Ben had a total meltdown because a 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.
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 and there are a surprising number of adults who still find it a challenge. The official label is brumotactillophobia – try saying that five times without making a mistake 😉
Why no touching?
Any time we have a child that is less comfortable around eating then small things can become a real challenge. There are many logical reasons why separate foods are more easily accepted:
i) Contamination. This is something that is a common complaint among children who find new foods a challenge. Having a food that is not a favourite, touching one that is, can be upsetting.
It can bring up all sorts of fears about how it may affect the accepted food. Will it make it taste or feel different, for example.
Moreover, just having a food that is not in the comfort zone next to something else on the plate can be really off-putting. A good way to understand this as an adult is to think about how easy it would be for us to eat comfortably if there was a hair sitting next to our potatoes!
This is absolutely not to say that we should not have foods that are not favourites on the plate, in fact we absolutely should be working towards this!
ii) Visuals. Separate foods can look cleaner, clearer and so more appealing. We do eat with our eyes and this is especially true of a picky eater. That first look – as many parents will attest to – can be the make or break!
iii) Simplicity. Mixing introduces all sorts of complications like 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 that that food is accepted. If you add something else to the toast, it can take away the certainty of how it will feel and behave in the mouth.
iv) 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.
v) 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.
vi) 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, especially when it comes to fussy eaters.
vii) Overload. For extremely sensitive children the sight of so many different colours and textures can be overwhelming.
What can we do?
1. As with many areas of eating, the more we practice something, the easier it can become.
Being uncomfortable with foods touching is something that we can gradually learn to accept.
It is also important that we do support our 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. Often, taking tiny steps is the best policy. For example, some sprinkles on ice cream. A small thing that is easy to control and where we can just add a nano amount.
3. Easy is best. Although our end goal may be sauce on the pasta, it may be easier to start with something that is within our 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 OK adding fruit to it.
Starting with something familiar and especially with something that has positive connections for our child can help start the process of putting foods together.
4. Less can be more. If we have a child that is quite anxious or easily overwhelmed around foods, then serving small amounts can be less challenging.
5. Even if mixing seems too difficult, just serving foods we want eaten together, next to each other, gradually builds a connection between those foods. If we always have the pasta sauce right there next to the pasta we are building a picture in our child’s head about those foods belonging together!
6. Having our child involved in mixing foods away from the table. Every time they are putting the ingredients for a cookie or a cake, for example, into a bowl and stirring, they are seeing that multiple bits go together to create a yummy whole.
It is really easy to see foods not touching as being a minor issue, and in some ways it is.
However, the longer we continue to do this the more challenging it can become to begin putting foods together.
As many foods we eat as adults are mixed then our child being unable to do this pushes us down the multiple meal route – 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 our child the opportunity to mix is really important.
If you do know another parent who is struggling with picky eating, I would love for you to share articles with them that you feel may be supportive.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/