I think most, if not all parents have struggled at one point in time or another to get their toddler or preschooler to eat new foods. The smell, appearance, texture and taste all play into the decision making of your child. Most experts agree that exposure is key. What a lot of parents don’t understand though, is that we’re not playing baseball here. The three strike rule does not apply. A child needs to be exposed to a new food between 20 and 30 times before they truly decide whether or not they like the food. Furthermore, it is important to expose the food and allow your child to interact with that food - whether it be seeing, smelling it, touching it or even playing with it - in different ways.
However, if you have a child with special needs, such as Autism, it is said to take up to ten times longer! That’s 200 - 300 exposures! Furthermore, it is ill advised to serve the same meal two days in a row when working on food goals with ANY child. We all crave variety, including children. So that means AT THE MOST, you should be serving one specific food to a child 183 times in a year (every other day). Does that put into scope the steepness of the mountain special needs parents are forced to climb with their children? Let's take a hard stop for a moment to let that sink in.
Enter Ethan. Ethan has survived for almost five years now on nothing but Veggie Straws, Goldfish Crackers, Soft (store bought) Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies and/or Bread, Lays Cheddar & Sour Cream Chips and Chicken Nuggets.
Do you know what the most frustrating thing for me has been? For the longest time he wouldn’t even try, let alone eat foods that are universally safe and fun for kids. Like ice cream. Or cupcakes or birthday cake for that matter. Ethan’s had four birthday cakes so far in his young life, and I’ve eaten his piece every single time.
Last summer, we went on our first family vacation. Everything was new, which is a VERY scary situation for a child with Autism - and scarier still for their parents. A tradition that began when I was a child Ethan’s age was to stop at D Dutchman Dairy, arguably the best ice cream shop in the province, literally located on a dairy farm. As we drove, I told the kids stories about this place, I answered their questions and everyone got excited for this summer time treat of fresh ice cream served in made-to-order waffle cones. Well, everyone except for Ethan. He was terrified. He didn’t want to be left out, but a special summer vacation activity that revolved around a new food was not “fun” in his world.
When we got there, he played with the toys, he walked up to a cow, he chased some chickens and we all ran around having fun, but when we entered the small ice cream shop, he had a meltdown like no other. We quickly ordered cones for the rest of us and went to sit outside. But then something snapped. After watching the rest of us devour our ice cream cones, Ethan suddenly wanted to try one. I reached for my camera faster than I ever have before, because I knew I wouldn’t believe it myself, if he tried ice cream and I didn’t have proof. Sure enough… he did!
Exposure. Exposure. Exposure. We have wasted SO MUCH food in the last few years, it’s sickening. Our therapists cringe already when we start talking about introducing new tactics into our food therapy goals. I have made food for Ethan and his therapists just for them to LOOK at. I have made food for Ethan to PLAY with. I have made food for Ethan that hasn’t even made it onto his plate. I have made specific food for the rest of us to eat, while Ethan just watched us eat it.
But Ethan is not a picky eater… he is a “problem feeder”.
Never heard this term before? Neither had I, until I was catapulted into the world of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Picky eaters have a menu of more than 30 foods. Problem feeders have less than 20. Ethan has five. Picky eaters will occasionally “drop” favourite foods, but reintroduce them a short time later. Problem feeders drop favourite foods and never go back to them. Ethan has done this several times. Picky eaters may not TRY a new food, but they will tolerate it being on their plate. Problem feeders have a meltdown if they see a new food on their plate and it may ruin the entire meal for them. I can’t tell you how many times Ethan has thrown his plate at me because I added one new food beside his preferred items. He would rather not eat at all, then to even LOOK at a new food on his plate.
The list goes on, but I think this gives you a glimpse of the differences between “picky eaters” and “problem feeders”. We have seen multiple dieticians, doctors, occupational therapists and the like. I know all the tricks. I’ve received all the advice. I could write a blog on all of the… oh wait, nevermind!
The favourite “go to” solution of most dieticians and occupational therapists is “food chaining”. Food chaining is where you start with your child's favourite or preferred food, and take steps of minor, subtle changes that eventually lead to a goal or target food. The most common examples that dieticians and therapists will give you to start is to change the brand of the item. So instead of McDonald’s chicken nuggets, you try buying a frozen brand such as Trader Joe’s, Tyson or Jane’s. From there you might try a different shape, a different breading or if you dare - breaded fish nuggets or bites. Once that is tolerated you move on to your final chain and offer your child plain white fish.
We tried food chaining. It didn’t work. We didn't even come close to the chain that leads you to fresh fish! Ethan will occasionally eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger, so we bought him a Wendy’s cheeseburger. He gagged and threw up. We bought an A&W baby burger. He took one look at it and pushed it off the table. Remember, 200 - 300 exposures. At $3 per cheeseburger that’s close to $1,000 in wasted food, just to get Ethan to try a new BRAND of cheeseburger!!! It wasn't worth it. We now own shares in McDonald's.
The other examples we were given I just laughed at. I was expected to convince him to chain his Lay's Cheddar & Sour Cream chips into a fresh banana. This wouldn’t even work on ME!!!
So, I fought and fought and fought. And then I finally gave up. Yup, you heard me right. I fucking gave up! It was causing me so much stress and frustration and effort and time, and he isn’t even my most severe special needs child! Keep in mind I’ve got two others who need me constantly too! So I threw in the towel. His pediatrician assured me that as long as he was gaining and growing, he was fine. Not “healthy”, but fine. No one really knew where he was getting his nutrients and vitamins and essentials from, but with a team of six doctors and therapists constantly surrounding him, I felt confident he wasn’t going to die. So I quit. I filled his bowls of Veggie Straws and Goldfish crackers even fuller and went on with my day.
I was sad though. See, I’m a Red Seal certified chef. I’ve managed and owned multiple award-winning restaurants. I’ve been writing recipes and menus since I was in my teens. While I’m burnt out now from cooking multiple meals for everyone in my family every single day without a break, it does still come quickly and naturally to me, and I take pride in most of my meals.
Taco Tuesday has to be the meal I take the most pride in. If you’re a regular follower, you will know about our Taco Tuesdays. Hell, you may have even scored a golden ticket in the past and have joined us for one. One Tuesday each month, we invite friends, neighbours, strangers from Instagram, anyone really... to join us for tacos. We don’t believe in mediocrity, so we go all out. Literally everything is made from scratch. Okay, not quite everything. Last week Liam asked me why I didn’t make the sour cream! But the tortillas, the pico de gallo, the guacamole, the meats, the seasonings, the sides, the sauces, everything else is made fresh just moments before dinner.
The next two weeks after our big meal with friends, we scale back a bit as it’s just the five of us. But I still make everything from scratch. We’ve done this for years! The kids don’t remember a Tuesday where we DIDN’T have tacos. Liam has grown up with them, and now eats four… sometimes five tacos each Tuesday. Ethan eats a bowl of Veggie Straws and watches the rest of us scarf down endless tacos.
Then once a month - on that fourth week, I take a break. Like I said earlier, I literally cook every single meal of every single week. Every now and then, I need a breather. So, we drive down to Taco Time and slam their kitchen with an order a mile long. When this occurred in January, Ethan spoke up for the first time and asked for a taco. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I ALWAYS offer him a taco at home - every Tuesday. I’ve even made him one before and left it on a plate for him if he wanted. But he never even touched it. Then just like that he asks me to order him a taco. So I did. The little devil demolished it and ate every single bite.
Fast forward a week, and I offer him a homemade taco back at home. He eagerly stuffs it into his mouth recalling last week's great success, but then promptly gags and proceeds to vomit out his entire days worth of food. So, I head back to Taco Time the next week, and sure enough he eats the whole thing once again. A week later, I tried the homemade ones again, and he threw them off the table.
Then two weeks ago we had an idea. What if we bought flour tortillas from the store, much like the Taco Time ones? Would this trick him? But then we took it one step further seeing as he hates how messy tacos can be. I turned the taco into a quesadilla. Same ingredients, but folded it over and fried it flat. He loved it. Ate every single bite.
This week, it was hardly 10AM, and he looked at the calendar and gasped,
“TACO TUESDAY!!! Daddy, can you make me a flat taco again tonight for dinner?”
We had figured it out. There have been exactly 240 Taco Tuesdays since he was born. Ethan has been exposed to tacos 240 times, and finally this week he not only eats a homemade (minus the tortilla) “flat taco”, but he asks me for it eight hours in advance and proceeds to get more and more excited about it as the day progresses.
Exposure. Exposure. Exposure.