Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Diary of a picky eater

Veggie AbundanceImage by apple_pathways via Flickr
To say my daughter is a picky eater is like saying that the haboob in Phoenix was a poof of dust.  To say she is petite is like saying Michael Jordan was a pretty good basketball player.  Still, she is healthy and her pediatrician has not been worried about her, knowing that kids won't let themselves starve.  Ethel is simply at the low end of the weight range, but is growing and thriving and doing everything that a six year old should, including being a picky eater.

As a childhood picky eater, myself, I get the idea of not liking most anything that is served.  As a mom, I was really excited when my kids devoured everything I made them when I began making baby food and slowly introducing solid foods.  I learned a lot about food from making baby food and began to really enjoy cooking in general, so cooking for the kids was actually fun.  Cooking for the family, then, was a pleasure.  I made everything for the kids essentially from scratch and made sure not to use or serve boxed, processed foods until I got pregnant and realized the ease of mac & cheese in the box.  But that's another story, I digress.

The trouble with Ethel and picky eating began when she was a toddler, about 15 months old, even before her brother was born.  Her teacher came to me to let me know that they were having to work with Ethel on coming to the table at lunch time.  She was refusing to come to the table because there were vegetables on the plates, including hers.  She slowly started to eliminate orange, green, and yellow foods from her diet about that time.  OK, lots of kids reject veggies, no worries.  Even I don't like vegetables, so how could I blame her?  Still, I had stepped up my own vegetable intake hoping to be a better example for her, guess that didn't work.  OK, I can live with a kid that doesn't like veggies, and we moved on, and got her finally to come to the table at day care despite what was being served.

Next came the elimination of many more foods over the next couple of years.  Cottage cheese, spaghetti sauce, cheese quesadillas, fried rice, meat, scrambled eggs, Mommy's home made chicken nuggets and mac & cheese, PB&J, soup, oh why am I even trying to list it out?  The list of foods she will eat is so much shorter.  Sure, that's the case with most sixes, but, no, this list isn't even 10 items long.

I've asked her pediatrician at each check up if we need to worry about her limited diet, and she has always held that Ethel has a growth curve, she meets all the developmental milestones, and is thriving despite her limited diet.  From a physical health standpoint, her limited diet is not a concern.  OK, I'm cool with that.

While the limited diet isn't a physical concern, I also was not going to become a short order cook, making a different dinner for Ethel.  So I tried all the expert tips.  Serve it a thousand times and she'll eventually try it.  Make sure there is at least one thing on her plate that she likes and you know she'll eat.  Try a 'one bite' rule so she has to take one bite of everything served.  Hide the veggies in sauces and dips and in other foods.  OK, I tried them all, and then some.  Ethel has never dipped.  She stopped eating sauces.  She finally stopped even coming into the dining room when I served food she didn't like.  OK, now how do you serve food to a kid who won't even enter the room?? 
I slowly became more and more frustrated.  She now sustains on pasta (plain noodles), cereal (about four kinds), oatmeal, Nutella on whole wheat (no crust), Mac & Cheese (sometimes, it's falling out of favour), yogurt (smooth only), milk, water, juice, certain kinds of crackers, and fruit (which fruit depends on which way the wind is blowing).

So a limited diet is what I face with my daughter, and I tried to be OK with that.  Then I started to see her reject foods from this small list, even when she's just eaten them the day before.  Then, this past school year, she dreaded going to day care on her school days off because she said she doesn't like the lunches.  The lunches.  Forget seeing friends, forget a change of scenery, forget that she doesn't have a choice, she doesn't want to go because of the lunches.  20-30 minutes of her day makes her want to skip it altogether.  Fab.  That's awesome.  And that's just what a mom wants to hear on a Monday morning when she's trying to get her kids out the door and not be late to work.

She survived the few days during the school year when she had to "endure" the day at day care.  Next came summer vacation, when she'd be there three full days a week.  Oh, the tears and drama.  And all because of the lunches.  The food.  She was dreading summer at day care because of the food.  Holy hell.

Summer came and I explained to her that the food is not the same as it was last summer, and to give it a try.  I told her just to eat the foods she liked and leave the rest.  Just eat something.  And she did.  She did fine for the first few weeks.  Then she started to slip again.  Not every day, but she began to say she didn't want to go to day care again, because of the lunches.  Ugh!!

We had food struggles at home as soon as school let out.  When I said we were having X for snack (something on her list), she yelled and told me no, she wanted Z.  When I said we were having lunch in 10 minutes, she told me no, she wanted lunch NOW.  When I said we were eating dinner now, she said no, I don't want dinner yet.  If I said the sky was blue, she said it was black.  You get the idea.

One night she refused noodles.  At a sleep over at friends' (whom she knows well), she ate nothing at dinner or breakfast, despite the offer for all foods she knowingly eats (cereal, milk, toaster waffles).  She became more and more resistant and defiant when food was the subject.  Finally, she demanded that I make her a lunch to take on a play date where she would be during the lunch hour.  She claimed that they would not have food that she liked.  Now it was blatant that she was using food as a control item, but I had no idea what she felt was out of control, and why it was manifesting in food.  Great.

This brings us to where were are today.  This week on Monday she battled me in the morning about going to day care.  She wouldn't get out of bed, wouldn't get dressed, wouldn't even eat breakfast.  We were a little later than normal when we got to day care, and she was c.l.i.n.g.y.  Another thing she's started in the last few weeks.  I just couldn't seem to win on Monday morning.  What a great way to start the week.

So Monday night when I got home from work, Ethel reported to me that a good friend told her and another girl that he'd never play with them again.  OK, how many times have we heard that from a kid before?  I told her he would play with her again, not to worry, and that was the end of that.  Then we had dinner.  I grilled a pork loin, served it with apple sauce and apple slices for the kids, and a piece of bread for each of them.  Ethel ate her apples, then the bread, then asked for more bread.  I told her no bread until she ate all her apple sauce and tried a piece of the meat. 

Did you see The Exorsist?  Well, we witnessed it right in our own dining room that night, minus a few points.  Yelling, crying, stomping, running out of the room, you name it.  She refused to even look at the meat, and demanded that we give her another piece of bread.  After 20 or 30 minutes of yelling and being locked in her room for screaming, etc, she finally came downstairs, still crying, but, she willed herself to put a piece of meat in her mouth, chew one time, and then spit it out and put it back on the plate.

SHE TRIED A PIECE OF MEAT!!!!  She hasn't tried something new in at least two years, I kid you not.  Wow!!  We praised her, gave her another piece of bread, and the drama ended.  Then came bed time.  Oh my.

I told her the next day was a swimming field trip to a pool she liked when they went a couple weeks ago.  I laid out her swim suit and told her we'd put on sun screen in the morning before leaving for day care.  She refused.  The "I don't want to" and "I won't go there again" and the "I don't like it at {day care}", she rattled them all off for me, crying.  Again, it was because of the lunches, she doesn't like the lunches, even the ones they take on the field trips.  WTF??  I calmly talked to her and asked her why the lunches are so terrible that she would want to not even go on the field trip.  What could be so bad about it?  That's when she tried to tell me that, in her words, they force her to eat the lunches, she doesn't like what they give her, and there's nothing she likes when they go on the field trips.  This went on for a bit, then she told me, through tears, that she misses me during the day.  Ethel has never said this to me, and is not the kid who pines away for their Mommy.  I was so taken aback by this!

After promising her that I'd talk to the director and let her know Ethel is having a tough time with the food, Ethel finally went to sleep for the night.

Tuesday morning it was nearly impossible to get her up.  She only wanted to lay down, despite the fact that it was a pool field trip that day!  Took her forever to get into her suit and down to breakfast, where she took two bites of her fav cereal, then left the table to lie down again.  Not typical for her, but I knew she wasn't sick.  In my gut, I knew that she had gotten herself so worked up that her stomach had to be in knots.  I refused to keep her home, and took her in anyway.  When we got to day care, she again wanted to lay down, and she did.  I talked to one of the teachers, one who has known Ethel since she was an infant (and was the tollder teacher when Ethel started refusing to come to the table).  I explained that I didn't believe Ethel was sick, but that this was some sort of anxiety related thing, and she'd be OK once they went on their field trip.  I explained to her that I'd call the director to discuss Ethel saying she is forced to eat, and the fact that her focus on food is starting to interfere with her daily life (and mine!).  The teacher agreed and said she's also let the director know.

8:20AM - voice mail from day care - Ethel threw up.  No fever. 

Now my kid has thrown up, most likely from the anxiety of not wanting to eat that day (and in the past).  She has built this up over time, and it finally came out like this.  Oh my.  I agreed to come take her home.

I called my husband on the way there and told him we definitely have to figure this out.  We have to get to the bottom of whatever it is that is making Ethel exhibit control through food, and experience this anxiety over going places because of food.  He agreed.  Once I got to day care, I talked for a long time with the director. 

She immediately agreed that Ethel has always been a picky eater, but, for her to take it to the level of not wanting to go places because of food, it's much more than just being picky.  The director had already talked to the teachers, already had some ideas about what might be going on in Ethel's mind, and we shared thoughts, ideas, and she shared a few things she's witnessed with Ethel recently which make more sense now that we were talking in this context.  I really felt like it was a productive conversation about how to best help Ethel in a team effort rather than just one of us having a game plan and giving it to the other.  She agreed that they would not ask Ethel to try more food than she's willing to eat voluntarily.  She also agreed to let Ethel have a comfort item (something Ethel has never had or wanted before) so that she can help soothe herself when she is feeling the need to do so.  I also told the director that I would be engaging a psychologist or psychiatrist to help me understand what is happening with my little girl, and she agreed that would be a good step.  She also agreed that Ethel could return today since we had talked and we know Ethel was not "sick", and also because we didn't want to collectively give her the signal that she can get away with "being sick" when she is not comfortable or is anxious.

We talked, also, about the fact that the camp class this summer spans a broad range in ages, from 5 to almost 12.  It's not a huge group, but that's a large difference in ages.  She told me she notices Ethel trying to find her niche in the group, to figure out which kids (the older or younger) she relates to more, where she fits in.  She also filled me in on the friend who said he wouldn't play with her any more.  Turns out, Ethel told on him when they were playing, and in return, he said he didn't want to play with her.  That makes more sense to me.  So now we've identified social interactions and situations where Ethel may be seeking control, but can't quite find it.  She's out of her comfort zone, and is trying desperately to find her way back to it.  Ah ha!

I got Ethel from her classroom and took her home.  Instantly she was energetic, smily, and glad to be going home.  All definitive signs that she was truly not sick.  :)

I worked from home the balance of the day, taking a break here or there to tend to her request for another snack, drink, or to color in a coloring book. She was relaxed and happy all day, and happy to see Daddy and Fred when they came home after their day at work and day care.  She sat with us at dinner and ate her plain noodles and milk, and drank a little of the smoothie I made before deciding she didn't like it.  Bed time was also without incident, and I prepared her for returning to day care in the morning.

Her day at day care today was fine, and she enjoyed the field trip they went on.  I left a voice mail for the psychiatrist whose name I was given.  Then she told me at dinner she didn't like Mac & Cheese, but only after taking a few bites.  There's still something there, something she's not verbalizing, but at least I know she ate a little before throwing in the towel.

In the end, I am fine with my daughter being a picky eater.  If she spends the next 10 years eating only cereal and buttered noodles, more power to her.  What I'm worried about is the fact that something is driving her to use food as a control vehicle, and I can't identify what it is.  We're on our way to getting to the bottom of it, and hopefully she won't be making herself sick over it any more.
And Mommy hopes there's enough coffee and wine to help her through this!