Food for Thought, a guest post by Linda B. Davis
Picture your eleven-year-old self, thirty minutes into your first co-ed party. There’s not a lot of mingling going on—for the most part, kids are clumped in corners. Your crush arrives and flashes you an encouraging smile that dazzles like the smiles featured in toothpaste commercials. But there’s nothing you can do about it because your nemesis, a kid who’s been picking on you since the first day of school, has a hold on your crush’s attention and is giving you the stink eye. Your best friend is acting weird—actually everyone is acting a little weird—and you have no idea of how to make your move.
Suddenly the mom pops in with a couple pizza boxes, which will probably serve as a great ice-breaker for everyone else. But you feel like you’ve just been gut-punched, because, before you know it, someone’s handed you a plate. The problem is, you don’t see a cheesy slice of pizza—a food every single person in the world loves but you. Rather, your plate is heaped with a wriggling pile of live worms sliming all over each other.
Everyone else is chowing down. They’re having a blast…but they’re starting to notice that you’re just standing there, trying to pretend you’re totally cool with things. To them, your worms are simply pizza on a plate, and you’ve been through this scenario enough times to know there’s no way anyone can possibly understand why facing down a slice of pizza—and most other foods—is an utter impossibility for you.
This is what life feels like for Ben Snyder, the eleven-year-old protagonist of my middle grade novel, Food Fight, who is living with a little-known condition called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
ARFID, a relatively new diagnosis, is an eating disorder often characterized as extreme picky eating, but the reality is actually quite serious and can cause significant medical, social, and self-esteem issues. It is described as a lack of interest in eating and/or a complete avoidance of eating particular foods based on sensory characteristics including texture, smell, and color. ARFID is often associated with other sensory disturbances, neurodivergence, or fears of choking or vomiting. (Although neurotypical kids and adults may also have ARFID.)
People living with this condition generally say that most foods don’t seem like something they could even put in their mouth, let alone eat, which results in very restrictive diets limited to foods that feel “safe”—often processed or fast foods, which taste the same every time. And although the clinical definitions are descriptive and accurate, they often do not adequately convey the sheer psychological terror involved with ARFID—some call it a food phobia. People with ARFID do not limit themselves to foods they choose to eat—but to the only foods they can eat.
My interest in ARFID began several years ago when I came across the acronym online and realized that I, like many people, had been completely wrong about what I thought I knew about extreme picky eating. As a society we tend to think picky eaters are difficult, rude, and inflexible and that with some effort, they could expand their palates. Also, we often believe that picky eating can be cured by letting children go hungry until they’re willing to eat what is served or by bribing or shaming.
I hate to admit it, but until I gained this new awareness, I too was not particularly sympathetic to the plight of picky eaters. I should have known better, as I have a master’s degrees in social work and developmental psychology. And I knew and loved a picky eater.
My nephew’s extreme picky eating seemed to be a manageable inconvenience when he was very young but as he got older and started to spend more time away from home became more complicated. Understandably, kids living with ARFID tend to be private about their situations for fear of being judged or ridiculed. And as I learned from my nephew, it’s almost impossible to avoid eating in front of other people when your social world is expanding. He couldn’t escape the constant scrutiny and harassment from peers as well as adults. Once I had familiarized myself with ARFID, I came to admire the courage it took him to face the types of eating-focused social gatherings we all effortlessly participate in every day.
Although ARFID is a relatively rare condition, estimated to affect between three and five percent of kids, the types of obstacles it presents are universal in the world of middle graders as they confront the age-old question of How do I fit in? I set out to write a middle grade novel in which real-life kids living with ARFID would finally see themselves on the page and kids unfamiliar with ARFID could relate to a character who struggles to accept himself and to be accepted by his peers. I wanted to explore the social complications ARFID might cause for kids like Ben and how it might affect self-esteem, self-confidence, and relationships, with both peers and parents.
But I had some unexpected bumps along the way to getting this book written and published…
One challenge was to write a story that was both serious and fun about a main character who has more going on than his eating disorder. I wanted Food Fight to tackle a difficult issue and yet not feel too heavy for young readers who also want to read about more familiar topics such as first crushes, bullying, student government elections, and friendship changes—all of which gave me opportunities to show how Ben’s eating disorder made every single situation more difficult for him.
Another concern involved striking a balance in my descriptions of how Ben experiences food situations. I wanted to convey, for readers unfamiliar with the condition, the fear and revulsion that can go with ARFID without being too graphic and possibly turning an ARFID reader off from one of his or her own safe foods. For instance, with that goal in mind, a pizza party scene was revised numerous times with feedback from moms of ARFID/picky eating kids, and I saved more vivid food depictions for the beef barley stew served on Ben’s class trip because I think that meal is probably a hard-sell for most kids already.
Last, as I queried Food Fight, I was reminded of how strong the bias against picky eaters and acceptance of the ARFID diagnosis can be. Many agents told me that Ben’s condition did not seem problematic enough to be worthy of an entire novel. “I ate the same thing for lunch every day, too,” one critiquer told me. “It’s not a big deal.”
But fortunately, Regal House Publishing saw the need and value of telling Ben’s story.
Ultimately, I hope Food Fight accomplishes its goal—to increase awareness and create feelings of empathy toward kids and families living with ARFID.
Meet the author
Linda holds a master’s degree in developmental psychology from Vanderbilt University and a master’s in clinical social work from University of South Florida. Ultimately, her career training prepared her to be curious about why we do the things we do. She is passionate about the need for accessible and accurate information about mental health, especially in children’s books.
About Food Fight
“A must-read for anyone who has ever fought their own battles with both fitting in and being themselves.” —Shannon Schuren, author of Where Echoes Lie
Ben Snyder is ready for middle school. But his super picky eating, which has never been a big deal before, is about to take him down. Suddenly everybody’s on his case about what he’s eating and what he’s not—his old friends, his new friends, his weird lab partner, the girl he’s crushing on, and a bully—and Ben finds himself in social free fall, sliding toward the bottom of the middle school food chain. Even worse, there’s an upcoming three-day class trip to a colonial campsite. Knowing he can’t handle the gag-worthy menu, Ben prepares for the outing like it’s a survival mission. Armed with new and unexpected information about his eating habits that could change everything, he sets out with three tactical goals: impress the girl, outsmart the bully, and avoid every single meal. But when epic hunger threatens to push him over the edge, Ben must decide how far he will go to fit in and if he has the courage to stand out.
Publisher: Regal House Publishing
Publication date: 06/27/2023
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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