"My son won't eat at a table that has fruit on it. What should I do?"
This father's arm had shot up as soon as the question-and-answer period started, and kept going up until the moderator noticed. At a recent literary festival www.litquake.org, my fellow food writers on the panel titled “Eat to Live or Live to Eat?” measured our responses. Young children do get oppositional like this, concocting quirky food rules that come and go. Like imaginary friends.
"How old is your son?" asked Stephanie Lucianovic, author of the new book, Suffering Succotash: A Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. The answer might be different for a child in kindergarten than one under two.
"Thirteen!" said the dad.
The audience laughed, a little nervously. The other panelists were glad Lucianovic took the question, gracefully noting that she generally advises parents to let it go, as she had many bizarre food rules and grew up to be a foodie. Or a gourmet, whatever you call it. There was also some discussion of whether the term foodie was derogatory.
I would have given the same advice. However, later I wondered about the line between quirk and disorder, when a once-cute habit becomes a pain for the rest of the family or a social problem. What does the boy do at school and with friends? Thirteen is almost high school. What if the family goes out and someone wants fruit? Or even at home, years of accommodating this restriction would turn the food pyramid on its head. A cantaloupe is not candy.
Maybe it was the age, 13, that got to me because that is when my daughter, Lisa, started having symptoms of distress that soon deteriorated into severe eating disorders. As she wrote:
“In middle school, I didn’t have the ability to control portions. Two fish tacos, a couple of molasses chips, and then I just kept eating until I knew I’d had too much. I felt terrible, but I would do it again the next day.”
Lisa found a way to break out of this cycle, at first healthfully, by playing sports and working out. Then, she began studying food labels and memorizing calorie counts. People said she looked good.
The restrictions began to cascade:
No red meat
No carbohydrates after 6 p.m.
No fried foods
Sweets twice a week
Even added up, these restrictions could be totally fine. But Lisa lost her balance. Gone was her lusty enthusiasm for my job as a restaurant critic, her dad’s passion for cooking, and just being with other people while they ate. That is, most social situations. She stopped going out because it would involve food. Hungry, she thought about food and weight constantly. Her schoolwork suffered. It got much, much worse.
But what about just not eating if there’s fruit on the table? Everyone has these little quirks, often rooted in childhood. The first President Bush famously refused ever to eat broccoli again. My husband thinks nuts do not belong in baked goods, because of a bad experience in preschool. A friend’s son won’t eat anything blue.
You can just say no to broccoli, nuts in cake, and blue food, and get on with your life. Nobody has to do backflips in social situations. Often there are allergies involved, or religious reasons for refusing certain foods. But when it becomes an obsession, a matter of control, a criticism of others, a way to define yourself, then you’ve gone beyond quirk. It could be evidence an extreme and unhealthy fixation on righteous eating, what Steven Bratman, MD, called “orthorexia nervosa.”