I was reminded of our family’s running joke of “Foodie Points” last week. It had been quite a while since we’d thought of them. Two years ago food sensitivities for SPD sensory defensive Early Bird was a frequent issue. I know there are families who believe children shall eat everything on their plate, regardless of how the child feels about it. Still others who insist they will not become a “short order cook” and if the kid doesn’t like it they can go hungry, but they can’t have anything else. These approaches seem have constantly proven to not work with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) kids, even if they’re not autistic. There are kids who will literally starve rather than torture themselves with foods that make them miserable, and this isn’t a strong will thing that your child is just trying to get their way with. I think people also tend to forget that a child’s taste buds are very different than adult taste buds, and especially are more sensitive to bitter tastes. I now enjoy as an adult foods that I hated as a child. Eggplant is one example.
There are a lot of examples of adults enjoying foods they hated as kids. Look at your own history or ask around and you’ll probably find examples. Are those all examples of kids just being punks and finally getting their act together as adults, or did their taste buds change and the things finally didn’t taste bad? I believe it’s the latter explanation. So why are we pushing foods on our kids, knowing that their experience with how a dish tastes will be different from our own? How is that setting up a healthy relationship with food? And will continually forcing it on them change their taste buds, or make them more or less likely to be willing to try it as an adult?
And then there is the texture issues. This is the worst part for Early Bird. It used to be an every day occurrence that he would eventually gag on his cereal and have to spit up in the garbage; it had gotten too soggy and his reflex reacted. I did not take this as a personal affront, and never insisted he attempt to finish the cereal. I did break my heart that gagging was just a normal, every day thing for him. We did eventually figure out some ways to keep the cereal from getting soggy too quickly. Using a cup he can pour just a little bit of milk at a time over just some of the cereal. Pouring all the milk in the bowl before adding the cereal also helps delay. And making sure the room is distraction free so he eats quickly also helps. If that doesn’t work for your kid, then little bit of milk poured from a cup is the way to go.
For dinner and textures, the main issue for Early Bird concerning textures is things put together. Like gravy on mashed potatoes, or anything on rice that isn’t butter and garlic salt. It took a minor adjustment for me to cook things separately, leave a portion out for Early Bird, and then mix it for the rest of us. It really isn’t that big a deal; it doesn’t make me a short order cook. It’s made even easier given that I cook our frozen chicken breasts in the Instant Pot.
It’s been several years coming to the point where we are now. Before we knew about autism and SPD, we sometimes tried to force the issue. Unfortunately, Early Bird also has anxiety which made the whole thing worse for him, and us. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon in Builder Boy. Builder Boy is pretty much the exact opposite of Early Bird when it comes to food. We finally figured out recently that Builder Boy, while not having sensory issues big enough to count as SPD, is a sensory seeker when it comes to food. We didn’t know this when they were little; 4 year old Builder Boy only eating scrambled eggs with Tabasco (hot pepper) sauce should have been a clue. I’m convinced Builder Boy’s taste bugs don’t taste things as strongly as a usual child his age. This explains his food adventureness and wiling to eat very spicy or very strong flavors. In fact, he prefers them. This was the little boy who for his 4th birthday wanted to “eat crab!” So when Builder Boy was adventurous and tried a new food, we said he earned “Foodie Points.” It probably helps that the timing coincided with their Gordon Ramsey/Masterchef phase. We never kept track of foodie points, there were no actual rewards. We didn’t put pressure on eating things, gave one point for sniffing, one for touching, and one for licking. 5 points for taking one bite and 10 if you liked it and ate more; but no overt pressure. Just the happy celebration if they did. And we tried to encourage a “that’s okay” attitude if the person just couldn’t get themselves to try something. Like when Daddy just couldn’t bring himself to try the escargot. Bless that man, he made an effort. He got foodie points for touching his tongue to the cooked snail. But he just couldn’t bring himself to bite it. Surprisingly, Early Bird did! And liked it so much he had a second one!
That seemed to be the turning point for Early Bird. We established a long enough track record of no pushing and respecting his no. In turn he got more comfortable trying new things. Sometimes just a bite, and the rest his usual way. We started going on “Food Adventures” to restaurants with different ethnic cuisines, and I got more daring about trying new things at home. But he rarely freaks out now if foods accidentally touch, and he’s out of the habit of an anxiety feedback loop. Maturity with age probably also gets some of the credit for this, but he’s doing great. Still eats his gravy on the side of his mashed potatoes, but that doesn’t hurt anyone.