Thursday, March 10, 2016

Losing the Battle, Winning the War

Thankfully, we don't have a lot of food issues in our house. Never mind Ethan, almost everyone in our family is somewhat picky about food, but not exceedingly so. We have a two-year-old who will eat some vegetables and many fruits, so I'm not complaining.

But we do sometimes run into challenges. And as I suspect happens with many families, it's hard to find the balance between becoming a short order cook since everyone wants something different to eat, and forcing our kids to shove things down that they absolutely hate.

We've come up with some pretty good systems, over the years. If the kids really don't like dinner and don't eat much (but did at least try to eat it), the one snack they can have before bed has to be something healthy like an apple or carrot. We used to have a great method for the longest time: if they really didn't want to eat something, they had to just try to number of bites equal to their age (three bites for three years old, four bites for four, and so on).

Lately I've put my foot down about options. I feel as if everyone in the family needs to have at least three options for what they'll eat at breakfast or lunch. Otherwise, both meals become endless as one child complains that there are no waffles or nuggets, and another laments that we don't have bagels or salsa. Sometimes I feel like a computer with all of the information I have to have stored. Anna likes cereal, waffles, bagels (not muffins) or eggs. Ethan likes muffins or bagels but will eat a few other things for breakfast, under protest. Chloe thankfully will eat almost any of it but tends to ask for whatever the others are eating and then not want it after all.

Ethan used to eat oatmeal until I told him he had to expand his repertoire. He knows now that it's not good for him to get "stuck" because it's harder for him to become "unstuck." I had gotten him to eat everything but eggs...but now suddenly he has an aversion to oatmeal. I guess eating it for five straight years will do that to you. The other morning when a shopping trip was in order we had nothing for breakfast but oatmeal or toast. He tried to tell me he wasn't going to eat and I told him I didn't think so. We worked things out (he ate toast, with no butter, go figure), but there always seems to be a new obstacle.

And there has been no greater obstacle than mashed potatoes.

Here's the thing: Dan and I LOVE mashed potatoes. There's nothing we like better than a meal that includes good old mashed potatoes as a side, preferably with garlic, and you better believe lots of butter. Anna and Ethan have ruined mashed potatoes for us. They've ruined every meal that includes mashed potatoes. The whining and complaining, grimaces and melodramatic teeny-tiny bites, the tears and yelling, have gotten to be too much. Thankfully Anna has decided to suck it up and shovel in a few bites as quickly as possible, like taking a bitter spoonful of medicine. Ethan, however, has upped the drama to a whole new level.

Last week was the last straw. Or maybe it was my epiphany. We had steak and mashed potatoes. Ethan insisted he couldn't eat the mashed potatoes. He insisted he would gag. He tried to hide some in the trash. He sat at the table procrastinating until all of his food was cold and we'd finished eating. He cried.

I started to get cranky, and to feel confused.

I wondered if he was really playing this up or if he really just could not get them down. Over the years it's become obvious to us that, while he doesn't have a lot of sensory issues, he does have an exaggerated sense of smell (hearing, too), as well as a gag reflex.

I thought about the slippery slope. If we let him get out of eating mashed potatoes, how could we force Anna to eat them? If we tried to blame it on Ethan's sensory issues, probably resentment was going to set in. Was I really going to start making them another side dish every time we ate them? I'd always told myself I wouldn't do that.

We finally told Ethan he had to eat one bite of mashed potato. I wanted to watch him closely. I observed as he forced the forkful into his mouth. I saw him noticeably recoil, to almost gag the way he does when they swab the back of your throat for a strep test. Tears were filling his eyes.

That's when I decided (and Dan agreed) that we were done. This mashed potato fight wasn't worth it. This felt not like discipline, but cruelty. Sometimes we can get so fixated on the small details that we lose sight of the big picture. My kids eat fairly well. Ethan has overcome an aversion to meat and isn't much pickier than your average kid. They will eat vegetables and fruit. They don't subsist on junk food. We, as parents, needed to loosen the rules a little bit.

So yes, from now on Anna and Ethan will have something else on mashed potato nights. Actually, we've discovered that both kiddos will eat baked potatoes (if they are smothered in butter). So maybe this really is about a texture that just is too hard to bear (although, how does it really differ from the oatmeal Ethan ate for so long?).

This is a very long story to communicate one simple point: sometimes it's okay to lose a battle if you're winning the war. We tell our kids on the spectrum not to be so rigid -- but maybe we need to take our own advice.

I can't wait to enjoy my mashed potatoes in peace!

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