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Be careful what associations you build into routines with your pets.  Be sure you’re comfortable doing them for the rest of your pet’s life.

Finley has not always been a good eater.  He was one to let his food languish in the bowl.  Back in 2004-5, when we rented a shitty twin that was overrun with mice, we were a little paranoid (or justified) about leaving food out, and this included pet food.  Our landlord went so far as to blame the infestation on the dog’s food, which was (and always has been) kept in a sealed Rubbermaid tub.  Nevertheless, we were loathe to leave Finley’s food out for such a time as he felt compelled to eat it. 

Growing up, my family’s dogs had always been grazers, eating their fill whenever they chose, and never having weight problems or mouse issues.  But Finley changed everything.  We were told he had some issues surrounding feeding time when he had lived with Mr. Apron’s sister, Bianca, and her other dog, a black lab named Corey.  We weren’t sure if he hoarded her food, or if she kept him from eating.  In our early years of Finley ownership, with his picky eating, we had assumed it was the latter. 

We coaxed, we cajoled, we laid down the law.  We tried picking up the food after a period of time, letting him understand that if he wanted to eat, now was The Time, and if he chose not to, he could wait for the next meal.  It works with children.  Unfortunately I think the issue of hunger operates differently in dogs.  I’ve heard of some who will eat until they burst, not having that sense of fullness humans (are supposed to) have.  So we tried all manner of topping.  After some early attempts at “garnishing” his food with broken dog biscuits, we made a discovery.  Some dog food company made a sort of gravy we would squirt on his food, and that worked well enough.  Through some accident (perhaps Mr. Apron’s father was taking care of Finley one day and got “creative”), we soon found that he loved ketchup and all tomato-based products, so we switched to that.  As we neared the end of a jar of pasta sauce, I’d fill it up with water, creating a vaguely tomato-scented gravy that worked well enough.  We’d slosh it on his food, and he’d immediately start licking it up.  We figured that a kibble or two accidently entered his mouth and reminded him, “Hey.  This is food.  You like it.  Eat it now.”  So he’d clean his bowl.

I’m not sure when the soy milk started, or why we even conceived that a dog would have a palate for it.  But I can’t remember a time now when I was permitted to finish my “sugar mik” at the bottom of my cereal bowl.  I feel like I’ve always poured that little bit on Finley’s food. 

And now, Molly’s.  She has a touch of the sibling rivalry, and whatever he gets (biscuit, ear medicine, tooth brushing, toweling off after a walk), she wants intensely.  So even though they are both now good eaters (it seems she has inspired Finley to eat quickly lest she steal his food), the milk persists.  Finley will now claw at his bowl (or hers; he’s not picky) to ask for his kibble or the milk.  This morning, as I absent-mindedly did a Sudoko puzzle at the kitchen table, I must have lingered too long over my empty cereal bowl.  Next thing I knew, Molly was sitting in the chair beside me, her plaintive eyes meeting mine, and she uttered a delicate whine. 

“Please Mommy, your milky?  Please? I can have it in my bowl?”

And now a ritual that began as a way to cajole our picky eater into consuming his food before the mice did has been passed onto the next generation.  We are cultivating a love of soy milk in our canines.

If they both live to be 20, and people ask us our secret, we won’t be talking about the raw meat we don’t give them, nor the 5-mile daily walks they don’t have.  We’ll just shrug, sheepishly and say, “It must be the soy milk.”

I know I was a picky eater as a child – my siblings and I all were – but my brother was far worse than my sister and I combined, so our relatively typical picky eating paled in comparison.  

Looking at the childhood brother clinically, from my view as a speech language pathologist (yes, we also work with children/adults on swallowing/feeding/eating/nutrition issues), he’s just barely sub-clinical.  He would have (today) been a kid that a responsible pediatrician or SLP would have monitored to make sure he continued to meet dietary needs, but wouldn’t have offered direct intervention. 

Sub-clinical or not, it was always a source of stress in our home.  My brother was definitely a picky eater, just below the threshold for “Problem Feeder,” a distinction SLPs will make for kids who eat fewer than ~24 distinct foods, often fewer than 20.  Problem feeders may only eat foods of a certain color (orange, red), or texture (only crunchy, only pureed), or may avoid entire categories of foods.  They melt down when confronted with a new food, and may have accompanying sensory issues, which is often the case with children on the autism spectrum who are problem feeders. 

While my brother’s food repertoire did have certain patterns, and he had more than one melt-down at a restaurant when something was not just right, he still doesn’t quite make it into problem feeder territory.  First, let us count his food repertoire:

1)      cheese ravioli smothered in pasta sauce

2)      spaghetti smothered in pasta sauce

3)      Kraft Macaroni & Cheese

4)      fast food chicken nuggets smothered in ketchup

5)      restaurant French fries smothered in ketchup

6)      Chef Boyardee pasta shapes (with or without meatballs) in tomato sauce

7)      poptarts (strawberry) liberally topped with cream cheese

8)      bagels (plain) liberally topped with cream cheese

9)      green peas (his one non-tomato sauce vegetable)

10)  cranapple juice or cranberry juice cocktail

11)  milk (on occasion; we’re not big milk drinkers )

12)  hotdogs or hamburgers on occasion, with the usual ketchup

13)  Quaker Chewy granola bars, in peanut butter and chocolate chip

14)  frosting off of desserts (he didn’t care for the cake)

15)  fish sticks dipped in ketchup

16)  tortilla chips and salsa

17)  potato chips

18)  challah bread

19)  mozzarella cheese sticks

20)  fruit roll-ups, fruit-by-the-food, fruit snacks (the only fruit-like product, outside of juice)

21)  soda

22)  ice cream (I forget which flavors, probably vanilla or chocolate)

23)  Friendly’s peanut butter cup sundae

24)  M&Ms, Reese’s peanut butter cups

25)  Other chocolate things

Phew; we made it to 25, plus there are all sorts of junk foods I’m undoubtedly leaving out.  Looking at patterns in the above, we can see he likes tomato-based products, applied liberally.  There is also brand and flavor specificity.  My brother had a continual issue with home-baked fries and chicken nuggets; as they were not deep-friend and packed with junk, they never tasted crispy enough.  Looking at the tendency towards salty, highly-flavored foods, one might label my brother a sensory-seeking child, which I would agree with entirely.  He likes crunchy foods (chips), soft foods (ice cream, cream cheese), chewy foods (fruit roll-ups, chicken).  I know my parents were frequently concerned with his protein intake, so he began consuming some tuna in adolescence. He’s since been turned onto steak, and enjoys ordering a steak (smothered, of course, with A1) when he eats out.  He does (and did) get into food “jags,”  and to this day (he’s nearly 27) eats a strawberry Pop-tart with cream cheese every day. 

One of the other issues, besides the obvious nutrition concern, is social.  A family is restricted not only when they eat out (we were stuck with American, family-friendly traditional fare for years), but also at home.  I think my sister’s and my food repertoire were somewhat stunted as Mom would have had to cook separate meals if we wanted to eat something other than what my brother was eating.  And then there’s the peer concern.  Something interesting happened on my brother’s early separations from the family.  When he went off to camp (3 separate times, for short sessions), he was faced with a distinct lack of the usual fare.  Though Mom had no doubt packed his suitcases with Quaker Chewy granola bars and Strawberry Pop-tarts (and still stocks the pantry likewise), he had a choice – to eat some of what was provided during meal times with his peers, or go hungry until he could eat his food back in his bunk.  At college, too, he learned that if he wanted to go out with friends to eat, or enjoy a meal in the dining hall (if that’s possible, given some of the “tofu and yam surprise” options) with roommates, he had to go along to get along.  As a result, he added foods like pancakes and kebabs to his ever-growing list of foods.  Recently, we have been able to go out to eat at ethnic restaurants, including Indian and Asian cuisine, which would have been unheard of. 

My brother is often deserving of the term “late bloomer”.  He’s been able to travel abroad, live alone, socialize with peers, and assume some responsibility for keeping himself alive nutritionally.  Amazing what a picky eater can do when confronted with a healthy dose of peer pressure.  Funny how they never tell you the positive effects of peer pressure during DARE assemblies.

We had a meeting for the therapists this past week, the topic of which was picky eaters and problem feeders.  In speech pathology, our practices often cover a wide range of seemingly disparate disorders and conditions, from post-stroke adults with impairments in language to children who are picky eaters.  Because the mouth, tongue, teeth, palate, and lips are used not only for speech but also for eating, we enter the realm of feeding and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). 

Part of our discussion was centered on differentiating problem feeders from “ordinary” picky eaters.  Children are notoriously picky eaters, refusing vegetables, insisting on only McDonald’s chicken nuggets, and covering everything with ketchup.  But some of these behaviors are typical, and other signal a more troubling feeding disorder.  For example, a picky eater may seem like he has a restricted diet, but, when pressed to list everything he eats, a parent may come up with at least 25 different foods, in each category of the food pyramid.  Maybe it’s heavy on the bread/grain category, and light on the fruit/veg.  Maybe he only eats chicken or fish when it’s heavily breaded or fried.  But he still eats a variety of foods and textures (some puree, some soft, some crunchy, etc.).   A problem feeder, by contrast, may eat fewer than 15 different foods, may leave out entire textures or food groups, or only eat “white” foods. 

Another aspect of childhood eating we discussed was “food jags”.  Though the term was unfamiliar, the concept was not.  Kids get “stuck” on certain foods, and may insist on them for weeks or months at a time.  Strawberries, rice krispies, string cheese, peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip granola bars.  It could be anything.  My own brother subsisted on a relatively limited diet in his childhood and until he went away to college.  He smothered ketchup or tomato sauce on everything and ate the aforementioned granola bars every day.  I myself went through a period where frosted flakes and chocolate milk were the only breakfast to be had.  And I poured exactly 6oz of milk over my cereal from my special pitcher.  For years.  Mr. Apron insisted on corned beef sandwiches (with mustard, on a challah roll) for lunch for two years.  Reese’s peanut butter cups, 8 at a sitting, arranged in a circle, for snack in middle school.  Doritos.  Kit Kat Big Kat (not the mini bars).  Bianca (the famous sister-in-law) ate Cinnamon Toast Crunch every morning for 3 years.  Then she switched to Frosted Shredded Wheat. 

Point is, most kids go though these “food phases”.  They mysteriously grow out of them and move onto other things.  With problem feeders, it may be to the exclusion of everything else.  It may be that their diets are not remotely nutritionally complete.  But typical kids go through it, too. 

What are your memories of “food jags”?  How about your kids’ food preferences?  What do they get stuck on?

Our dog has discriminating tastes.  He’s not exactly like the dog from the beggin’ strips ad, or the dog from the Beneful ad, though he resembles the former.  For years, we have had to coax him to eat his dog food.  Mr. Apron, though not schooled in generations of dog ownership, had never seen a healthy young dog who didn’t fairly squee with joy and anticipation of his food being put down.  As for myself, I grew up in a household where dog food was left out for the animals to graze on throughout the day.  The dogs of my youth managed their appetites and weights just fine, and certainly enjoyed their kibble. 

Finley, however, is different.  He’s not overly picky, per se.  We’ve tried him on every variety of cheap dog chow, and some varieties of expensive stuff.  He just seems to enjoy a little something extra.  I have to say, if I had to eat the same dry food day after day, I’d grow a little bored, too.  For about a year, Mr. Apron had a ritual where he’d make a big fuss of putting a broken-up milk bone on top, as garnish. And sometimes this would work.  Sometimes not.  Unfortunately, we could not just leave it down for him to get hungry, as we soon contracted a fatal case of mice infestation, and guess what food they like best?  Yes, dog food.  They actually managed to chew through the sealed rubbermaid container to get into his foo, so tasty it was to them.  Nor did the old adage of “He’ll eat when he’s hungry”, as there seemed to be no pattern to when it would eat.  I’ve also read that many dogs will eat until they burst, having less of a full/hungry sensation than humans. 

Mr. Apron’s father, on dog-walking duty one day, struck upon the ketchup that began gracing the fridge after I moved in (Mr. Apron himself won’t touch the stuff ), and squirted some in Finley’s bowl.  Hence was born the special sauce.  To this day, it’s the magic elixir that will get him to eat on those days when soy milk is not enough.  Yes, I said soy milk.  I can’t truthfully recall how we discovered this one.  I’m a lactard, as previously disclosed.  I’ve converted Mr. Apron, who never much cared for cow milk, to using soy milk in his cereal.  So when we’re done eating cereal, instead of drinking the leftover dribs and drabs of milk, we pour it into one bowl, and dress Finley’s food.  He waits, attentively, eagerly anticipating the time when the liquid will drop.  He laps up the milk first, then goes for the kibble.  It truly is specific to soy milk.  Once, when Mr. Apron had cow milk in his bowl, and gave that to Finley, he sniffed it, and flatly rejected the whole concoction.  But soy…that’s the stuff.  And it works, at least during the week.  Often on weekends, we have bagel sandwiches, or go out for brunch, or, on rare occasion, make eggs, pancakes, and the like.  On these days, he makes a silent prayer for bacon, cheese, eggs, bagel, or whatever we feel like dropping.  That may not be enough for his dog food, though.  On these days, we resort to another tomato product: watered down pasta sauce.  When we finish a jar of Classico, I fill it back up with water, which takes on the flavor of the sauce.  We slosh it on his grub, and he chows down.  This is especially helpful when we’re at my parents’ house, or dog-sitting, when there are other dogs vying for competition, who may eat his food if he doesn’t get to it fast enough.  Yes, we have our tricks. 

And Finley has his treats.  While generally a well behaved beast, he does bark his head off sometimes for attention, and he has destroyed one hollow-core door and one dog gate, trying to escape unknown assailants (probably flies).  He doesn’t counter surf, doesn’t beg for food audibly, and hasn’t gotten into the trash in 6 years.  He politely sniffs groceries when I come home from the market, but has only one time ever gone into a bag to pull out his favorite food:  broccoli.  Sure, many dogs like carrots, and maybe some dogs like mini-wheats, but Finley is absolutely coo-coo for broccoli.  When it comes out of the fridge for stir fry, or for hors d’oeuvres, he trails that floret like he’s suddenly become a bloodhound.  He sits, focused as a border collie, hoping, praying for a stalk.  We usually give him some of the very fibrous end stalks unfit for human consumption.  We save others in a ziploc in the fridge for use as “green shut-up sticks”, when company shows up and he wants to be the center of attention, or when he’s forgotten how to entertain himself, or when we’d like to be punished later in the evening by his farts.  Yes, he can digest the stalks, and never seems to be in any GI discomfort during or after the treat, but he does let ’em rip later that night.  You know the smell — cafeteria-steamed, army-green florets in a humid lunchroom mixed with locker bologna and some other unidentifiable permanent smell that is probably closely allied with gym socks. 

But hey, he’s happy.  And who can put a price on that?  Finley digs his greens so much that when we visit our crunchy Vermont friends and take him along, he dives headlong into their compost pile.  Worms are great for composting, but I think Finley’s more efficient.  I mean, you’ve got a usable product in 24 hours.  Worms can’t begin to compete. 

How about you?  What do your pets enjoy?  Shredded wheat?  Carrots?  Dried squid?  Apple cores?

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April 2020