Extreme Picky Eating: The Max Diet

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My kid may be an extreme picky eater but while the number of things he’ll eat is small, his food rules are complex.  Part of what makes feeding him so complicated is the fact that there are distinct cycles to his eating habits which change frequently and suddenly.  I am going to lay out (for your interest, not your criticism) all his food rules and the foods he eats to give others an idea of what it’s like to feed him and, more importantly, how hard it is for him to eat.  Other parents of picky eaters may find solace in reading this account.  Either you’ll realize your kid is way pickier and I’ve got it easier (but feel less alone) or you’ll realize your kid is easier to feed and maybe find things to appreciate about your own experience by comparison.

The Rules:

Only one food on a plate at a time.
  Any condiments need to be in their own container in order to avoid touching the food before it’s time to eat it.

Plates, bowls, and glasses are frequently scrutinized for cleanliness.  Any suspicious speck will contaminate the food on the plate and it will be refused.

Hand washing.
  Occasionally requests are made that we wash our hands before feeding the kid.  This always insults me and is met with a lecture about how my hands are always cleaner than his.  The truth is, he’s not worried about germs, he’s worried about unauthorized foods still being on my fingers such as the essence of cheese which may transfer to his food and make him lose his appetite.

Food needs to be as even and same sized as possible.  This is one of the reasons why he likes crackers and other predictably uniform foods.  Most foods are amorphous and irregular, this is repugnant to him.  Holes in toast, for example, used to be met with panic and then a flood of tears.  Now he is much more polite about refusing to eat toast that isn’t “perfect”.  There must be no rips, shreds, stringy bits, dark specks or anything ruining the appearance of his food.

Texture.  He mostly likes things to be crunchy and firm.  A limp carrot is an abomination.  A stale cracker is unacceptable.  mealy apples or crumbly anything is not okay.  Tater tots slightly underdone are an insult.  Texture is a very serious thing to Max and the wrong texture (such as a wet spot on a cracker) can be traumatic.   

With a few exceptions (which remains a mystery to me) sticky textures
such as jam or soft peanut butter in a piece of bread aren’t tolerated because if he gets it on his hands he panics (and used to cry).  He will eat cornbread with honey on it (this is one of the exceptions) and will immediately run to the bathroom to clean his hands afterward – should there be an impediment to his getting to the bathroom he will freak out.

He does not eat at the table.
  He eats while watching movies.  I fought him from the time he was a baby in the highchair until he was about two years old trying to get him to eat at the table.  He would constantly try to get out of the chair and no food would be eaten.  I would give up and give him a snack while he watched a movie and the movie would keep him still and calm and I found he’d put food in his mouth and not examine it as closely.  This is true to this day.  I don’t care what any other parent thinks of me, if it weren’t for DVDs my child would not have enough distraction to eat.  It’s like needing white noise to sleep (which he also needs).  I am at peace with this.

Flies or insects.
  If a fly or insect is seen in the same room in which he is eating he will lose his appetite for at least an hour, sometimes several.  For some reason ants inside the house, especially in any room he’s eating in, are disturbing to him.  He doesn’t mind them outside but he has nightmares that they are crawling on him in his bed. 

Food odors.  He cannot tolerate the odors of most food he doesn’t himself eat.  He refuses to eat his food in the school cafeteria (a fact he didn’t tell me until I found out because he got into trouble trying to eat his protein bar in the hallway).  He finds most food visually disgusting with special disgust for all pasta dishes, beans, and pizza.  He is usually neutral about people eating salads near him.  He is still very rude in dealing with his strong food odor/visual aversions though we keep working on it.

Temperature of foods matters.  If something like toast is supposed to be warm he will not eat it if it isn’t the right temperature.  He doesn’t eat much food that’s meant to be hot except for tater tots.  I don’t really blame him for not liking his tater tots cold but he’s pretty dramatic about how disgusting it is.  He likes his cold beverages to be really cold, but not iced. 

“Old” water or old anything.  If it takes him too long to drink or eat something (say, longer than a half an hour) he will refuse to eat them because they’ve been sitting out for too long.  This drives me insane.  I do know that water grows stale but he is so sensitive to it that I have wanted to strangle his handsome little neck at constant requests for “fresh” water or new food.

Unopened bags.  He has started requesting that all Goldfish be brought to him in an unopened bag because he believes they don’t taste right when they are opened by us though it seems to be fine if other crackers are put in a bowl by us. 

One left on the plate.
  One of whatever he’s eating that is considered his “real” food (as opposed to snacks) must always be left on the plate.  For years he would always (ALWAYS) leave one tater tot or one carrot stick or one piece of apple.  Even if he was hungry enough to ask for more, one must remain uneaten.  He has, very lately, eased up on this.  I’ve asked him many times over the years why he does this and he would just tell me he had to do it.

Food Cycles.
  There is a distinct cycle to his eating that I haven’t scientifically mapped but I can tell you that at one end of the cycle he’ll have about fifteen different foods in rotation that he’ll eat and at the other end of the cycle he’ll have only two foods in rotation.  There are mini cycles within the bigger cycles.  He’ll eat a few things obsessively until he gets a (literally) bad apple and then he won’t be willing to try that food again for a month, sometimes more.  So what foods he’ll eat are constantly changing.  This makes my head spin and my patience thin.

Brand specific.
  Don’t switch brands on this kid.  He always can tell.  Have him try three vanilla ice creams without seeing the packages and he can tell you which one is the one he usually eats, which one is vanilla bean (which he hated for the specks in it), and which is the off brand you bought because they were out of the usual one. 

The Actual List of Tolerated Foods in the Max Diet:

Sugar toast.  Whole wheat toast with butter and brown sugar.

Egg toast.  (this only makes the rotation rarely).  Whole wheat toast with a fried egg and ketchup.  (this is hard to make “perfect” so comes with a high chance of being rejected.

Wheat hot dog bun with ketchup.

Cornbread with honey.  When he loves it he LOVES it a
nd usually he will only eat  few slices before it’s out of rotation for a long time.

Tater tots.

Apples.  Texture is extremely important.  The slightest bit of browning and he will stop eating them.  We’ve used lemon juice sometimes to help this.

Carrots.  Only likes the “baby” carrots because they’re pretty uniform in shape and size.  Though he recently tried cut carrots again, unfortunately they didn’t taste that great.

Grapes.  Only red grapes when they’re in season.  Mostly just the red grapes we get from a friend of ours.  He’ll eat bowls of those.

Cucumbers.  But only in season.  When they’re good he LOVES them.

Watermelon.  Only the seedless kinds.

Strawberry “milkshakes”
made with milk, frozen strawberries, and a little sugar.

Crackers.
  An ever changing list of packaged crackers (organic saltines, Ritz style, Goldfish, Pop chips, and a few others that once in a while enter the rotation)

Energy/Protein bars.
  This is his main source of protein.  We only buy Luna and Cliff because they don’t use corn syrup and are mostly organic.  Right now Cliff bars are NOT OKAY.  In each bar type he only likes two flavors and usually eats one flavor exclusively until he is sick of it.

Juice popsicles.  Concord grape only.

French fries.  When we go out to dinner we feed him at home and then let him order fries which are not good enough for him to eat 75% of the time.  When they’re good he really likes them.

Peanut butter cracker sandwiches.  I put peanut butter (very smooth) between two natural Ritz-style crackers.  He’s not eating them now but it was a great favorite for at least two months.

Peanut butter “breakfast” cookies.
  I adapted my peanut butter cookie recipe to have less sugar and wheat flour so he would eat something with protein in the mornings. 

Home baked cookies.  A few select recipes I use are approved.

Gingerbread.  He loves gingerbread. 

Ice cream.  All kinds of ice cream (except not fruity). 

Hot cocoa.  I count this as food because I make it with milk which has actual protein in it.  He doesn’t like it often because he hates milk but sometimes it hits the spot.

Frozen yogurts.  But not the healthy natural ones.  He likes the tube yogurts made by Yoplait.  I hate Yoplait for having made them appealing to kids and then putting total crap in them.  Luckily, I guess, he seems almost to have permanently taken this off the acceptable foods list.

Pancakes.
  Ten grain pancakes with a bucket of real maple syrup.

Popcorn.  Not a lot of nutritional value but at least it’s something.

Potato chips.  We don’t let him have these often but he loves them. 

That’s 25 items total that he will eat, including desserts. 

Remember that most of the time there are only 5 to 10 of those items in rotation. 

Right now there are three:  Peppermint Luna bars, tater tots, and grape juice popsicles.

Food is emotional for most people and necessary for everyone.  I was prepared to love my child if he was born without all his limbs, to find charm in him should he be born a dwarf, and forgiving should he grow up to be a jock… but I was not prepared for a picky eater because I believed, as most parents do, that as long as I always put healthy food in front of my kid he would eat what I gave him (barring the usual disdain for broccoli and kale that many kids have).  I believed that it’s parenting skill that makes good eaters, not something mental or physiological. 

Every time Max rejects the food I make for him he rejects a part of me.  He doesn’t see it that way.  For eight years I’ve experienced his rejection of my tireless efforts to nourish his body and mind with good food.  I have compromised, worked hard at coming up with clever ways around his issues, and I have also given up a thousand times.  There have been times when I was so desperate to get him to eat anything that I let him eat crap that I don’t eat myself.  No normal parent will let their kids starve.  Many parents of non-picky eaters love to say that no child will starve themselves so if you hold out and insist they eat what you want them to eat with the threat of no other options they’ll cave in and bend to your awesome parental will.

My child would rather die than eat soggy toast.  I know this to be true.  How can I know?  Because I would rather starve myself to death than eat any kind of meat.  Anyway, I don’t personally respect the kind of parenting that pits a parent’s will against its child’s with starvation as the threat.  I want a better relationship with my son than that.

Now that Max is much older he doesn’t cry over his food issues, we discuss them and we work on them together.  I can’t change the fact that he’s picky, and neither can he, but he is more willing to try new things than he used to be and since he was diagnosed with OCD two years ago we know that many of his food issues are directly related to his OCD and this makes it easier for me to not take his food rejection personally and it helps Max to understand that his many frustrations with food aren’t his fault. 

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12 thoughts on “Extreme Picky Eating: The Max Diet

  1. Aimee

    Thank you so much for this insight! I love that you and Max are able to discuss it now. I would be so frustrated in your position; I can tell you often are, but Max is so lucky to have a mom who is so willing to keep trying to bring him proper, healthy sustenance without making it a battle.
    Interesting timing – I was recently considering writing a blog post in reaction to the number of comments I get asking how I get my kids to eat so many different things. Most parents are flabbergasted at the range…and I think in *most* instances, parental attitude and cave-ins do make the biggest difference. Obviously, I know that is NOT the case in your family, or with many kids who have real sensory and other issues behind their picky eating. I just find it fascinating that you and I were thinking about two different areas of the same general issues at the same time…

  2. angelina

    I would definitely agree that with the majority of kids it’s really about putting good food in front of them and not caving in. I was brought up on the whole “you’ll eat what’s in front of you” philosophy but this wasn’t very hard for my parents to succeed at because i wasn’t very picky. Yeah, I had to choke down some raw tofu a few times and definitely didn’t look forward to stuffed bell peppers, but the only thing I’ve ever felt violently about is meat. Maybe because my mom raised me that way, maybe I wouldn’t have liked meat anyway, hard to say.
    What I will say is that I tell the story of my grandma and the pork chop on my blog almost every year because it is the biggest memory I have of my grandma- her forcing me to eat meat even though it made me want to hurl (it took me years to forgive her for it). She wouldn’t let me get up from the table until I finished a pork chop she made me even though she already knew I couldn’t stomach meat. it was so mean and that’s what I remember of her more than anything else.
    I don’t want Max to remember of me, and of food, that it was a daily battle of the wills. Neither of us would win.
    So fostering conversations about it, discussing him trying new things in a non-threatening way (“why don’t you try this, if you hate it, I won’t force you to eat it again”) and we get frustrated all the time and we talk about how the situation is frustrating but that we’re not trying to be mean to each other. The hardest part for me is when he gets frustrated with himself. Food is a minefield for him, for his senses and he is by no means happy with that. He feels his body betrays him. And I can’t do anything to help him.
    Though I am wondering if when he gets on anti-anxiety meds (ssri type) that his sensory issues will become less extreme. I know that’s what they do for me. I’m not as sensitive to tastes or textures as he is but noises make me insane, competing noises of certain types fill me with disproportionate rage when I’m not medicated. It is very difficult for me to participate in the world when I’m not medicated.

  3. simply.belinda

    Although I don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis I certainly understand the wounding of having the food you put your heart and soul into rejected.
    The first time that DH only ate a few bites of his meal, then grabbed a packet of potato chips to top up it tore my heart into shreds. Thankfully for us it only happens if he is at the height of a depressive episode but even so it’s really difficult at times not to feel that my love and nurturing is being rejected along with the food. Intellectually I know that it is simply a symptom of his mental illness, emotionally it’s seldom that simple.
    Kind Regards
    Belinda

  4. NM

    This is fascinating, and so informative. Poor Max! And poor you … but what a great job you seem to be doing coping with it, and teaching him to cope, and to be brave about trying new things.
    You know, I won’t eat stale crackers or mealy apples, either; they have dreadful textures! Or bananas that are more than 5 minutes over-ripe … bleagh! I thought it was the flavor of overripe bananas that I hated, but then I tried drying them, and was astonished to find that once that horrible soft texture was gone, they were much better. Taste like banana bread.
    I’m with him on the need for things like french fries and tater tots to be good and crisp, too. otherwise, ick.
    Reading this, in fact, made me realize there are several things that have to be just right, for me to consider them edible — eggs, for example. And here I thought I was a very non-picky eater! (We’re perfectly reasonable people; we just want things RIGHT … ; } ) It helps that I’m the cook …
    Guess he probably would not go for yogurt with jam stirred in. I remember giving my poor mother fits as a kid, refusing to eat her Perfectly Good homemade yogurt with homemade jam (which now sounds delicious); because the store yogurt with fruit sauce to stir in tasted better… and, of course, cost three times as much…
    Do you ever make homemade hashbrowns or potato pancakes? Mr. B likes a Joy of Cooking recipe for very simple potato pancakes (he won’t let me put any onions or herbs in, and they are surprisingly good that way). I spread them really thin in a really hot cast iron pan, using mixed butter and olive oil, and when I get them just right, the edges are marvelously crispy. Not the middle, darn it, because I can never get that quite thin enough. Maybe if I made small ones, instead of big ones …
    Anyway, I love that combination of bland potatoes, grease, salt and crispness, and wonder if it would appeal to Max. Though he might prefer less greasiness; perhaps blotting? they do have to be served lickety split, unfortunately, or crisped more in a hot oven (the crisper the better, in my world).
    Anyway, best of wishes, and thank you for sharing your information; you are educating me, and I’m sure, many others, and that is a valuable service.
    NM

  5. NM

    How stupid of me, to say that as if you had not thought to try yogurt … please strike that.
    My issue as a kid was rice, which in our house was white rice, served plain, to be eaten with butter and/or soy sauce. Hated, HATED the stuff; once sat for hours at the kitchen table in front of one tiny tablespoonful that I was NOT going to eat, lest it choke me …

  6. Green Bean

    Ha! We aren’t far behind you though I think our list might actually top 30!! Of course, virtually packaged crackers and cereal bars are acceptable. Sigh. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only green mom/foodie who has a child who won’t eat anything.

  7. amy

    I think this is an important post and topic. I agree that most parents say they have a picky eater and it means they won’t eat broccoli or tomatoes or something! I have problems with both girls with eating things or suddenly deciding they won’t eat something. :( I still have to make two separate dinners or lunches, etc. Then there is the whole “cleaning your plate” thing which my parents thankfully never did to us but a lot of parents do that or you don’t get dessert. That’s how kids get eating disorders later on. I sometimes say eat two bites of such and such and you can have dessert. I also explain why i want them to eat their dinner or a little more of it. There is now one thing that the whole family will all eat (pizza). Have you tried having him cook or prepare his own food? Or would that be really bad? Maybe bad for both of you. :) I don’t think there’s a Trader Joe’s out there in your parts but they of course have a lot of the same foods in better forms like chocolate or the squirt yogurts without the crappy ingredients. I have found that I can sneak spinach into the smoothies if I put enough blueberries in there and honey.

  8. Jennifer

    Just thought I would mention that you could try putting your apple slices in salt water prior to serving to prevent them from turning brow. My picky eater HATES brown apples and this always works for me.

  9. angelina Post author

    I hadn’t thought of doing that. The salt doesn’t leave a saltiness on the apple? How long do you let the apples sit in the salt water?

  10. Ellin

    My college age picky eater sent me the link to your post. Growing up she easily had as many food rules as Max does and is a lifelong vegetarian to boot, but I am happy to say that over the last five years her food preferences have broadened to the extent that we can take her to amazing restaurants, and she as she has become responsible for her own food she has really taken control of her eating. I can offer the long view and hope that Max will grow as our daughter has. Their food concerns are totally real and important for them, which can be impossible for parents of “normal” eaters to understand.

  11. C

    I’m pretty sure my mom already posted a comment, but I thought I should also.

    For most of my childhood I was a fairly picky eater. Not as bad as Max sounds, but really pretty bad. I lived off of (and then subsequently burnt out on) a long series of Luna/Power Bars in addition to a dinner rotation of:
    Plain Baked Potato
    Plain Pasta with Butter
    Red Beans and Rice (plain, canned little red beans and white rice)
    Annie’s White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese

    I wouldn’t eat eggs, or cheese, because I disliked the texture. Same with puddings, custards, things like that, most vegetables (I was always big on fruit, but not vegetables except for frozen peas and baby carrots), and basically every protein source known to man.

    I’m now 19, still a strict vegetarian, but otherwise pretty good foodwise. I still won’t eat eggs by themselves, cheese in large quantities, and if I can avoid custardy things, I do. I can eat at a fair variety of restaurants and survived last year on dining hall food (though I ate a lot of toast with peanut butter, yogurt, and steamed vegetables, and this year am mostly cooking for myself). Three weeks ago I even managed to eat dinner at Manresa Restaurant, something my parents thought would NEVER happen.

    The long-term results of my bad eating habits? Really, not much. I’m shorter than I should have been (5’1″ to my parent’s 5’3″ and 5’10″) due to not getting enough protein as a child, and my mom recently started a blog that’s developed around my previously (and still a little) wacky eating habits, but that’s it.

    So it can get better! I swear! If you ever want to commiserate with my mom, she’s really very sweet.

  12. angelina Post author

    Ellin and C – I’m so glad you found this post and commented! I put this post up in hopes that other frustrated parents of picky eaters would feel less alone but the benefit to me is you sharing your experience and making ME feel less alone. I do find it reassuring to hear about picky eaters who grow up and broaden their tastes.

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