How often does your child experience being able to eat EVERYTHING that everyone else is eating, without worry?
Particularly for children with a very limited food-list, they can go for years eating entirely different foods from the rest of the family. If no-one ever joins them in eating “their foods” - are they likely to feel confident joining others?
The need to feel accepted and included
Diagnosed with coeliac disease at 17, I have experienced first-hand the isolating feeling of sitting in front of an empty plate at a formal conference dinner while everyone else tucked in. The hotel apologised, “sorry - but we've run out of the gluten free option” (that I had pre-ordered in advance). I also know what it feels like to deal with the uncomfortable focus on my eating when everyone else is devouring a gravy-soaked roast dinner and the waiter graciously serves up the “Gluten-Free Special of the Day!” - a power salad of shredded cabbage and pumpkin seeds. “Eh, thanks so much for catering for me, but I’m a hungry human being - not a rabbit!”
I totally understand that cooking for people with dietary requirements is not easy, and likewise cooking up the same few foods over and over again for your child is frustrating. But when I show up to a family event, dinner party, or conference lunch and I’m told “you can eat everything here - it’s all gluten free” or “this side of the table is gluten free” the sense of relief, and gratefulness, to be included without standing out from the crowd is massive!
When you have an allergy or a medical condition it is easy to explain why you can’t eat certain foods. But for many children (and adults) with very restricted eating or ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), it is so, so, so much harder to explain and to feel understood, even though there are genuine sensory, medical and psychological reasons behind their eating challenges.
Still, the desire to feel accepted, considered, and included without it being awkward is so real! In research studies, children describe wanting to eat what others are eating but being afraid to do so (1) and adult picky eaters report significant social anxiety and alienation around food (2, 3).
One step you can do!
One small step you can do to help your child feel accepted and included no matter where they are with their eating right now - is to share the foods they eat!
Even if your child only eats two or three foods (that you are not too fond of!), try sitting down to a shared family meal or snack that only includes your child’s accepted foods. Of course, building familiarity with other foods is important too, but there is plenty of time for that.
Before thinking “How can I get them to eat the foods the rest of the family is eating?” - try to flip it on its head and ask yourself “Am I willing to sit down and eat what my child is eating?”
Sharing your child’s accepted foods with them from time to time is so powerful as it:
- Sends a strong message of love and acceptance of where they are right now
- Helps them to feel included with the rest of the family
- Helps them to feel less “bad” or “ashamed” of the foods they are able to eat
- Lets them experience the feeling of being able to eat everything that other people are eating without fear
- Starts to break down the distinction between “my foods” and “others’ foods” - “if other people eat my foods, maybe I can also eat other foods one day?”
- Increases confidence to approach the table
- Validates their food preferences
Is this something you would give a try? Let me know how it goes!
(1) Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., & Heary, C. (2022). ‘Fussy eating’and feeding dynamics: School children's perceptions, experiences, and strategies. Appetite, 173, 106000.
(2) Fox, G., Coulthard, H., Williamson, I., & Wallis, D. (2018). “It's always on the safe list”: Investigating experiential accounts of picky eating adults. Appetite, 130, 1-10.
(3) Thompson, C., Cummins, S., Brown, T., & Kyle, R. (2015). What does it mean to be a ‘picky eater’? A qualitative study of food related identities and practices. Appetite, 84, 235-239.