My son, who just turned 17 months old, is an astonishingly picky eater. I know, I know: eighty percent of all toddlers are considered by their parents to be astonishingly picky eaters (The other twenty percent, I have deduced through casual observation, are generally considered by their parents to be walking garbage disposals. There is very little appreciation for the concept of moderation among toddlers; they tend to take nearly every preference to some sort of extreme).
But my son is so astonishingly picky when it comes to eating that, despite having started off happily and healthily in the 25th percentile for weight at birth, he has, in fact, managed in recent months to starve himself entirely off of the pediatric weight chart.
When a child falls that far in his weight-gain curve, they have a name for it: Failure to Thrive.
This has lead to several weeks of visits to various expensive and elaborately titled specialists who have poked my son with myriad pointy plastic and metal instruments, taken several vials of blood from his skinny quivering arms while his father or I held him down, and, on multiple occasions, instructed me to tape plastic bags to his little private parts and force-feed him water or fruit juice until he peed.
(None of this has improved his fear of doctors, which he developed after being subjected to "minor" craniofacial surgery to remove a benign but brain-threatening tumor on his skull at the tender age of 8 months. Can you blame him? The doctors don't believe he has a fear of doctors, though. When my normally extremely friendly baby starts screaming uncontrollably at the sight of a white coat, they ask me if he's always had such "separation anxiety issues.")
After weeks of testing and investigation, the experts have, amazingly, concluded something I could have told you three months ago:
My son is skinny because he doesn't eat.
It has become something of an epic quest in our household:
GET THE BOY TO EAT.
The battle plan for achieving this lofty goal is constantly under revision. Aside from mother's milk, which he of course likes, and luckily still gets twice a day with the blessing of a GI doctor (despite our family doctor's continued odd and misinformed insistence that breastmilk after one year has no nutritional value) there are a few foods that he actually seems to consistently enjoy, in small amounts.
Dried fruit, for instance.
And Breyers vanilla ice cream.
Actually, that's it. That's all he likes. Dried fruit, dried coconut, apple juice, and Breyers vanilla ice cream.
That's not to say that's all he ever eats. Well before my son was born, I vowed not to be the sort of overly indulgent parent whose children wind up living entirely off of Coca-Cola and cheese doodles. Nor am I generally person who gives up easily, especially when the health of my child is at stake. So we constantly offer him a variety of good foods in a valiant ongoing attempt to try to wake his sleeping palate.
He drinks cow's milk in small quanitites-- he'll drink more of it if you add vanilla to it. Sometimes he'll eat a chicken nugget, or a french fry, if you cut it up small enough, and use a paper towel to dab off any extra grease. Once in a while he'll go for for a piece of thin-sliced honey-flavored deli ham, if you remove the edges. If he's hungry enough, he might eat a particular kind of fried vegetable chip that can only be found in the bulk section at the Whole Foods Market one hour's drive away from home. If he's in the mood, he'll eat white-bread toast with butter if you cut the crusts off, fold the toast in half so he can't feel the butter's greasiness on his fingers when he touches it, smoosh it flat, cut it into 1-inch pieces, and eat an identical piece of toast in front of him while smiling encouragingly and saying "Mmmm." He has been known, on occasion, to sample a bite or two of a homemade pancake, if it's taken off the griddle just barely cooked and served fresh, but not hot, with the slightest hint of butter and syrup (but by no means SLIMY or GREASY).
But he doesn't actually seem to enjoy any of these foods. He eyes them suspiciously. He picks at them. He frowns at them. He rolls pieces of them back and forth across his lips without actually opening his mouth. If he's really, really, hungry, he will eat a bite or three. But he quickly grows bored with such things and starts banging the tray on his high chair and moaning "Down, down, down," like a mournful church bell. The only things he is willing to eat in any quantity with a smile on his face are dried fruit, dried coconut, apple juice, and Breyers vanilla ice cream.
We've tried expanding on the known likes. For instance, we tried once for a whole week to get him to eat Ben and Jerry's premium organic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers (It's organic, we thought. And it has lots more fat. Which is actually good when you weigh less than 20 lbs). It sure tasted good to us. But every other bite of this luscious fatty ice cream that entered his mouth was unceremoniously spat onto the floor. We've tried to get him to drink grape juice, or orange juice, or fruit punch, now and again, for variety. But after a few thoughtful sips he generally dumps it out in disgust. Coconut-flavored cakes, bread, and cookies: tried; no dice. Apple pie. Vanilla soy milk. Banana shakes. Wheat toast with apple-flavored jelly. Blueberry pancakes. Vanilla-flavored Pediasure. Fruit-flavored Pediasure.
No, no, no, no, no.
Lately, we've resorted to lying when introducing new foods (or, more often, reintroducing old ones that he's never actually given a worthy try). "Did I say that was turkey? Oops! I'm sure I meant ham. White ham!" "Dried sweet corn is EXACTLY like dried apples." "Try it! It's a . . . a new kind of french fry. Really."
However, my son, who, despite his nutritional issues, is frighteningly smart for his age, can generally tell when we're trying to pull one over on him. He has also rather precociously mastered a non-verbal way of instantly letting us know the gig is up: an artful look of withering sarcasm, of the sort more usually seen on teenagers.
So, we slog on, trying new tactics, with little progress, counting halves of ounces of weight gain. We worry, and worry, and see new doctors who tell us to worry some more, though, as all their other tests of our son's health come back normal, they can't tell us, specifically, why. "Poor progress," we hear. "Failure to thrive."
And all the while, my friendly, funny, bright-eyed, active, off-the-growth-chart-skinny son runs through life like a toy tornado, building towers and knocking them down, jumping, climbing, dancing, banging on the electric piano, practicing his alphabet with the magnets on the fridge, seeming to learn five or ten new words every day, making friends with every baby he meets at the mall, attacking his mother and father and sometimes casual acquaintances with baby bear hugs and lovely slobbery kisses.
It sure is hard to tell he isn't thriving.