– Ben had a total meltdown because potato had touched his nuggets. He was now refusing to eat any of the nuggets, even the ones that had not been ‘contaminated’ by the potato.
– Lottie would eat the sausage and would eat the bread but wouldn’t eat the sausage in the bread.
Does this sound familiar?
Wanting foods to remain separate is super common.
Many children are uncomfortable with foods that touch well into the primary years. In fact, it’s not just children who are fussy eaters who find this challenging, many who are eating competent still prefer them to be separate.
And yes, there are a surprising number of adults who still want their foods to be separated. The official label is brumotactillophobia – try saying that five times without making a mistake 😉
Why no touching?
As always, the more you understand about where a child is coming from, the better. With understanding comes empathy and patience.
Any time a child is less comfortable around eating, small things can become a real challenge. There are many logical reasons why separate foods are more easily accepted.
1.Contamination. This is a common complaint among children who find new foods a challenge. They do not want a food that is not a favourite, touching one that is.
When one food touches another, and particularly a non-accepted food, this can bring up all sorts of fears about how it may affect the food that is comfortably eaten. Will it make it taste or feel different, for example.
2.Off-putting. It can be really off-putting to have a food that is not in the comfort zone on the plate, next to a favoured food. A good way to understand this as an adult is to think about how uncomfortable you would probably be if there was a hair curled next to your potatoes.
This is absolutely not to say that you should not have non-favoured foods on the plate. In fact, you absolutely should be working towards this.
3.The visual. Separate foods can look cleaner, clearer, and therefore more appealing. We do eat with our eyes, and this is especially true of a fussy eater. That first look – as many parents will attest to – can be the make or break.
4.Simplicity. Mixing foods introduces all sorts of complications, such as different textures mingled together.
Fussy eaters like to know exactly what is going to happen when a food goes in the mouth. Knowing that the toast will be crunchy, for example, is part of the reason it is accepted. If something else is added to the toast, it can take away the certainty of how it will feel and behave in the mouth.
5.Order. Being able to completely eat one food before beginning another can be comforting. Part of picky eating is often rigidity around eating. To be able to do things in a specific way can bring comfort.
This can, however, make progress much more difficult over time as rigidity introduces a whole new level of complications for a parent.
6.Control. Young children often have little control over many areas of their life so places where they can exert their will, gives them back some of that perceived lack of power.
7. Fear of accidental eating. If foods are not separate there can be the worry that a less liked food can end up being eaten without realising it. Eek!
Trust over what is on the plate is a critical part of making progress. Which is why I am very negative about hiding foods, particularly when it comes to fussy eaters.
8) Overload. For extremely sensitive children the sight of so many different colours and textures can be overwhelming.
What can we do?
There are always ways to support a child to eat more widely and well. Often though, these are strategies that take time and patience. It’s also critical that our approach is positive.
If your child is in the ‘no touching’ club, working on this is important for social flexibility. As we get older, more and more meals will consist of integrated dishes or foods served together.
Let’s look at some ways you can gently work on foods touching.
1.Practice. As with many areas of eating, the more a child practices something, the easier it can become.
Being uncomfortable with foods touching is something they can gradually learn to accept.
It is also important that you do support a child to do this. The longer everything is separate, the more this becomes the habit and putting foods together becomes more and more difficult.
2.Tiny steps. Often, the best progress is made when the changes are super small. For example, some sprinkles on ice cream. A small thing that is easy to control and where you can just add a nano amount.
3.Easy is best. Although the end goal may be sauce on the pasta, it may be easier to start with something that is within a child’s comfort zone, or where there is an incentive to try.
I worked with a family whose daughter could not mix any foods together and as she got older it made social occasions more and more of a challenge. We began by using melted chocolate as a dip for her fruit. As she loved chocolate and was excited about eating extra amounts, she was okay adding fruit to it.
Starting with something familiar and especially with something that has positive connections for a child can help start the process of putting foods together.
4.Less can be more. If a child is quite anxious or easily overwhelmed around foods, then serving small amounts can be less challenging.
5.Connections. Even if mixing seems too difficult, just serving foods you want eaten together, next to each other, gradually builds a connection between those foods. If the pasta sauce is always served right there next to the pasta it is building a picture in a child’s head about those foods belonging together!
If I say fish, most people will think chips. Or salt, pepper.
6.Put together. If this is not distressing, we can also start to show a child how to mix foods. This may be serving a piece of cheese on the wrap or putting a pea on the pasta. Even if they pick it off and eat it separately, starting with the foods ‘mixed’ but easily separated can be supportive.
Once they are used to one pea, you can serve 2 peas. You get the picture 😊
7. Immersion. Involving a child in mixing foods can be really helpful. A gentle and low-pressure way to do this is away from the table. For example, every time they put the ingredients for a cookie or a cake, into a bowl and stir, they are seeing that multiple bits go together to create a yummy whole.
Or perhaps a child can help put the ingredients in the burger or on the pizza for someone else. Familiarity is always good and is easier if it’s not something that has to be eaten. Over time it is supportive though!
– It is really easy to feel as though the no touching rule is a minor issue, and in some ways it is.
However, the longer a child continues to do this the more challenging it can become to begin putting foods together.
As many foods eaten as adults are mixed then a child being unable to do this pushes families down the multiple meal route, and makes going out to eat more complicated – ah – never a positive.
As in most other areas of our lives, every time we practice a skill it makes it easier the next time. This is why continually giving a child the opportunity to mix is really important.
If you do know another parent who is struggling with fussy eating, I would love for you to share articles with them that you feel may be supportive.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/