People who know me (and particularly those who have known me from 2009 or longer) could attest to the fact that I am rather a picky eater. There were several months in 2002 when the bulk of my diet was composed of mashed potatoes, cereal, and pasta. My daily lunch when I started college was almost always a turkey or grilled cheese sandwich. And for the first 4 years or so of my working life, I would have the same lunch (kashi bar, pudding, applesauce) 95% of the time.
These were my natural preferences and tendencies. It got better in college, even better when I met my husband (who aspires to a mid-life crisis as a professional chef), and even better when we moved to big city Baltimore and got exposed to more flavors of the world. In the past 5 years, I have added in Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Mexican, and occasionally Thai foods into my repertoire. (this may not sound like much to you, but coming from a beige diet of American and Americanized Italian foods, it is kind of a big deal)
Recently, I have found that I have had more "accidentally vegetarian" days. This never could have happened before because I just didn’t have the variety in my diet to accomplish it. I’ve always been lazy about cooking, and now when I'm in a scavenging mood, the vegetarian options are often easier to make. I also have been better about finding vegetarian foods with protein, which makes it a "real meal" in my opinion. While I don't anticipate that I will ever cut out meat completely, I do think that this effort helps me consciously eat a little healthier every day.
The combination of my new vegetarian leanings, a penchant for easy foods, and dental work requiring a mechanical soft diet led me to a new front in my battle to conquer cuisines: yogurt. I have always loved frozen yogurt but since initially trying actual yogurt in the cup I have loathed it. Even though I like soft foods, it’s too gloppy. Yogurt with fruit in it involves mixed textures, of which I am not a fan. And every kind of yogurt I have ever tasted has the distinct and awful aftertaste which quite frankly makes me want to vomit. So why bother to try to eat it? Greek yogurt is a great source of calcium and protein without fat or cholesterol. It looks like a great breakfast or post-workout snack. Normal people can eat it. (Spoiler alert- now I can too!)
Over the space of a couple months, I decided to beat Greek yogurt. I have not taken a formal feeding course, but using my OT brain combined with what I know regarding various approaches (SOS and Food Chaining primarily) I felt like it was doable. I started very slow. I got prepackaged frozen smoothies which had fruit and frozen Greek yogurt bites in them. With each sip, I could taste that 'tang' of yogurt, but it wasn't overpowering. This definitely was more filling than a fruit only smoothie, so it did prompt me to keep going.
I could have taken a step 2, and made smoothies on my own with a larger serving of yogurt. But I’m a busy person, not inclined to a lot of extra kitchen effort. So I skipped ahead to buying the little cups of yogurt. I got a couple of flavors and decided to give it a go. With my first attempt, I took a spoonful and made the scrunched up face of awful that I had long associated with yogurt. I thought that I might gag right there on the couch. I was able to eat half a cup by liberally using graham crackers to dip in it, and made a deal with myself that any effort was acceptable. Mentally, I think knowing that you don't HAVE to eat the whole portion is very freeing. I also ate this portion at home, my safe place for trying new foods.
With new cups, I moved forward into trying to use fewer crackers and having more unassisted spoonfuls of yogurt. I took cups to work with me for breakfast (with backup breakfast and Tupperware in tow just in case). It did improve. I was able to eat a new flavor with spoon only and no crackers. Then ultimate victory was reached as such: I was visiting in another town and home alone. I decided to go for a run but needed breakfast, a soft breakfast since my teeth still hurt. I was able to go into the grocery store and get a yogurt and a spoon and eat it in a totally new place, in a hurry, with no problems.
So that is a story of successful OT self-intervention for expanding a food repertoire. Not every new food that I try has to go down this path, thankfully. But I do want this to be an encouragement to people trying to work on feeding interventions with their family. If you are struggling with a child who is an overly picky eater, I would encourage you to reach out to the early intervention service in your state and see if you can have an Occupational Therapy or Speech Therapy assessment performed by someone skilled in feeding intervention. And if you can be as excited as I am by the mundane successes in assisting others on their paths to increased independence, perhaps you should consider a career in Occupational Therapy.
Disclaimers: please work with a qualified professional when addressing feeding with any child or adult. This article is not meant to replace any evaluation or recommendation from a professional regarding feeding skills or development. The SOS and Food Chaining approaches are both under copyright and require additional training to use and this therapist does not purport to be trained as such.