I’ve written a lot about my 11-year-old, Joey. I’ve talked about his profound speech delay, his incredible memory, his social issues, taking him out of public school, and putting him in a private school for kids with special needs. He sees a play therapist and attends a social skills groups. He is thriving in his new school. We are very proud of the decisions we have made for him.
There’s one issue, however, that we’ve always swept under the rug—his extreme picky eating. He eats about a dozen foods. He picks things apart before eating them. He wants to be healthy and loves apples and cantaloupe, but won’t try new healthy (or even unhealthy) foods.
We’ve always tackled the most pressing issues first. Food wasn’t one of them. I guess we assumed that eventually he’d start trying new foods when his friends started to ask him why he brought the exact same lunch—chicken nuggets, string cheese, a sliced red apple, Lays potato chips, and a dessert—every day. He didn’t.
When I brought him to the doctor for his 11-year check-up, the nurse told me he had gained half a pound that year. I talked to his play therapist about it. She said that if we wanted to challenge him to eat different foods, we were going to have to use a behavioral approach and it would definitely make mealtimes less enjoyable. As it is, we have three kids (including a toddler). I’m thrilled if we all sit at the table eating together for 15 minutes. Adding this drama to our family seemed too overwhelming to even consider.
One day, while bringing my 2-year-old to Shabbat at the local JCC, I met an occupational therapist. She specializes in feeding/food issues and comes once per month to answer questions from parents about their kids’ eating habits. I talked to her about my picky toddler—she had some book recommendations and some great ideas. On the way home, I called my mom. I told her how excited I was to get started exploring foods with the baby, and how great this therapist’s advice was.
“Maybe she can help with Joey,” my mom said.
OF COURSE—why hadn’t I thought of that? Why is my mom always right?
I called the therapist the following week. I told her about Joey and she said she was absolutely able to help. I filled out her food history questionnaire and we scheduled the first session. She would come to the house one hour per week to work with him.
I sat down with Joey and told him about it. He instantly teared up.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“Listen buddy,” I told him. “This is about your health. Daddy and I want you to be as healthy as possible. No one is going to force you do to anything you don’t want to do. It’s OK to be anxious or emotional about this. I would be, too.”
With that, he had a few days to get used to the idea. I’ve found that’s better than springing it on him. I couldn’t wait to get started. The night before she came I dreamt about it. I dreamt that we talked and she gave me so much advice that she finally turned to me and said, “I have to go now, I’ve been here for three hours.”
I was certain he’d be standoffish and uncooperative. He’s 11 after all. He did not want to be doing this.
She showed up. He made eye contact with her and smiled. He followed her outside to do a physical activity of his choosing. He chose a pogo stick out of her car. They were laughing outside whenever I peeked, while I tried to entertain my toddler.
Then they came inside. She explained that they were going to be doing food science. She would bring a food out of her bag and they’d explore it. She had a chart they would fill out about the color, size, shape, texture, smell, and taste. She told him he didn’t have to taste anything he didn’t want to. He was also welcome just to put it to his lips if he didn’t want to take a bite.
She started with potato chips. He was game. They filled out the chart together, deciding it was yellow, crunchy, salty, etc. Then she brought out a series of six foods for him to explore. I was desperately trying to hear everything that was going on from the playroom, but my daughter found her dancing, singing, Snoopy toy and played it on repeat. I think she knew I was up to something.
Then I heard him agree to taste a carrot stick. I could not believe it. He laughed with her that it was crunchy like a chip, but definitely not as tasty. He was charming and sweet. He was cooperative and playful. I was insanely proud of him.
He did not try the American cheese, granola bar, or orange juice. The one food that made him absolutely turn away from the table was ketchup. He wouldn’t even look at her when she brought that out. But he played along when she described it. He even got out of his chair and looked over her shoulder while she manipulated it with a spoon.
Then they were done. I swooped into the kitchen and listened to what they had discovered about the foods today. She told Joey that he did great. He got up from the table and said to her, “See you next week!” and bounced upstairs to play his (much deserved) video games.
That night when I put him to bed, I told Joey how proud of him I was. He said, “It was much better than I thought it was going to be.”
Me too kid, me too.