My son is a very picky eater, and calling him picky is being kind. He is offended by certain tastes and textures. Seriously offended. Food that he doesn’t like—or more accurately, has tried by touching it to his lips and rejecting it—is too chewy, too salty, too crunchy. He’s gagged when I’ve asked him to try a bite of fish and suffered a complete heaving episode when I’ve pointed him to a vegetable.
His issues around food stem not only from a sensitive palette, but from a need to control situations. That need grew worse after his father died, and grief stole first his appetite, and then the innocent childhood belief that things were in his control. His appetite has since returned. His innocence has not.
The combination of a sensitive palette and a need to control situations makes every meal a potential argument, though long ago I stopped arguing. Because in the choice to eat what’s in front of him or go hungry, he will choose to go hungry. When he really digs in his heels, he will go hungry to the point where his blood sugar drops and his lips turn white and he vomits.
When he fell off his growth curve too sharply and his iron levels dropped to too low levels, it became more important that he eat anything—even if that meant the same six meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a never-ending rotation.
In a normal life, that wasn’t a problem. I could provide him what he liked while I waited for our appointment with a nutritionist. In a COVID-19 world, where staples disappear from shelves too fast and trips to the grocery store must be limited, it could be a huge problem for my son who likes what he likes when he likes it, and would rather make himself sick than eat. And yet, so far, it hasn’t been.
My first trip to the grocery store after schools closed and the truth about the severity of this disease infiltrated daily life was not unlike walking into a dystopian future. Grocery store shelves that once contained the few items my son was certain to eat were completely empty. I had to find substitutions. And in place of substitutions, I had to gamble on new staples.
When I got home, my son watched as I put groceries into the fridge, stacked things in the pantry. He noticed some of his favorites (his onlys) were missing, and asked. I hesitated at first, afraid to scare him — to let him know the extent of the way the world had changed seemingly overnight. He (and his sister) had never known anything but grocery stores with stocked shelves. To be honest, neither had I.
I told him for the next few weeks things were going to be different. The food and snacks he wanted simply weren’t there—not gone forever, but missing for now. And I couldn’t just run out tomorrow to look for his particular brand of Mac ‘n’ Cheese because every time “out” came with too much risk—and risk had to be minimized. I told him we all needed to be flexible, to rage and scream and cry in frustration when we needed to, and then change our expectations.
I’m not sure whether he understood the empty shelves. Without experiencing them, I’m not sure I would be able to, either. So many weeks later, the empty shelves still feel stark and surreal. But he understood the risk. At 8 years old, he’s seen enough about life and loss and death to understand risk. He is aware enough to know that I’m the only adult in the house, and I need to be well enough to weather the storm gathering around our little family of three.
As the days in quarantine bleed into weeks, we’ve done away with food rules and norms—not for any particular conscious reason. But because some days cabin fever and endless time together strikes too deep and instead of a family dinner, we retreat into our own individual screens as we eat. And because other days, anxieties run too high and instead of a meal, we have a variety of snacks that when looked at from the right angle can almost, maybe kinda sorta, resemble a meal—if I squint.
And somehow, while it seems the world is falling apart, my picky eater, my son who is desperately seeking control, is eating better than he’s ever eaten.
He’s snacking on carrots and dipping pretzels into guacamole. He’s using a different marinara sauce and eating every bite of the pasta that’s tricolor instead of plain. He tried a different brand of chicken nuggets—and is only once in a while complaining about the taste.
But also, he’s insisting on only eating his exact brand of frozen pancakes for breakfast every morning—and I just feel lucky to have found them. And I find myself simply grateful he’s eating, when in another time, he might have chosen to not eat at all, that he’s making an effort to be open minded, when so many times in the past he chose to shut down. And that he’s given me one less thing to worry about, when the worries seem to compound on a daily basis.
For my part, I’m not worried whether he’s getting enough vegetables (he’s not) or enough protein (he’s not, a hardboiled egg or two notwithstanding) because right now, it’s enough to know he’s home and safe with me. I’m simply grateful we are able to buy enough groceries to last two weeks and that we have access to stores that supply dozens of pasta options—I know that’s not true for too many families.
I’m not sure why he’s eating better now than ever before. Maybe he’s finally gotten to that age I’d been told existed by all those well-meaning people who told me he’d grow out of it one day. Or maybe he understands in this version of the world, we all have to do things a little differently. Or maybe, he’s simply eating better because the issue of control has been nulled. There is no battle for control, because neither of us has control. We are both subject to the whims of a reality that is wildly out of our control.
And maybe that means, for the first time in a long time, food is no longer equated with control. Maybe, for now at least, food is equated with something else—something that looks a lot like family. Something that looks a lot like love.
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