I didn’t go down without a fight on the whole “food issues” thing. My parents were excellent cooks, and I grew up eating homemade Welsh Rarebit, Turkey Tetrazzini, Eggs Benedict, and mac and cheese from scratch.
When I started cooking for myself, I followed their lead. I learned how to use Cajun spices, to liberally use Tabasco, and studied the art of making a decent roux.
I never met a veggie that I didn’t like. Brussels sprouts, spinach, turnip greens, salads of all kinds. I thought they were all delicious and couldn’t wait to share some home-cooked creations with the family I would have one day.
I was not prepared for the “culinary piece” of the sensory issues that came with having boys on the autism spectrum. So when autism became our new norm, it took me more than a minute to accept that my fantasies of cooking tasty, lavish meals for my own family were fizzled.
My sons couldn’t be more different in their taste preferences and tolerances. Both of my boys were so incredibly picky, and as kids, neither ate more than a few kid-friendly foods (fries and chicken nuggets were fan favorites).
One time I forced Brian to taste my relatively tame (no spice, no chunky ingredients) spaghetti with sauce. He first threw a total (disproportionate in my eyes to the task at hand) tantrum. He then tried what we call in our family a “mouse bite”, made some spitting and choking noises, and then proceeded to barf all over the kitchen table.
Evan would throw tantrums of such proportions when asked to “try a bite” that the neighbors could hear him two doors down! Where were the sounds of “please pass the peas” or “save some of that Szechuan beef for me”?!
What I couldn’t understand back then was that just the smell of the marinara sauce made Brian’s stomach turn back flips. To this day, as a young man, he cannot tolerate marinara sauce, and for pizza night, he enjoys a sauce-free pie. Evan’s tolerance was equally limited, just with different foods and textures.
When Evan was about four, I almost starved him trying to “teach” him to eat new foods. I was particularly focused on grilled chicken breast, determined to break him from his obsession with fried foods. Our pediatrician said that when he got hungry enough, he would eat. Sometimes these well-intentioned docs don’t have a clue. With kids on the spectrum, all bets are off. It may be the smell. It may be the texture. Maybe it’s the appearance. Or maybe it’s not balanced just so on the plate (in a Bento Box kind of way). Whatever the reason, it ain’t happenin’ and that’s the end of it.
For those familiar, we tried the GFCF diet with both boys while they were younger. Brian showed no improvement, and Evan showed some gains on the diet. For a couple of years, he was gluten-free. But over time, we discovered that with digestive enzymes, he could eat wheat without negative effects.
I accepted long ago that there are many battles not worth fighting. As any parent of a special-needs child knows, there are exhausting challenges we face every day. I learned to focus on the most pressing matters. Issues that seemed important “before autism”, often became insignificant. (E.g., it would be ludicrous to teach “don’t talk with your mouth full”, when you would give anything just to hear your child talk).
Eventually Evan did try the chicken, and grilled chicken became one of his favorites. Brian is a food purist and never mixes flavors, so casseroles of any kind are a no go. Evan has really branched out over the years, culinarily speaking. He loves Caesar salad, pasta of all kinds, tacos, fajitas, and will even eat green beans. While Brian never met a fruit that he didn’t like, there are precisely three fruits that Evan eats: granny smith apples, strawberries and honeydew melon. We’ve come light years from those early days.
Around the time that I began accepting that my fantasies of family food fests were shattered (circa 2008), I recall sitting poolside with several moms from our homeschool group. We were watching our kids splash in the water, and I was reflecting on how much it sucked that my boys’ primary diet was comprised of chicken nuggets and fries. A Jimmy Buffett song came on the radio, one of my favorites, “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. The wheels in head began to turn. While sitting by the pool, I wrote a song to the tune Cheeseburger in Paradise. Somehow and a weird once-in-a-lifetime-never-to-be-repeated way I convinced the boys to participate in putting together a video which we later uploaded to YouTube.
Today I’m taking a light-hearted look back, and remembering those earlier days and some of our favorite food memories.