“I was talking with a friend, who is an occupational therapist who specializes in pediatric feeding. We were discussing when kids refuse to eat what’s served, why that happens, what’s going on, and what we can do.
Because let’s be real, it’s really frustrating, particularly when the food served is all food the child has eaten before without issue and suddenly refuses to touch. Nobody wants to be a short-order cook for mealtime. Some may be fine with that but in our family, it just isn’t possible. (Both parents work, we have seven children, lots of things going on after school, etc.) But we also want to be respectful of our children and not have anybody going hungry.
Both of us have a level of a negative association with food, from either being forced to eat something we didn’t like (whether it was just in that moment or an ongoing dislike for something) or having to go hungry if we didn’t eat what was served. We don’t want to hand down our unhealthy attitudes or hangups pertaining to food but we also want our children to have the nutrition they need.
Here’s what my friend, Marissa Anderson, MOT OTR/L trained in the Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) approach to feeding has to say:
‘As this is one of my personal soapboxes, both as a professional, a parent, and a parent of an autistic child, here are my thoughts. It’s a book!
It’s not unusual for humans to not be hungry all the time. There are certainly days I come home from work and don’t eat ‘dinner.’ However, as an adult, I’ll probably still have ice cream (gasp!) or a snack later once my kids are in bed. I don’t save myself a dinner plate and make sure I eat that first.
Here is food for thought (pun intended). We were all raised differently and since babies don’t come with instruction manuals, we often muddle around to the best of our ability to ‘make things work.’
As an OT who specializes in feeding, I can tell you the idea ‘kids will eat when they’re hungry’ is basically a bunch of malarkey. Granted, most of the kids I work with are neurodiverse, but not all are.
I have worked with the kids who will, and have, ended up in the hospital for malnutrition despite being ‘hungry.’
Sometimes they can’t eat due to immature oral motor skills, missed tethered Oral tissue, diagnoses, anxiety, poor regulation, and/or a whole host of physiological or neurological reasons.
Often children have a specific number of foods they will eat. I refer to these as their ‘safe’ foods. These are foods they figured out how to eat at some point and will continue to fall back on. Often these foods all share a characteristic, such as being crunchy starches which are one of the easiest food groups to eat. Sometimes they don’t seem to have a common thread, but somehow the child felt safe and supported when exposed to those foods and is able to eat them.
When anxiety and stress exist, there is a natural physiologic response, including appetite suppression. NO ONE CAN HELP IT. Along with this appetite suppression, you are also creating neurological connections. For example, if your child is severely stressed over the presentation of broccoli and is crying, not only are they no longer hungry but their brain has now been wired to feel stressed whenever broccoli is presented. It’s neurochemistry. We can overcome it and re-train those connections using a steady, supportive approach without pressure to help re-associate positive emotions with food. While it may only take one negative exposure incident to lose a food or make it ‘scary,’ it almost always takes MANY positive exposures to overwrite the negative one.
The brain is also good at making associations. If broccoli is unsafe, that means other green foods might be too! Or tree-shaped foods! Or foods with visible spices!
As the parent of three children, we keep meals as low stress as possible. I fully admit to being a human being and I become upset when the food I worked to prepare isn’t eaten and children request alternative options.
I take a deep breath and remind myself my 1, 4, and 6 year-olds literally do not have the brain development to ‘intentionally manipulate’ me. That is inferring adult brain capacity on someone who simply doesn’t have it. Sometimes I have to remind my amygdala of that because it reactions to emotions and stress just like my children do. Fortunately, I DO have the ability and capacity to think through that, regulate my own emotions, and provide my children with the support they need to keep their experience positive. It had been a huge learning curve for my husband especially, who was required to eat foods as a child which even now, as an adult, make him gag.
In feeding therapy, parents are instructed to use ‘family mealtime’ as much as they realistically can, so everyone is offered the same foods and is eating them together. To offer a protein, a fruit or veggie, and starch at every meal — AND to ensure one of those foods is ALWAYS one of their child’s ‘safe foods.’ Some nights, the child only eats the starch. Some, the fruit and some, the protein. From a nutrition perspective, it evens out in the end.
In my house, there is also a standing ‘alternative food’ option, which is usually something like a granola bar, a cheese stick, or applesauce. Thus, I do not become a short-order cook, but no one sits at the table crying or goes to bed hungry.’
One of the things we have found helps a lot is involving our children in meal planning and preparing. When they are comfortable with their kitchen skills, they’re welcome to be their own short-order cook and make a meal they will enjoy.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessica and Jeremy Martin-Weber of We’re All Human Here. The article originally appeared here. Follow We’re All Human Here on Instagram here. The article originally appeared here. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribe to our best love stories here.
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