Fast Food Palate
An email from the counselor at our son Mickey’s day habilitation program:
What do you think about encouraging Mickey to try a salad maybe twice a week? He loves Wendy’s and there are some legitimately tasty salads he might like. I could start to slowly mention it to let the idea marinate. Mickey has been doing great this past month! We love him!
When Mickey was still in school, we packed him a bag lunch, or teachers took him food shopping and taught him to make his own meal. Now a young adult, he visits the food court at the mall every day. Day hab counselors try to guide his choices, but he chafes at restraint. He wants to eat what his friends eat. Armed with his wallet, he is heady with unaccustomed freedom.
“Today I had a double cheeseburger, Chicken McNuggets and fries.”
“Anything else?” I ask, cringing.
“An Oreo ice cream sundae.”
Mickey’s idea of “healthy” is ordering a small fries instead of jumbo. Every time he asks for fast food and I point out that it is not good for him, he says, “Just for today? Because I was good?”
“It’s not about being good,” I say. “It’s about staying healthy.”
Mickey doesn’t have a significant weight issue, and we want to make sure it stays that way. My husband Marc’s family has a history of heart disease. Marc is a fanatic about eating right and exercising. We are trying to teach those habits to Mickey, but it’s a slow slog up a muddy hill. (Exercise? That’s a whole other column.)
“I tried a new food today!” Mickey announces. “A vanilla cupcake instead of chocolate.”
Mickey has sensory issues. It’s hard for him to distinguish good flavors when he can’t get past disturbing textures. Lettuce repulses him. Carrots make him gag. For years, we tried unsuccessfully to desensitize him. I puréed vegetables and sneaked them into tomato sauce, but no matter how well I hid it, he’d find that fleck of parsley and pick it out suspiciously. “Hey! What’s this green thing?”
In high school, his teacher told us we should make Mickey vegetable smoothies: “Just put kale in the blender.”
“And who’s going to get him to drink that?” I asked, thinking, Obviously you don’t have any children.
If he asks for a milk shake, I toss fruit, skim milk, a dollop of frozen yogurt and ice cubes in the blender. We hide the cookies and dole them out because Mickey can devour an entire box. We make him egg white omelettes. Organic baked chicken nuggets and oven-roasted “French fries.” We offer him fruit and low-salt, low-fat snacks. When we eat out, Marc often pulls aside the waiter and whispers, “We’ll pay for the full portion of fries, but please just give him half.”
Restricting portions and modifying how we cook doesn’t teach him to like healthier foods. Nor does the outside world serve the low-fat versions we make at home. Maybe it’s unfair to expect him to show self-restraint at the food court. After all, anyone’s steely resolve can crack over a Krispy Kreme donut. How do we convince him that just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s good for you?
Maybe we can’t.
His food repertoire is limited. We need to work within those limitations, and our inability to control what he does outside our home. We talk repeatedly about making healthful choices. We tell him the best choice for lunch is a turkey, cheese or ham sandwich from Subway or the deli counter. A turkey burger. One slice of pizza. Food court staples like Nathan’s or Burger King come last on the list. Burger or nuggets. Not both.
We email the day hab counselor back and ask,
What do the other participants eat? Can we make this a peer pressure thing, like a healthy eating club? Set up a chart of healthy choices for the week, where everyone gets healthful foods for four days, and on the fifth day can pick a treat like a small cup of Häagen Dazs if they reach their goals?
Teaching Mickey to make better choices is a work in progress. In the meantime, I hope that ketchup really is a vegetable.
It’s the only one he eats.