Of all my parenting prayers, the one I say with extra fervour is to the Eating Gods. “Please, please, please,” I whisper. “Please let my kids not be afraid of food.”
I am afraid of food. There are entire aisles at the grocery store that scare me. For as long as I can remember—since I was a toddler—I have had a strange, unaccountable fear of fruits and vegetables in their natural form. I can’t eat them. I’ve no idea how to cook them. Some are hard for me to even touch.
The particulars are boring. I can eat most things but only in certain ways. I love strawberry jam but can’t bite into a strawberry. I devour hummus but cannot eat an actual chickpea. I crave banana bread, but peeling bananas makes me almost vomit.
This one phobia has birthed others: fear of travel to places where they seem to only eat fresh fruit, of dinner parties hosted by vegans, of working lunches where all the sandwiches are smushed with tomatoes. I compensate by drinking expensive green juices and taking organic vitamins I know are useless. In public, I wave away food, pretending I’m not hungry (as my stomach is growling) or that I’m on some unspecified diet (which I never am, because most every diet requires me to eat food that I can’t).
When I became a parent, I vowed to change. If there was even a small chance I could raise good eaters by simply turning into one myself, then I promised I would do it. I did not know then how ingrained my fears had become. I might as well have told you I was going to change my height.
It was easy to hide my anxiety when my kids were little—I could just pretend to eat their slobbery blueberries. My spouse provided cover, taking on the role of devoted caterer, cooking such a wide variety of foods at every meal that no one noticed I was only eating the chicken.
Two of my three children are joyous eaters. I spy them casually munching peppers and carrots, and I vibrate with relief. I love it when adults offer them new foods, because I know they will most likely try them. I go weak with gratitude every time.
But one of my kids has food anxieties. His specific rules are different from mine, but the cloud of fear around him is familiar. I blame myself, not just for infecting him with this fear but also for not being able to easily cure him. I know all too well that threats, bribes, punishments and pleas won’t help. Instead, we work on teaching him to recognize and name his feelings about food, to take away the shame and to whittle his fear into a shape he is able to confront.
I’ve read about desensitization therapy, but my son isn’t ready to get help from a stranger, and I’m not either. It’s embarrassing. So we talk about it. We tackle the issue from two angles: the scientific and the social. Understanding where food comes from, what happens when you cook it and what it does for your body all help to make it less scary. It’s just something to chew on, we say. The worst that can happen is you won’t like it and then you spit it out. The act of just putting a scary food to mouth has proven liberating, even if it doesn’t get swallowed.
I imagine his food anxiety would melt away if it wasn’t the beating heart of so many social rituals. We talk about why people gather to eat together, that it’s not just about sharing food but a common experience. We teach him to enjoy the ambience of a restaurant and the excitement of an event, so he feels part of the community no matter how he feels about the food. We make sure he always has food on hand so he doesn’t go hungry, and practise how he can answer the awkward but inevitable questions.
As my son heads into puberty, the problem has become more urgent and more complex. “What will I do,” he asks, “when I want to take a girl out for dinner? What will I eat?”
“We’ll fix this,” I say. “You don’t have to be this way.”
If I can believe that for him, then I need to believe it for me. If I am to get better, then even as I blame myself, I also have to forgive myself. And pray the Eating Gods have mercy on us both.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2016 issue, titled “Give peas a chance,” pp. 86-92.
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