Parenting the Mental Health Generation

Food Fight: A Middle Schooler's Fight for Self-Acceptance

June 27, 2023 CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health Season 2 Episode 10
Parenting the Mental Health Generation
Food Fight: A Middle Schooler's Fight for Self-Acceptance
Show Notes Transcript

  " You know, once you become an expert in being yourself, navigating the world gets a whole lot easier."  Olivia, from Food Fight

Did you know some picky eating is considered an eating disorder?  Extreme cases are now diagnosed as ARFID, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.  Local author and social worker Linda B. Davis is releasing the book, Food Fight, to help readers better understand this mental illness through the eyes of a middle schooler.  In the final episode of season two of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, Davis talks with our podcast hosts, Amy and Lisa, about the teenager who inspired the story and the lesson we can all learn about accepting ourselves. 

Food Fight (released June 27, 2023, Regal House Publishing) is available at local, independent book stores, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Linda's Book Launch Events:
June 27th Book Bin Event  6-8pm Northbrook IL
July 11st Book Stall Event, 6:30-7:30pm Winnetka IL

NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) Support Line
ARFID Information from NEDA
FEAST (Global Support Group for Caregivers)

©CATCH 2023
Music Credit: Tune 2 go / POND 5

To find all of the resources CATCH provides to caregivers of young people struggling with their mental health, go to

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CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health, is a 501(c)3 that provides support and education for families around mental health topics. Original content and materials from CATCH and its collaborators are for informational purposes only. They are provided as a general resource and are not specific to any person or circumstance.

[00:00:00] Dr. Lisa Novak, CATCH Board Member: It's time for another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, and we have something exciting in store for you today. We're thrilled to welcome Linda to our show, author of a soon to be released book, Food Fight. While new to the world of authorship, she's a seasoned parent of two now young adult daughters, a former social worker and a local member of our community, and we are thrilled to have her here with us.

Welcome, I'm Lisa.

[00:00:35] Amy O., CATCH Executive Director: And I'm Amy and we're the hosts of today's podcast. Linda's going to give us a sneak peek into her brand-new book about a middle school student navigating the challenges of an eating disorder. She'll share her inspiration for writing the book and leave us with some next steps to take if you or someone you know has a child struggling with eating issues.

[00:00:54] Lisa: So, put in your earbuds. Take these 30 minutes for you and join our conversation with Linda. Hi, Linda. Welcome.

[00:01:03] Linda B. Davis, Author, “Food Fight”: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

[00:01:06] Lisa: We are excited for you to be here. We thought we'd start off with you, sharing a little bit about what your new book is about.

[00:01:13] Linda: Well, my book called Food Fight is a middle grade novel about a boy named Ben. He's 11-years-old and he is starting middle school at a middle school, much like the middle schools in our community. It's a school that several elementary schools have fed into and so there's lots of new kids on the scene and so there's a lot going on socially. And suddenly his extreme picky eating, which is what he understands it to be at that point, becomes a real obstacle for him socially and there's all sorts of normal, typical social things going on; a first crush, a school election, a bully, and his eating complicates all of that. But most importantly, there's an upcoming overnight school trip, and he knows that's going to be super, super difficult for him.

[00:02:04] Amy: When you say picky eating, it's not just picky eating, tell us a little bit about what Ben Snyder actually can or does eat.

[00:02:14] Linda: And that's a very good point, and I often use the expression picky eating or extreme picky eating because I find myself talking to a lot of people that are not familiar with the diagnosis that this character likely has, which is ARFID, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. We all know that words are important. The words that we use are powerful. And you're right, picky eating does not adequately explain what's going on with this character. ARFID is a much more serious situation than picky eating. It's serious in medical ways, in nutritional ways and in psychosocial ways. The way we think about ARFID, and I'm not an expert in ARFID, it's an eating disorder that is characterized by restricting food, either by texture, taste, familiarity, and it is associated with all sorts of complications. They can be medical. They can be social. And it is something that we're learning more and more about. It's a relatively new diagnosis. It's a relatively new eating disorder on the scene of eating disorders, but it's obviously been something that's been happening for a long time.

[00:03:22] Lisa: And you use the term restrictive eating, which is such a big part of ARFID, but I think it's important to, just for a moment, to separate that from a different eating disorder like anorexia, where, my understanding clinically is that ARFID is less about the concern around weight and body image and more just about this lack of interest in eating or fear of certain foods and that can have similar complications and results in the end, but ultimately the etiology of it is not necessarily the same.

[00:03:55] Linda: Exactly and another reason that it becomes complicated to diagnose it.

[00:04:00] Amy: I was lucky enough to have an advanced reader copy, ARC, of the book and food, one point the character described it as tasting like dog poop. Like, it's so absolutely awful. Is that correct for everyone who has ARFID?

[00:04:17] Linda: I don't think we know, of course, what it's like for everyone. And I just want to be clear that in the book Food Fight, my character never eats dog poop. He makes a reference in a heated argument with his father, "This is so hard for me. This is so impossible. It's like you're asking me to eat dog poop," which of course none of us could do. And think that, a lot of times people with ARFID describe it as an intense fear, almost a phobia of trying new things. Like a lot of things, it's hard for some of us who are more typical eaters, to get our head around this kind of intense fear or intense reaction to textures, maybe smells, maybe something that's unfamiliar. A lot of kids with ARFID end up eating a lot of foods that the rest of us might call junk foods, even though we really shouldn't be naming foods like that in a negative way, but processed foods are the same every time we eat them. A goldfish cracker or a fry from McDonald's taste the same every time. Whereas if you have five people make you some macaroni and cheese, it might taste a little different every time. And so, in things like that, familiarity and consistency are really hard for people with ARFID. They're also adults with ARFID, but right now we're talking about kids.

[00:05:35] Lisa: Linda, can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind writing this book and especially as a first novel for you?

[00:05:43] Linda: Many years ago, my nephew, who is the same age as my daughters, was struggling with again, what I'll call picky eating because it was not diagnosed and I saw that situation become more and more complicated for him and for his family as he got older. Especially as he hit middle school because I think, as we all know, once you're in middle school, you're doing a lot of things away from home. You're socializing away from home more and more without your parents. And as we all know, also, when we're socializing, there tends to be food involved. If you think about it, try to think of a social event you attended recently where there was not food, birthday cake, even appetizers with cocktails, anything. And so, what I was seeing was a kid who was 11, 12, who's just learning to find his own voice in advocating for what he needs in a social environment where everybody wants to be the same, typically, not always. And it got more and more complicated for him. And I had some of my own feelings about that, which were not always as sympathetic as they could have been. I didn't understand it. I don't think I had enough information. And one day online I came across the acronym ARFID. Saw that it was in the DSM, which I'm sure you guys have talked about, but the DSM is kind of the bible of diagnostic information as to how mental health professionals diagnose different mental health conditions. And suddenly I realized it was much more complicated than I realized. I joined some Facebook groups, private groups for people or caregivers of people with ARFID, kids with ARFID and I was opened up to a whole world of what the reality is for so many parents and families and I just started learning. And then I was involved in creative writing. I wrote just a scene, the dinner table scene for my creative writing class and then I started thinking this maybe could be a whole book.

[00:07:42] Amy: I related so much to. Ben's family when I read the book, and so much of what you just said is familiar to me because as many of you know, my daughter is in recovery from anorexia. And I think one of the things that people don't understand unless you're really in it, is how it affects every situation involving food. My extended family, for example, would try very hard to accommodate what might help my daughter through a particular meal or a holiday celebration even though I would say there's really nothing you can do absolutely nothing, just let her get through this in whatever way she needs to, but it becomes another guest at the table. It becomes another sort of entity around all those gatherings. I think you did a really good job, letting us know how difficult it was on Ben's parents, particularly in this book.

[00:08:39] Linda: And I think that we have all had a lot of experiences. I know I have in my own family with my own daughter who has had some mental health struggles, significant ones, how it feels to bring your kid into a situation where you can't really predict all the different factors when you have a lot of people coming together who might say this and what might make her feel more anxious or uncomfortable. And I think it's really, hard to be a parent sometimes of a child that feels a little fragile, that you want to be accepted by people, that you want to protect and also that you know you need to put out in the world. And so, even though this is a book about a kid with ARFID, I was also really trying to write a book about a kid and a family that are experiencing some challenges that feel different from things going on with other people in their lives. And I think that there's a lot of commonality in a lot of mental health situations when you feel like you're a little bit different than the person next to you.

[00:09:41] Lisa: I think you did a particularly good job of that by integrating so many typical middle school experiences into this story so that they become truly relatable to any readers familiar with that age and stage in development. You shifted a little bit here to talk about your own daughter, but I think what struck me so much is that you weren't the parent of this child with ARFID. You were the aunt, and that's special, that you were concerned enough and curious enough and eager enough to want to go and do your own research and seek more information and better understand what's going on. I just wanted to hear a little bit about that, you know, your role as aunt in that relationship as opposed to mom.

[00:10:26] Linda: I think that my role as aunt in this situation has been more since my nephew has grown up a little bit. As I like to say, this story has been inspired and informed by my nephew, but it is not his story. And so really, I started doing this research, on my own and learning about this and then I went to him six, seven years ago, and said, I'm trying to do this and I would love your input and your thoughts, and he was very open to it and continues to be open to it in a really, really cool way and he's been very supportive. Very excited. He's read the book more than once. He's helped me with a little bit of promotion that I'm doing for the book. He told me recently, which I just felt so excited and proud of him, he said, "You know what Linda?" he said, "This is not something I'm ashamed of. This is okay for us to talk about." And I was like, that's amazing because a middle schooler wouldn't have been able to say that. He's grown a lot.

[00:11:22] Amy: You know, I want to get back to how brave and courageous your hero is in this book, because in fact he is brave and courageous. But first, can you share a little bit about what it's like to actually write a book?

[00:11:35] Linda: Just horrible.

[00:11:39] Lisa: That, that's reason number one, that I haven't ventured into doing that yet. My husband keeps telling me to write a book. I'm like, thank you, but no, thank you.

[00:11:48] Linda: And I did something that I will never do again. And that is when I was toying with the idea of this book, I started writing scenes. I started just putting Ben in different scenes and a lot of them didn't make it into the book, but I just kept wondering what would he do in this scene? What would he do with his father in that scene? And so, then I had a bunch of scenes and then I had to put them together. That was really tricky. Writing is sometimes lonely. I have a good writing community. I have a writing partner and a writing group. Not only do they help with the process, but they help keep me accountable because left to my own devices, I would just never write a single word. But writing a book is so different than promoting a book. Talking to people about the book. Talking to people about my character. It's just two separate worlds. And so, writing this book took a long time. Editing and rewriting and revising this book took a long time. I tried for a long time to get an agent on this book and I ran into an interesting dynamic, which was a lot of people didn't understand that ARFID was real and that it was legit and that it was important. And so, I even had one critiquer tell me, "You know what? I don't know what the big deal is I eat the same lunch every day too. There's not a novel here." And so, it was really hard to find a place for this book to land and I was very excited and grateful that my publisher, Regal House, saw the value in this story.

[00:13:10] Lisa: How invalidating some of those responses must have felt. I'm thinking about your candor and sharing that even when your nephew was starting to go through some of these experiences, you didn't yet understand maybe the magnitude of some of it and I think that's an incredibly relatable experience. That's an experience I know Amy has talked a little bit about, and I certainly had experienced in my own life and my own family. 

[00:13:37] Amy: Well, the other part about this character though, that I think is really important to think about is that, sure, this kid has ARFID. It's really hard. There's no question about it. But he also represents every kid who's marginalized or who's ostracized or who doesn't fit in, or who's different from his peers. Middle school is such a difficult time to navigate anyhow, I saw Ben as the guy who sticks out and that's a hard place to be and yet we all know someone, at least someone, maybe more someone's, who stick out and can't fit in. That is, I think, a really beautiful part of your story because his friends learn to navigate and have to figure out how to welcome Ben in despite his oddities. 

[00:14:22] Linda: I think it's also important to remember that there's a whole world happening. You know, if you have ARFID or if you have anxiety, there's still a whole world swirling around you and each kid has their own challenges. And so, in this story, Ben's friends do come around, but they don't for a long time because they're really focused on their own social status, where they fit, and Ben's eating affects every single thing that happens. He even laments at one point in the story, maybe more than once, "I have a problem doing something that we have to do at least three times every single day. It's not something that just comes up every once in a while." That's kind of a lot to think about. We have to eat a lot every single day. And he even says at one point, and when we're not eating, we're thinking about what we're going to eat, we're shopping, we're planning, we're calling people to meet them for dinner. A lot of effort, which Amy, you've been talking about too, goes into eating. It's a big part of our lives.

[00:15:20] Lisa: I think that's part of what makes it so difficult. It is. It's very different than something like, you know, substance abuse treatment where you're teaching abstinence. How do we stay away from alcohol? You're so spot on. Eating food is an integral part of our day-to-day life, which I think is very much part of why it can be so difficult to navigate and treat these kinds of disorders.

[00:15:43] Amy: And part of what happens inside of your main character's soul is he struggles with trying to not be who he is and accepting who and what he is. One of my favorite quotes in the whole book is his lab partner who says to him, " You know, once you become an expert in being yourself, navigating the world gets a whole lot easier." And at first, he kind of poo poos it, but, what a lovely sentiment that she shares with him, just like it's okay.

[00:16:13] Linda: I do love it when Olivia says that because Olivia herself is, is kind of, she's quirky and she's a loner. And then that leads for Ben, a lot of thought about, even though Olivia is an ally and one of his only allies at points, is she a friend? What is a friend? Does he call her a friend? And they also have some discussions, the two of them about what it's like to feel invisible, and so there are commonalities there too. 

[00:16:41] Lisa: Linda, as you were writing the book, what are some of the biggest takeaways that you're hoping readers will get after picking it up and then not being able to put it down?

[00:16:51] Linda: My primary hope is that people enjoy the story. That they find it interesting and fun. I tried really hard to balance the serious topics with humor and with lightness and with topics that would feel familiar to kids. Of course, my other big goal is to increase awareness of ARFID and to increase empathy and understanding of people who maybe eat differently. And maybe to help all of us watch the things that we say. I know as a society, we're getting better about the things that we say and do, but we can always do better. You know, the food pushing the, " Oh, well you're going to like my macaroni and cheese. I made this special for you." "Aren't you going to eat that?" I read a lot from parents, about the things that sometimes happen in classrooms when we do a series about healthy eating and then maybe a kid shares that they eat a lot of whatever it is, McDonald's or Lunchables and then get some shame or some pushback on that. I think we've all heard stories about schools that have chastise parents for what's in a kid's lunchbox. We don't really always know what's going on with someone and what they're eating or why they're eating or how they're eating. Maybe a kid eats really slowly and maybe that feels annoying to people, but maybe that's what that kid needs to do.

[00:18:19] Amy: Can I ask you something about your actual writing that I wondered as I was reading? Did you think about how, I mean you must have, but how much did you consider how middle school kids speak to each other? Because one of the things that made it fun, easy, engaging to read is that there aren't a lot of long monologues. The kids are just bantering back and forth and back and forth a lot. Is that something you thought about when you wrote it?

[00:18:45] Linda: A little bit, and I do like writing dialogue and dialogue is hard though because kids say things to each other and use words that we really can't use in a book. And so even things that seem kind of innocuous, like a kid saying to another kid, "Oh, Amy, that's crazy. You're crazy." There's a lot of attention in the kids' lit world to not do that. And so, then the challenge for me has been finding the words that kids would use when speaking to each other or when Ben is just in his own head thinking that kids can relate to that are not going to be, marginalizing or offensive to anybody else. Then I would start making up words. I would talk to kids about words. They would tell me words that I still couldn't use. At one point, I had a list of words that I was handing out to my neighbors and asking them to ask their kids, would you ever use these words? And basically, the answer was always "No, mom, this lady's weird. Nobody would ever say that." And, you know, you start running out of words.  I did my best. I know there are still some words in there that some kids wouldn't use, but it's, it's really hard. I did use the word crap and the word crap, in Ben's family is a word they're not supposed to use. And in a review, it was mentioned that the word crap is in there. And I thought, you know, I can't win because that's like the worst word I have in the story. So, words, words are tough.

[00:20:07] Lisa: I don't know how I feel about that level of censorship being necessary in these books. But we do want to make sure that we're not using language that is inadvertently going to be offending somebody. I mean, I don't really think about " You're crazy," until I'm thinking about it like, wow, for somebody who is struggling with mental illness, is that a word that really doesn't feel appropriate? But you know, the more we censor things, the less authentic it is. 

[00:20:36] Amy: And it's all about intention, right? 

[00:20:39] Linda: We could do a whole other podcast on this, but yes, I spent so much time going through this book, and not because my publisher asked me to, but because I'm aware of what's happening out in the world, and there were two words that I agonized about. At one point when Ben is eating his little tiny pancakes with his fingers, and he's so hungry, and one of his friends across the table says, "You look like a squirrel. You look nuts." And Ben starts to laugh and says "Nuts, squirrel." He's very, very hungry. He's very, very anxious. And I debated keeping that in there. There's another word referring to Olivia. These were big issues, things I've talked about with my writing groups and so forth, because I want this book to be inviting. And also, this is a book about a kid who has a mental illness, a disability, the way other mental illnesses are. And so, the last thing I want to do is offend or even just give a kid pause who's reading this book and says, "Hey, wait a minute, lady, why are you saying that?"

[00:21:36] Amy: One thing that's really cool about the book, I think, and that I want to make sure that we reiterate to the listeners here, is that obviously this is not a lighthearted topic, it's a difficult topic, and this kid is definitely in the throes of struggle with his eating disorder. But I laughed out loud a few times. It, it definitely has humor and the story builds. This is a book written for middle schoolers, but I wanted to know what happened to your character. I couldn't wait to know what happened when they went to their field trip. I couldn't wait to know how it all kind of came out, which I'm not going to share because then that would take away the fun. But it's a really engaging book about normal kids, regular life, including a character who is struggling with mental illness, and I thought that was really well done.

[00:22:26] Linda: Well, thank you.

[00:22:27] Lisa: As we have to wrap up here, how did the world of authorship work for you? Do you think there's any new books that you're thinking about in the future?

[00:22:35] Linda: I have one middle grade novel in the drawer that I might pull out and look at again. I'm actually in the middle of writing a YA ghost story that I need to get back to. I was kind of glad to take a break while I'm doing this promotion, but now that story's back in my head and I can hear that character talking to me, you know, saying, "Come on, come back, let's figure this out. " I have another idea for a middle grade historical novel. So, yeah, there's a lot of story in me and I just am ready to get Ben out into the world, and yet I'm also ready to just be alone in my office a little bit. 

[00:23:12] Amy: I think that in Northbrook, Illinois on the 27th of June, there happens to be a book launch event. Can you tell us a little bit about that, Linda?

[00:23:24] Linda: The Book Bin is hosting my book launch. It will be held Tuesday, the 27th, from 6-8pm. It will be an open house with some treats. I hope anybody who's interested in learning more about Ben comes. Also, on Tuesday, July 11th, I will be at the Book Stall, in Winnetka, with one of my former writing teachers who does book facilitated discussions, and she's going to be interviewing me about the story, and that will be more of a sit down. That is, I believe, at 6:30pm, and I hope anybody who's interested can join us.

[00:23:59] Lisa: How exciting. Thank you for sharing pre-released copies with us. Thank you for sharing your humor and your candor and we are really, really excited that the community at large is going to get to know Ben, as well.

[00:24:11] Amy: Where can they buy the book, Linda, before we sign off?

[00:24:15] Linda: You can pre-order from Book Bin, from Book Stall. You can pre-order from my publisher Regal House Publishing, from Amazon and you can order online from Barnes and Noble. Also, really, any independent bookstore should be able to order the book for you.

[00:24:32] Amy: Food fight folks. That's the name, Food Fight.

[00:24:36] Lisa: Oh, thank you so much, Linda, for being here. Thank you for sharing all of this with us and for broaching a topic that isn't spoken about often enough. 

[00:24:46] Linda: Thank you for having me.

[00:24:47] Lisa: And thank you to our listeners for tuning into another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation.

[00:24:54] Amy: Stay current on all CATCH programming by liking us on Facebook @catchiscommunity or by visiting our website

[00:25:03] Lisa: We're glad that you joined us to continue the conversation. It's important to talk about our mental health and reach out for help if needed.

[00:25:11] Amy: This concludes season two of Parenting the Mental Health Generation. We're going to take a few months to rest and relax over the summer and we hope you do the same. Listen to your favorite episodes again, and we'll see you in the Fall.