring kids to eat doesn’t work…in fact it makes food refusal worse.
Here’s another example: If you were terrified of heights and you sought to overcome your fear, you would likely not want to start your therapeutic journey by going to the top of the CN Tower in Toronto and looking down to the ground through the glass floor. That would be waaaayyyy too big of a step. Perhaps you could start by standing on stepping stool in your kitchen, then progressing to a chair, the stair-landing, then the second level at the mall. Maybe over time you would feel ready to climb a lighthouse or go up to a rooftop restaurant. In time and with repeated exposure and desensitization, you might one day feel ready to venture to the top of the CN Tower…but I wouldn’t recommend it as a first step toward overcoming your fear. The same principle applies to kids and their fear of new foods.
I counsel parents to try not to always focus on the final step, if they do, they will often feel like they are failing. Instead, I encourage them to identify which step their child is achieving. At which step their child is being successful? Can they touch foods without being distressed? If parents respond no, I ask them “If you were too scared to touch something, is there any way you would put it in your mouth?”
Kids need to work through each sensory step in order to feel comfortable enough to put the food in their mouth. For example, once a child is able to touch and squish foods, parents can focus on reaching the next step of smelling foods. They can do this by modelling smelling versus prompting (aka pressuring) their child to “try it.” They can have fun with food by making food moustaches and encouraging their child to bring the food toward their nose and mouth in a fun, low-pressure way.
Slowly but surely, I see kids move through the steps and inch toward eating new foods.
1. Not all foods will be at the same step (your child may kiss carrots, but only touch and smell apples).
2. Kids may stay at one step for quite a long time (your child may lick foods for weeks).
3. Model the step that follows the step your child is achieving (if they are smelling, model kissing).
4. Play with food! Make it fun! (“I can kiss my carrots! I can squish my peas.” “I made a noodle moustache!”)
5. Celebrate small successes. Try not to say “try it”. Try not to always focus on the final step.