I’ve been reading a lot of stories from parents about their child’s picky eating habits. The despair is apparent: how can I get my child to try new things? How can I ensure that they get a healthy, balanced diet?
Well, speaking as an autistic adult: don’t. I was a very picky eater as a child, and I am not a picky eater anymore (apart from a few exceptions). And frankly, this is DESPITE everything my parents did in forcing me to try new foods and finish everything on my plate. I used to dread dinner time. Now it’s my favourite meal of the day.
Because I started cooking for myself.
Picky eating in autistic kids is not obstinacy or temper tantrums to get candy. It’s tied up with a whole boatload of sensory issues: not only taste, but also smell, texture and temperature. Most of us are far more sensitive to these things than you realise. That’s why some autistic kids don’t like crisps, or ice cream, or bubblegum… things you imagine every child would like.
Maybe I can show you by listing examples of the things I would and wouldn’t eat as a kid.
You know, the big one. The one every parent freaks out about, because if you’re not eating your veggies, you’re going to DIE. Or something. So let’s look at how I kept myself from dying so far.I liked broccoli but only if it wasn’t boiled too long. Spinach, only if it was nearly pureed. Green beans were alright. I was quite fond of string beans as well, but only sliced very thinly (my mother had a special slicer for that, pictured on the right). My favourite vegetable was curly kale, mashed with potatoes. Other than those five, I hated all boiled vegetables. I hated them so much, that I scooped them behind the radiator at my back when nobody was looking, or hid spoonfuls in my pockets. I also hated to eat anything in which I couldn’t identify the vegetables. Vegetable soup was a nightmare, mostly because of the texture of boiled onions and leek. I didn’t start to eat onions until I was 19, and then only if they were sliced razor thin. Leek took me even longer, age 25. I didn’t eat tomatoes until I was about 22. Tomato sauce was OK provided it was pureed to death, but not my favourite. And other vegetables? I discovered a marvelous thing once I started living on my own: I could eat them raw. Carrots, cauliflower, endives, beets, cabbages, courgette (zucchini), even fennel have all been added to my veggie repertoire now that I’m an adult. All raw. I love veggies. What a difference from when I was a kid. If only my parents hadn’t forced me to eat them boiled.
I loved and still love cherries. Oranges and clementines have always been a favourite of mine. The tarter the better. I couldn’t stand overly sweet oranges, not to mention the ones that were sort of chewy and dry. I also had to spend about half an hour picking off every last bit of pith. I’ll call it attention to detail, but the adults around me called it exasperating and neurotic. Now that I’m an adult, I fortunately have a higher pith tolerance. Strawberries were more complicated. I love them plain, but process them in any kind of way and they became my most loathed fruit enemies. Strawberry jam, strawberry yoghurt, even strawberry ice cream: YUCK. It was a combination of taste and texture: processed strawberries are completely different from fresh ones. Bananas were and are still only OK if they are slightly green, with absolutely zero brown spots. The texture of brown banana is still grueling to me.I could only eat apples if they were rigorously de-cored, and not with an apple corer because that would still leave pieces of core. Pieces of core even made me refuse apple pie if I found any of it inside. I hated the taste of grapes. I still can’t stand seedless grapes as an adult. Peaches, apricots, and plums were only edible if they were skinned, again a texture issue. In line with the tartness of oranges, I also loved and still love any type of berry: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants, gooseberries. It probably helped that we grew most of those in our back garden. My favourite was gooseberry, cracking the skin and then sucking out the juicy flesh. So while I was very specific about the ways in which I wanted to eat fruit, fruit was never the nightmare for me that vegetables were.
I was breastfed and then got formula for a couple of months until I was about 12 months old. I stopped drinking milk after that. It used to worry my mum that I wasn’t getting enough calcium. She shouldn’t have worried, because I’m an absolute cheese fiend. One of my first words was cheese. When people asked me what I wanted on my sandwiches, I always said “Cheese!” even when I meant something else. And even as a little kid, I preferred the stronger tasting and aged cheeses (I discovered blue cheese when I was about 14, and fell utterly in love). I also ate a lot of plain yoghurt, with little or no sugar added. Fruit yoghurts tasted artificial to me and were too sweet. As an adult, I still eat enormous amounts of cheese, but I’ve also added ice cream (yes you’ve read that correctly, I didn’t like dairy based ice creams as a kid), sour cream and other dairy products to my diet. I still can’t stand sweetened yoghurts or milk, though.
Meat and fishMy love of meat was extremely dependent on texture. I wouldn’t eat sausages if they had chewy bits in them. I painstakingly removed rinds of fat from everything, including ham and bacon. I wouldn’t eat any type of cold cuts except very thinly sliced “rookvlees” (a kind of smoked carpaccio). Steaks had to be extremely well-done. Funnily enough, I loved such weird things as chicken livers, venison, and rabbit. As an adult, I’ve slowly moved towards liking rare steaks, but I’ve become very picky about quality, and prefer to eat vegetarian if I can’t get good quality meat. I’m still not fond of rinds of fat, but I’ve learned how to cook them to a crisp. Crispy is much better. Texture-wise, I also had to eat everything with knife and fork, even things like chicken legs, because I hated my fingers getting sticky. I didn’t eat spare ribs until I was 27. Any type of fish sent me into a panic because I was scared to death of choking on a fish bone. Even fish fingers had to be meticulously checked for stray fragments. I didn’t learn to like fish until I was in my late twenties, and I still check for fish bones, although not as panicky.
In this sense, probably the ideal child, because I only drank tea or water. Even fruit juice and cordials had to be watered down beyond all recognition, otherwise I wouldn’t drink it. I couldn’t stand Coke or other sodas, because they were far too sweet. I liked carbonated mineral water, though. As an adult, I’ve added coffee and most types of alcohol (except alcopops) to this list, but other than that, no change.
Bread: as a child, only toasted (but not too crispy), especially supermarket bread. And without whole grains in them. And no hard crusts. I’ve come a long way since then, and now I’ll eat any type of bread, although I am still fairly snobby about supermarket bread.
Eggs: only fried or scrambled, and only if the yolks were broken up immediately and the egg was thoroughly cooked. I didn’t eat a soft boiled egg until I was 34. Hard boiled eggs still make me gag.
Vinegar: my nemesis. Just the smell is enough to make me throw up. My two brothers always tried to take advantage of this, by “accidentally” dropping some mayonnaise or ketchup on my chips so I’d refuse to touch them. More chips for them. I still have to be very specific in restaurants about not wanting any salad dressing or other condiments.
You might be thinking to yourself that this doesn’t sound very picky, because the list of foods I would eat was still fairly long. However, it was still a list, and if something wasn’t on the list, I’d have a complete meltdown when forced to eat it. It was nearly impossible to take me to a restaurant because I didn’t want to eat anything I wasn’t familiar with. Once, when I was on holiday in Austria, about age 10, I ate nothing but Wiener Schnitzels at the local restaurant for over a week. This ended with the chef making me the most gigantic Schnitzel I’ve ever seen (about the size of two large dinner plates), to the extreme hilarity of everyone present.
For years, food to me meant being forced to eat things, because that was the way the world worked. It was only after I started cooking my own food that I dared experiment a bit more and develop a healthier attitude. I had control over what I ate and how I ate it, and that helped me to become less uptight about food. Even so, it took me a long while to stop feeling anxious when having dinner at someone else’s house, because I hated drawing attention to my long list of weird food dislikes.
I’ve finally come to the point where I eat and enjoy most foods. But it’s been a very long, traumatic road.