The Hatch-Palucks, Week 15: The Elephant In the Room

Filed under: Healthy Families Challenge

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Emmie loves to bake with her Easy-Bake Oven -- but she rarely eats what she makes. Credit: Amy Hatch

One of the most basic aspects of parenting is feeding your child, and it's the one that most often makes me feel like a failure.

It isn't because I'm not a good cook. It isn't because I resort to fast food too often. It isn't because I prefer baking treats to creating healthy dinners.

It's because of the elephant in the room.

The pachyderm in question is Emmie's food phobia.

Our daughter always showed strong food preferences, even as an infant on baby food. She hated anything green, turned her nose up at proteins (with the exceptions of yogurt and cheese) and gave up milk at age 15 months.

I took mothering her very seriously, of course, and I was so excited the day that she had her first taste of "real" food. Even then, I could tell Emmie was going to be finicky. She didn't even like baby-food peaches. And who doesn't love baby-food peaches?

My own sweet tooth and emotional-eating history influenced my feelings as well. I have strong associations with treats and love, so imagine my delight when watching my own child enjoy a chocolate-chip cookie made by her grandmother (and she does).

Until Emmie was about 18 months old, we could count on her eating roast chicken, broccoli and other unprocessed foods. She adored my homemade macaroni-and-cheese, and would always eat her Mandarin oranges.

Then, she began to exhibit normal developmental pickiness. She stopped eating meat, unless it was molded into nugget form. She made her preference for mac-and-cheese from a box known. She gave up all fruit and veggies, with the exception of bananas, and fell in love with French fries and grilled cheese.

I indulged her, thinking it was just a phase.

Now Emmie is 6 years old and her diet consists entirely of frozen waffles and pancakes, grilled cheese and fries, chicken nuggets, smooth yogurt (no fruit pieces allowed), bananas, boxed mac-and-cheese, Nutella, white bread, bagels, crackers and some cookies.

When we ask her to try something new, like noodles with butter or pizza, she has a panic attack -- the kind you can't fake. This isn't just a child throwing a tantrum to get out of doing something she doesn't want to do. She gets hysterical from the fear, with tears and the shakes.

It's heartbreaking to watch.

Her food preferences extend to sweets and junk food, too. She isn't a fan of frosting, won't eat oatmeal cookies or anything with nuts, and she can't stand Doritos.

Heck, if she ate a Cheeto, we'd consider it a breakthrough.

I joke, but only because it deflects the uncomfortable truth.

Our daughter has a diagnosed, severe food phobia. She's seen several doctors, and they're in agreement. She fears new foods as someone with a dog phobia would fear a pit bull. In fact, that's exactly how one professional described it to me, when I expressed my frustration with Emmie's reaction to being asked to try a new food.

Imagine, she said, fearing dogs and being asked to cuddle one on your lap.

When we ask our child to try a new food, she panics. It is so hard to watch, especially when it's an item that we know would help make her healthier. For weeks, I worked on coaxing her to try a sliver of peeled apple, and, when she finally was able to make herself put it in her mouth, she gagged and almost vomited.

As Emmie has gotten older, eating has also become a social issue. Birthday parties and play dates become a nightmare when you can't bear the thought of putting peanut butter or pizza in your mouth.

It's so hard to hear her tell me that the pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove smells delicious, then watch her struggle to find a way to get over her fear of tasting it. I know she wants to eat something different.

She just can't.

No doubt, there are some texture issues at play, as well as some preferences that she comes by honestly. Channing and I are hardly what anyone would call adventurous eaters.

In taking on the Healthy Families Challenge, our hope was that Emmie would follow our example as we ate better. Sadly, this hasn't been the case. She's had behavioral therapy designed to desensitize her to new tastes and textures in the past, and even that hasn't worked, so I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise.

Not too long ago, we had a glimmer of hope. My mother pointed me to a piece that ran on ABC's Nightline, about this specific issue. Watching the video of the young girl in the piece was like watching Emmie. It even gave us a name for her problem -- food neophobia.

There is someone out there who might be able to really help our daughter. According to Nightline, Dr. Nancy Zucker is an assistant professor at Duke University's School of Medicine, and runs its Center for Eating Disorders. That organization is just beginning to study food neophobia.

It's time for us to reach out to Zucker, because I can't stand to watch her suffer -- and she does suffer -- one minute longer.

Who's the rest of the competition? Check out all the challengers' latest updates here.

How is the Hatch-Paluck family doing? Check in on their progress!

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.