When I was a kid I was a very bad eater. I had a wide range of food that I disliked so much I’d throw it back up before I could even swallow the bites, the instant gag reflex just would not allow it.
What were the problem foods?
I hated a lot of things, cooked or mashed potatoes, lentils, green beans, brusselsprouts, overcooked pasta, zucchini, eggplant, certain kinds of processed meat, asparagus, and the list goes on and on. I was skinny as a stick, and, as was custom back in those days, I was often made to sit at the table in front of a plate of half-chewed, cold food for what felt like ages to my kid self. Many tears were shed, and none of the food became any more attractive to me.
Needless to say, I had a messed up relationship with food. There were few things I did like eating, and when I was a teenager who cooked her own lunch after school, I pretty much ate fried ramen with cheese, ketchup and mayonnaise whenever I could.
I used to tell my parents that I really hated the “floury” texture of beans and cooked potatoes, I guess it’s the starchy stuff, really, but it did not sink in until I started to read about Asperger’s that this was an actual thing I was sensitive to. I wasn’t a difficult eater on purpose. I mean, my dad is a wonderful cook and he always made a lot of effort to get me to try and like things.
One thing he started doing in later years, was to mix all the veggies I refused to eat into cream soup. I guess my parents celebrated a small victory every time I’d eat the soup, and you know, it’s great, cause that way I at least started to eat a larger variety.
When I moved out, though, I quickly reverted back to fried ramen with ketchup, or simple sandwiches without substance or any green other than a sliced pickle.
It took me quite a few years to actually start cooking proper food, and I started to develop acceptable ways of preparing the foods I used to hate.
What did I change?
It’s all about how food is prepared, how long (or if) it is cooked, and what you combine it with. Now I’m very sure that everyone who is sensitive to textures, flavours and smells of foods has different preferences, so it’s all about trying things out, to find your own comfort zone (or that of your loved one whom you cook for).
For me, first of all, I still do not eat potatoes often, but when I do, I prefer to briefly cook them, and then put them in veggie oven dishes. That way they are not so floury, but more firm. Cutting smaller pieces also helps, little cubes, or thin slices instead of two-inch pieces. That way it’s less of a big floury chunk you have to chew on.
For beans, legumes and lentils the trick for me is to not overcook them, and most recently, I stopped cooking them altogether. My new favourite are soaked mungbeans. You know, those little green ones. You can soak them in a glass jar of water for eight or so hours and then just add them to salads, steamed rice, or burritos and the likes. They are nice and firm, but not hard to chew. They are just right.
Another thing that is a lifesaver for me is my rice cooker. It was always quite difficult for me to get rice just right in a normal pot, but my rice cooker makes it the exact same way every single time. I looooove it. Especially whole grain sushi rice, a big staple of my diet now, is absolutely perfect the way it turns out. Not squishy or floury, but exactly the right kind of chewy!
I cut off the stems from broccoli and then make very, very small slices of the stems (about fingernail size), so I don’t have to chew on a big chunk of stem which used to absolutely get the gag reflex going when I was a kid. When I prepare zucchini or cucumber, I remove the squishy inside bits and only use the harder parts of the vegetable. (This is actually how most chefs do it anyway).
I still don’t like corn, but that is a combination of flavour, texture and smell (smell, mostly). Then again, I’ve never had proper corn from the cob, and I do like polenta made from corn flour as well as corn bread (without actual pieces of corn, that is. :P) I stay away from popcorn, but that is another texture thing… those hard bits… ugh. Then again, popcorn is very, very unhealthy, so no big loss there. 🙂
In general, I figured out that I prefer smaller amounts of many different things mixed together (like rice with other grains, small chopped veggies) over larger amounts of just one or two foods, but keep in mind that some people are the exact opposite and cannot handle when different foods mix (or even touch). I think the key is to take the person seriously (if you try to cook for someone else), and try to find acceptable alternatives together.
In case of a mix-no-foods person, maybe consider serving food not on one large plate, but instead do it the Japanese way and serve all small bits in separate little bowls.
Experiment with the way you cut fruits and veggies. Someone who cannot handle eating whole strawberries may have less of an issue when you thinly slice them, or cube them, or blend them into a smoothie. Sometimes removing the skin will already help, other times investing in a food processor that cuts finer, or more interesting shapes is worthwhile too.
Slow-juicing is another way to eliminate texture issues for very difficult eaters, and it still gives, maybe not the fibre, but the vitamins and minerals of greens and fruits. Combine vegetables with juicy, sweet fruit like apples, grapes or oranges.
The same goes for making soup. If soup is no problem, texture-wise, then it’s a great way to get someone to eat their veggies, their starches, their carbs.
It may sound like a lot of work, but eating healthy is pretty much the best way to prevent illness, and, as I wrote in another post before, it helps with some of my sensory issues. By figuring out acceptable ways to prepare food we can wean off unhealthy “feel-good” security foods, and I know that a lot of us have those foods, and they are barely ever of the healthy kind.
I still LOOOOOOVE to eat noodles. Ramen, Soba, Udon, Mie, Spaghetti… LOOOVE IT. I just don’t put cheese on top anymore, or use ketchup or mayonnaise. Now I finely chop veggies, make my own pesto, or use a lemon and soy sauce mix.
Fear of food.
Maybe the approach should be about eliminating fear of food. I was seriously terrified of certain foods when I was a kid. I would cry just from the smell coming from the kitchen. It was a trauma. The worst thing any parent can do when it comes to food is to force children to eat something they do not want.
Yes, figuring out the best way to prepare a large variety of food for a picky eater will take some work, but it’s definitely worth it. Just imagine no more tears at the dinner table. Picture yourself with your child (or other loved one with texture issues) cooking together in the kitchen. Maybe even put emphasis on buying the food together, and, if you have an Aspie child that loves to learn about biology, even go into details about what minerals and vitamins are in a food, how it’s grown, where it comes from, etc.
He/she may start to info-dump while cutting that tomato, but it will definitely build a healthy relationship with food that can only be beneficial for the rest of their lives. 🙂