Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Plate (Guest Post by Linda B. Davis)

Think about the meals you’ve eaten in the past week. Probably at least half of them were eaten with other people, because eating is a familial and social activity. And when we share a meal with others, or even eat in close proximity to others in a restaurant or cafeteria, we have a close-up view of the food that is sitting on someone else’s plate.

What people eat and don’t eat is based on all sorts of factors—including personal preferences, cultural heritage, religious beliefs, and health concerns. We’re all accustomed to hearing I’m vegan. I’m gluten-free. I’m lactose-intolerant. I keep kosher. I’m doing keto. I have food allergies…and we generally accept and accommodate these needs without question.

But what about picky eaters? We tend to be a lot less tolerant when it comes to a picky eater, whether that picky eater is an adult or a child. We don’t consider picky eating to be legitimate. In fact, we tend to treat picky eaters as though they are difficult, stubborn, unsophisticated, or overindulged.

And we couldn’t be more wrong.

The first picky eater I knew was my own nephew. What seemed to be a manageable inconvenience when he was young became increasingly complicated when he started middle school. Like most middle schoolers, his world was expanding to include all sorts of new social experiences away from home—and most of those experiences involved food. At a time when kids are typically focused on trying to fit in, his extremely limited diet made him stand out, and he was on the receiving end of unwanted attention from his peers and adults.

I didn’t understand his situation, and I hate to admit it, but sometimes I was a bit judgmental. And I should have known better, especially since I have master’s degrees in developmental psychology and social work. When I finally saw the acronym ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) I realized I had a lot to learn.

ARFID, a relatively new diagnosis, is an eating disorder often characterized as extreme picky eating, but it is actually quite serious and can cause significant medical, social, and self-esteem issues in kids and adults. ARFID is described as a lack of interest in eating or avoidance of food based on its sensory characteristics including texture, smell, color. ARFID is sometimes defined as a food-related phobia. Some people living with ARFID simply say that most food doesn’t seem like something they could put in their mouth and eat.

Consequently, people with ARFID have a very small repertoire of foods that feel “safe” to eat, and those foods are often processed or fast foods because that is the kind of food that is the same every single time. (Think goldfish crackers, McDonald’s French fries, or Domino’s cheese pizza compared to bananas, homemade macaroni and cheese, or hamburgers, which can differ considerably depending on the chef or the recipe.) Unfortunately, processed/fast foods are also considered unhealthy, and people with ARFID are often shamed for eating what is commonly referred to as “junk food.” What many people don’t understand is that people with ARFID do not choose to eat only “safe” foods—these are the only foods they can eat.

I was beginning to recognize that for kids with ARFID, social gatherings of any sort can be overwhelming and anxiety producing—Can you think of a special event you’ve attended recently that did not include a meal or at least a slice of birthday cake? And bigger or more formal functions can be even more catastrophic for a kid with ARFID because celebrations and holidays are rooted in tradition and traditional foods, creating a real recipe for disaster. (Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner featuring cornbread stuffing, pumpkin pie, and creamed spinach. Now imagine how it might feel for a kid with ARFID to sit at the table with an empty plate or an untouched plate of food and the things even well-meaning relatives might say.)

My research led me to quite a bit of information tailored to parents of ARFID kids, but I wasn’t finding anything created for the kids themselves. This is what led me to write Food Fight, a middle grade novel about an eleven-year-old boy named Ben who is living with ARFID. I wanted to explore the social complications ARFID can cause and its impact on self-esteem, self-confidence, and relationships with peers and parents. My hope is that kids living with ARFID will see themselves on the page and possibly feel less alone, and readers who are unfamiliar with ARFID will relate to a character who struggles to accept himself and be accepted by his peers. Although ARFID is a relatively rare condition, the types of challenges it presents are universal in the world of middle graders as they confront the never-ending question of How do I fit in?

Food Fight also features more typical middle grade fare such as first crushes, bullying, friendship changes, unexpected allies, and an overnight class trip, and all of those potentially challenging experiences are even trickier for Ben when food is in the mix—and it’s always in the mix for Ben and his peers as they do regular middle school things like share fries at the mall, walk into town for ice cream, roast marshmallows on a class trip, and eat pizza at their first boy/girl party.

Ultimately, I hope Food Fight encourages people to react to picky eating and ARFID with empathy rather than judgment. I think we’re all better off when we keep our eyes on our own plates.




Linda B.Davis holds master's degrees in social work and developmental psychology. As a social worker in a community mental health setting, Linda became passionate about the need for accurate and accessible mental health information in children's literature. Linda lives outside Chicago and enjoys traveling with her family, buying more books than she can possibly read, and maintaining her Little Free Library. Her middle grade novel, Food Fight, is the story of an overnight class trip that becomes a survival mission for an eleven-year-old boy with ARFID. Food Fight will be released by Regal House Publishing on June 27, 2023.