How can I help a picky eater (or his parents).
May 2, 2006 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Child eating habits filter: My step-son (now 11 years old) has developed an issue with his food. When he was younger, he ate anything and everything, but since about 5 or 6, he has become an extremely picky eater.

I could go on and on about the foods he likes (or mostly dislikes), but the biggest problem we’re having is his food not touching. It’s Ok for some things like mashed potatoes and gravy, but don’t dare let a drop of gravy get on the vegetables. Just last night we had beef stuffed ravioli – we had to swear that the ravioli is made with the same exact ingredients as spaghetti, but he then proceeded to scrape out all the beef from the ravioli and eat it separately. He loves bread and loves lunchmeat, but won’t eat a sandwich. He even requests a different fork for each item on his plate (which we refuse). He has NEVER eaten a regular school lunch – always bringing his own. He is otherwise a very bright, talented, and outgoing boy. If we force him to eat (which we’ve heard is a no-no) – it takes hours, and he is only too happy to go to bed without dinner.

We’ve heard “he’ll grow out of this, be patient”, but it is only getting worse and he’ll now be starting middle school in the fall. I’ve been searching and searching for articles and stories throughout parenting websites, but have had little luck with this particular area. Anyone have any guidance or personal experience?
posted by JimBobNoPants to Health & Fitness (39 answers total)
It sounds like a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Of course, I'm not a doctor of any kind. Perhaps you should visit a therapist and talk about it?

Being a picky eater is one thing, but this sounds a bit extreme. As with most every other request for health advice (be it mental or otherwise) I think the best solution is to visit a qualified doctor.
posted by aladfar at 10:53 AM on May 2, 2006

does the child exhibit any compulsive tendencies besides when he's eating? i'm not a doctor, but if this is the only thing he's this particular about, I would recommend not getting too bothered by the separation thing, but to make sure he eats what you give him. if he goes to bed without dinner, have dinner waiting for him for breakfast. he won't starve to death.
posted by shmegegge at 10:53 AM on May 2, 2006

What are his eating habits like at school (while, presumably, sitting with his friends instead of his family)?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:03 AM on May 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can't answer whether this is a cause for concern when raising kids, but I can say that it's pretty common among adults. I got over my mild food-can't-touch thing, but I still tend to eat all of one thing (main dish or side) before starting on the next, because I find it weird to "mix" foods that I'm eating. A former roommate really wanted some ceramic company to make TV-dinner - like plates, with little compartments for each side dish, because she hated her food touching.

She and I are both huge eaters, love most gourmet / weird / ethnic food, love to cook. Like I said, it's certainly fading for me, and it was never at the level of a phobia or compulsion, but it certainly never adversely affected my life. My roommate was stronger with hers, but it still wasn't a huge deal for her -- the woman worked as a professional chef for a while.

So there's probably hope!
posted by occhiblu at 11:05 AM on May 2, 2006

Incredible as it seems to me now, my husband used to be a picky eater as a kid. Puberty--specifically growing half a foot in one year--put an end to that nonsense real fast. It's almost impossible to be picky when your body is screaming to you "!" all day long.

My husband now eats both voraciously and widely; two years ago, on a trip to Japan, I had talk him out of eating whale bacon in a little bar in Kyoto.

Your stepson is 11; give him two years and see what happens.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:09 AM on May 2, 2006

Sometimes food issues are related to the textures and mouth-feel. Does he also have issues with seams and tags in clothes? Loud noises? The kids I know with sensory integration disorder almost all have a picky eater component.
Just one more totally unofficial unprofessional suggestion.
posted by Biblio at 11:32 AM on May 2, 2006

Have to disagree with schmegegge's suggestion that you keep giving the child the same meal until it's eaten. My stepfather did that to me a few times, and it is really a horrible thing to do to a kid. I've never really gotten over the Raisin Bran episode.

I had lots of different food issues as a child (no food touching, no "juice" from vegetables, a white-food-only phase) and it was worse when my mom and SD made a big deal about it. I grew out of some of it, but not all (I mean, who wants their food watered down by undrained veggies?).

And as for the going to bed without dinner, I've heard many doctors say that children have the healthiest kind of apetites, because they don't feel compelled to eat just because it's "dinnertime."
posted by SashaPT at 11:33 AM on May 2, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses!

ThePinkSuperhero: it's the same at school. Every item in his lunchbox is bagged separately - lunchmeat, fruit, crackers, etc. If he ever brought applesauce and pudding on the same day - he would want two spoons (or a napkin to carefully clean the spoon).

shmegegge: he does have some slight tics - eye rolling, repetitious behaviors... Other than that, nothing compulsive.
posted by JimBobNoPants at 11:34 AM on May 2, 2006

I was freakish-picky as a kid. Now I'm more like Asparagirl's husband. (What's whale bacon like, anyway?) I didn't "discover" food until college, when there was no-one around to see me trying new things. Some of which were foods to which I had no exposure as a kid, like Indian and Middle Eastern, and some which were embarassingly commonplace, but new foods for me. Like mayo. And hot dogs.

It really, really is most likely a normal phase. I bet his pediatrician puts his weight on the skinny side of normal?

Slightly different obsession, but as a kid I could flick the most microscopic specks of mushroom/veg/whatever out of a sauce and into a pile on the side of my plate. My best friend has the same ability.

Also, seconding the no-food-touching thing being very common among adults.

Another thought: Are there siblings? Are they eat-everything-mixed-together siblings from which he is perhaps distinguishing himself?
posted by desuetude at 11:37 AM on May 2, 2006

I don't think this is that uncommon. I would stop worrying about it unless he is malnourished. When he is hungry he will eat. As a courtesy to him I would try to accommodate his desires to not let the food touch and provide separate utensils, but I wouldn't apologize too much if you let them touch and I wouldn't worry whether he eats or not. Your obsessing over it will likely cause greater harm than any failure to eat on his part. I presume you have discussed this with his doctor? What did she/he say?
posted by caddis at 11:38 AM on May 2, 2006

if he goes to bed without dinner, have dinner waiting for him for breakfast.

Do not do that. Please, never do anything like that to him.
posted by caddis at 11:41 AM on May 2, 2006

Well, I was never that extreme, but I am OCD and as a kid I sometimes did things that this reminds me of.

Here's my take on your situation. Don't make a big deal out of it, but don't go to ridiculous extents to please him. However, if HE wants to go out of his way to create the circumstances he needs to eat, let him. For example, you're not going to give him a separate fork for each ingredient. Try telling him that he is invited to go up to the sink and wash his fork after each portion, or even letting him have his multiple forks if he takes the responsibility for setting the table with, and washing, all but the first one.

As for his food not touching...well, so what? There are adults like that, and they aren't horrible people to eat with. He just has to learn that it's not the obligation of the chef to prepare the food exactly to his liking; it's his job as the eater to politely and discreetly make adjustments on his own plate as needed to allow him to feel good about his meal. If gravy gets on the vegetables, then he has the option of not eating that part of the vegetables.

Something else about my own parents tried all manner of tricks, rewards, and compromises to get me to eat 'healthy' things I refused to touch, such as white fish fillets and brussel sprouts. I also insisted on plain hamburgers when we went to McDonalds (they had to be specially made), and disliked pizza, shunning it at my friends' birthday parties, to the horror and concern of all parents involved.

Well, I'm 35 now. I got over the dislike of the hamburger toppings and the pizza in a big way. Too big. I sometimes wistfully remember those outings and wish I could go back in time and tell myself to just hold the fort. As far as the fish and the brussel sprouts, I still hate them. My mother served them with maccaroni and cheese in an effort to entice me, and now I can't eat maccaroni and cheese either.

My parents meant well (and so do you), but really, there are bigger fish to fry (so to speak) than picky eating preferences. Sometimes I think back on all that anxiety that the three of us went through -- and not only did it accomplish nothing, but it was so irrelevant, both in the greater scheme of things, and compared to other challenges in parenting, and growing up, that lay ahead.
posted by bingo at 11:42 AM on May 2, 2006

The Tightwad Gazette has an article about getting children to eat (it's in this book because of the importance of not wasting food). Their technique, if I remember correctly, has to do with telling the child, "if you don't finish your beets [or whatever], you will be punished," and then follow that up with whatever's appropriate in your household as a punishment; no tv, etc. The idea is to avoid those scenes where the food gets cold and the child just sits there, and also gives the child a choice of to eat or not eat and accept the punishment. I cannot vouch for this myself, having to children, but it could be worth a try.
posted by JanetLand at 11:46 AM on May 2, 2006

having no children, I mean.
posted by JanetLand at 11:46 AM on May 2, 2006

Please don't do that. The child will proudly accept the punishment ahead of time (I certainly would have), and then the adult will have to admit that it was all a bluff. Food can be bad, it can be not to a person's taste, and having the guts to say so, at least to oneself, is not a trait to be squashed.
posted by bingo at 11:51 AM on May 2, 2006

(Did not realize what strong feelings I had about this, wow...)

I think the Tightwad lady is off base on that advice. Insisting the child taste all the food on his/her plate is one thing; insisting the child finish food he or she doesn't like is cruel, and can result in all kinds of dramatics and the occasional vomiting.

Making food a reward/punishment thing puts more importance on food than there needs to be.

posted by SashaPT at 11:51 AM on May 2, 2006

Sorry 'bout that open tag! I'm having post-traumatic stress disorder.
posted by SashaPT at 11:52 AM on May 2, 2006

following up my earlier post:

if the child exhibits some other tics, maybe speak to a professional therapist about it. find someone laid back, though. the reason I say this is because you don't want someone telling you your child has all these disorders he doesn't have just because the therapist's wound a little tightly. even if he's wrong and another doctor tells you so, there'll always be that part of your mind that says "but what if..." and you don't need to do that to yourself.

either way: when it comes to the "make your child eat what you give him thing" I don't want to insist that it's a good idea. I know that, for myself, I was never made to eat anything I didn't like and as a 26 year old I'm the pickiest eater I know. I often wish I could eat more than I do, for social reasons, and it's difficult for me to train myself to do that. So I see it as beneficial to encourage children to eat stuff they may not immediately like.

on the other hand, people sometimes just don't like stuff, and it's important to respect that, so don't necessarily follow my advice to the letter.

I would especially give strong consideration to the advice mentioned above about the feel or texture of food. My own eating issues stem from an under-developed sense of taste and smell so that I judge food largely on a texture basis, and I find the texture of most food disgusting so I don't eat it. If that's what the deal is with your child, you should know so you can decide how to proceed from there. I don't know if there are doctors that can test for that kind of thing, but if there are then consider seeing one.
posted by shmegegge at 11:56 AM on May 2, 2006

he does have some slight tics - eye rolling, repetitious behaviors... Other than that, nothing compulsive.

Whoa. Having tics and repetitious behaviors is *classic* compulsiveness. I think it's part of the definition of OCD.
posted by beth at 12:00 PM on May 2, 2006

both of my kids were very picky as small children as was I as a child. i refused to pack them lunches when they started school though - and they have done fine. their issues were not quite as pronounced as your sons - more having a few favorites than the food touching. being starving in the school lunchrooms cured that. i can so relate - i once puked at a friends dinner table because her dad insisted i try cooked carrots. he didn't try that again.

i would watch for any other signs of compulsive behaviour and make sure his food preferences don't affect any other part of his life. Meaning if he starts not wanting to go places with friends because he is worried about food issues, you have a problem. If he continues to be happy, bright and outgoing, I would say it is just part of who he is.

My biggest thing with food and my kids is not making how much they eat and how they eat it about control. no standoffs over food at our house. if they say they don't want it, then they are done. no snacks and no short order cooking but i won't force them to it. NOTHING good can come of that.
posted by domino at 12:00 PM on May 2, 2006

Between shmegegge and the Tightwad advice, this kid is going to end up with an eating disorder (and yes, boys do get eating disorders, and unfortunately, the incidence is on the rise.)

I would guess that your son's issues are part quirk and part control issue. I agree with everyone who suggests not making a big deal out of it. As long as he isn't malnourished, there really isn't a problem. Insisting that he eat certain things will only make him push back harder, and can create all sorts of unhealthy eating patterns later in life.
posted by kimdog at 12:04 PM on May 2, 2006

Please don't do that. The child will proudly accept the punishment ahead of time (I certainly would have), and then the adult will have to admit that it was all a bluff. Food can be bad, it can be not to a person's taste, and having the guts to say so, at least to oneself, is not a trait to be squashed.

I think the Tightwad lady is off base on that advice. Insisting the child taste all the food on his/her plate is one thing; insisting the child finish food he or she doesn't like is cruel, and can result in all kinds of dramatics and the occasional vomiting.

It is possible I am misremembering the exact slant and specific recommendations of the article; I read it a long time ago. I still think it's worth JimBobNoPants' looking into.
posted by JanetLand at 12:08 PM on May 2, 2006

I'm with bingo on this. This may or may not be evidence of a diagnosable mental disorder, but if he's doing ok in other respects, so what? This doesn't need to be a problem.

Let him dish out his own food, let him make his own lunches, let him clean off his forks, etc. Whatever it takes for him to maintain his eccentricity. Admire him for his attention to detail and his persistance. Stop trying to solve this if it's not a problem for him.
posted by jasper411 at 12:10 PM on May 2, 2006

My brother was exactly like this as a child. His eating habits have grown more "normal," but he is still what most would consider picky. He doesn't take his food apart any more, but he always tries to keep everything separate on his plate.

He was always fanatical about things not touching, to the point that he would disassemble any sandwich or any other compound food. He also greatly preferred to eat all of one item and then move to the next. After a brief, hopeless attempt to change him, my parents simply ignored it. I don't think there was a way to change him easily -- he really felt strongly about this particular topic and he was pretty stubborn. My Dad was pretty old school and tried the "sit there until you eat it" technique and it was a complete and total failure. My Mom tried to talk him out of it with logic, but that failed as well. Eventually, he refused to discuss the subject. I've asked him as an adult why he felt that way, but he has no clue. He admits he still feels much the same way, he's just learned to suppress it.

As his older brother, I used to push bits of his food together to torment him, so I'm sure I was a big help.
posted by Lame_username at 12:22 PM on May 2, 2006

Tourette's Syndrome and OCD go together like peanut butter and jelly. Eye rolling tics are classic Tourettes, and repetitive behaviors and food touching issues are classic OCD. Despite the stereotype of these disorders, they are actually very common, and like 95% of the people that have them, your child's case does not appear to be clinically significant. When I was a child I would compulsively blink and shrug my shoulders. In addition to food touching issues, I had a variety of repetetive rituals I would perform. In my case, as in most, the problems subside or disappear altogether as a person matures. I would say as long as these things don't affect your boy's quality of life, just roll with it. If they do get worse, there are many effective treatments and therapies. One last thing: your son's problems are likely caused by an imbalance of dopomine in his brain, and hence saving his dinner and serving it for breakfast won't solve the problem. Its just torture.
posted by Crotalus at 12:25 PM on May 2, 2006

(You know, there is an alternative to the tightwad/schmegegge approach. If he doesn't like what the rest of the family's eating, let him excuse himself from the table and make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat while the rest of you have dinner.

It stops him from getting extra attention by being picky — which means that if the pickiness is just an attention-getting thing, it'll go away. It puts him in charge of what he eats — which means that if it's just a control thing, it'll go away. And regardless, it saves you from jumping through hoops just to get him some nutrition. Besides, if he's not being forced to eat those scary ravioli, he might eventually get curious and try some.

Mind you, I'd look into the possibility that he's suffering from OCD too. But if he isn't — if he's just being a regular garden-variety picky eater — you might try this approach and see if it defuses the situation.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:51 PM on May 2, 2006

The child will proudly accept the punishment ahead of time (I certainly would have), and then the adult will have to admit that it was all a bluff.

Why would the adult have to admit that? I mean, obviously, if you're going to use that technique, you're not bluffing.

That said, if the kid has an actual problem (e.g. OCD) and is not just being rebellious, this is cruel.
posted by kindall at 1:04 PM on May 2, 2006

I had exactly the same deal as a kid, and it even developed around the same age. There are still a lot of combinations I don't like (but will eat separately). My parents weren't really concerned, because I did eat healthily -- protein, veg, and everything else -- just not touching each other. My dad still makes fun of me for not liking chocolate and peanut butter together, but I always counter by asking whether he would like a tunafish sandwich with marshmallow fluff. Does that comparison help you at all?

If eating stuff separately is the only problem, I don't think it's a problem at all. Separate forks is a bit odd; would he settle for having a napkin to wipe the fork between foods?

The repetitive behaviors could be because he wants to have something under his control (at that age, your parents control pretty much everything you do), or it could be a sign of something more serious. That might be something to get checked out, but the food alone is a non-issue.

Please don't serve him the same thing for every meal, make him stay at the table until he eats it, or anything like that. Whether or not his preferences are OCD-based, those methods really are a direct line for eating disorders. As long as he's eating healthily, does it seriously matter to you if he prefers his vegetables without gravy? It's not that he's not eating the ravioli, it's just that he's separating it.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:22 PM on May 2, 2006

I nth the advice to not make a big deal out of this and just keep an eye out for OCD-esque behaviors that seem to be interfering with his life.

I am like this with my food and I always have been. No touching, eating each thing completely before moving on to the next, wiping my spoon between applesauce and pudding: all of it. My childhood would have been unmitigated torture if my family hadn't just left me alone. Sometimes people notice still and comment on it, and it really drives me nuts. It's beyond rude. And you're his family: you should be more accommodating.
posted by dame at 1:40 PM on May 2, 2006

Response by poster: I'm very thankful for the responses. Sounds like I touched a nerve in people. Our son truly is a happy, loving, well-adjusted boy. From the feedback I'm feeling like it's more our problem than his. Our biggest concern is that it would just get worse and be unbearable by the time he reaches adulthood. We do try to stay with "friendly" foods (he will eat green beans), but sometimes it gets tiring.

I was raised old-school "don't leave the table until you've cleaned your plate". Now I eat everythingg (except liver and beets). So, I wasn't sure how much pressure to apply. As I said, he would gladly go to bed rather then eat something he doesn't like.

a side note: some said feed him PB&J for dinner, but he won't even eat that (jelly touching peanut But I get your point.

Thanks again, I'll forward these on to the mrs.
posted by JimBobNoPants at 1:48 PM on May 2, 2006

Do what my mom did - she cooked a meal for the whole family and then (in my case) a serving of plain spaghetti (w/just butter and salt). (unless the meal that everyone else was eating was agreeable to me)

Replace spaghetti with something that he actually likes.

This went on for years.

Why does everyone have to like to eat everything?
posted by davey_darling at 2:09 PM on May 2, 2006

I went through something similar, a phase where I stopped liking a few different foods that were common in my house, but nothing this extreme. I was about the same age, and my mom's solution was to teach me the basics of cooking, send me to a cooking class for kids, and then buy me a kids cook book. I cooked my own meals any night when tey were having something I didn't want.

Its important that you choose a cooking class and cookbook that covers more than just basic stuff like boiling water for KD and heating canned food.
posted by ChazB at 3:02 PM on May 2, 2006

Why does everyone have to like to eat everything?

[slight derail] As a former picky eater who eventually grew out of it, I agree with this up to a point -- and that point is when picky eating starts to seriously affect the eating habits (even the eating rights) of those around the picky eater. What I mean is this: I know two adult picky eaters who are so limited in what they'll eat that it means they won't even step into restaurants (or come over for dinner) if there's even the slimmest chance that they won't be able to order something exactly within their narrow range of acceptable foods (e.g., spaghetti, fried chicken, pizza, or steak). So that means that it is impossible to eat with them anywhere except a few restaurants that are "safe." Doesn't matter if it's someone else's birthday and they're hankering for Thai; no. If we're going to enjoy the pleasure of each other's company over dinner, our only options consist pretty much of familiar national chain restaurants. This can be inconvenient -- and can feel rather inconsiderate -- when it means that the rest of us (i.e., friends and family members) always (and I do mean always) have to concede our tastes in order to accomodate theirs.

So no, not everyone has to to like to eat everything. But depending on how severe the pickiness is, it has the potential to make social situations harder for the rest of us after a certain point. [/derail]

posted by scody at 4:24 PM on May 2, 2006

Get the kid checked out, but if he doesnt have mental problems I say you should train him to be willing to eat things he doesn't like. Molding childrens activities is supposed to be part of what parents do.

Personally,"picky eaters" make me absolutely livid. If he doesn't like the food you make he can get a job and buy his own. if he doesnt like food touching make stew or soup every night for the next week.

"You don't have to eat the whole thing, but you do have to give it a reasonable try" and "Try it or wear it" worked for my mom on just such occasions.
posted by Megafly at 4:44 PM on May 2, 2006

Megafly, I would have crushed you in a battle of the wills when I was a kid if you tried to train me to eat stuff I couldn't stomach.

There were some foods that I just wouldn't, COULDN'T eat for the life of me. I didn't know it at the time (and my parents tried all the tricks listed above), but apparently I fall into the category of "Supertaster".

Bitter stuff is WAY bitter, sweet stuff is WAY sweet, hot stuff is WAY WAY hot, and lots of seemingly innocuous foods would cause dramatic reactions in my mouth (no jokes, please).

Knowing about this slightly rare condition would have saved me and my parents untold amounts of trauma. Please don't force your kid to eat something if he or she seems to be having trouble with it.
posted by Aquaman at 5:42 PM on May 2, 2006

Why would the adult have to admit that? I mean, obviously, if you're going to use that technique [offer a choice: finish food or get punished], you're not bluffing.

Okay, you may not be bluffing. But you are clearly hoping that the kid will eventually choose the food instead of the punishment. If the kid eventually says (as I would have) "Look, you don't even need to offer me the choice anymore, let's just assume that it's the punishment every time," and you believe he means it, then you have to just admit the child has won, or go on punishing him only out of malice.

One thing I learned pretty early was that I, as a child, had so much more stamina for tolerating uncomfortable situations than my parents that it wasn't even worth comparing. I'm not sure that I knew it this clearly at that age, but I knew it at some level: I simply had fewer, more straightforward, and more persistent priorities than my parents did. If the parents say, 'From now on, do this or be punished,' they're giving away the fact that they don't plan on there really being that many situations in which the punishment must be administered, and they're throwing in the pot to bet that the kid doesn't actually *prefer* the punishment.

The punishment for a passive transgression, like refusing to eat something, has got to be passive for the child too, or the child can simply refuse the punishment as well. For example, the punishment can't be that the child has to march up a steep hill. It may be, say, a spanking (not recommended in general anyway). Sure, it hurts, but all you have to do is sit there and take it, and then it's over (again, not defending spankings or any other physical discipline, I'm just talking about this context). And if you have a clue about your own parents (and many kids do), you know in your heart that, given the choice between seeing you separate your food every night and having to spank you every night, they are going to ultimately choose the former, because they love you and they don't enjoy hurting you and they will eventually start to feel evil, unless they actually are.
posted by bingo at 6:29 PM on May 2, 2006

Yep, yep. I would somehow pulverize and hold the lima beans in the far corners of my mouth until I could reasonably excuse myself to leave the table, at which point I would spit them into the toilet. Yes, I had to taste the dreaded lima beans longer. But I won -- I didn't eat the lima beans. Even at the time, I thought that this was ridiculous, but I also thought that the (to my mind) bizarre fixation on me eating foods that I hated was ridiculous. (So what if I hated almost everything.)

The super-obnoxiously picky adults I know (referenced in scody's comment) either HAD to eat everything as a kid, or are immature in so many ways that the childish food is the least of it.
posted by desuetude at 9:19 PM on May 2, 2006

It is possible to be picky and anal and not be out-of-control or limited to "national chains." There's lots of really common food I don't like and lots that I do. And I'll always try something once. Again, I like to think it was because my family wasn't psycho about how I ate.
posted by dame at 6:07 AM on May 3, 2006

I like ChazB's suggestion of teaching him to cook. It may not help him get over his distaste of touching food, but it can definately help him be a healthier eater as an adult. There are a lot of adult picky eaters out there who eat like absolute crap. At this point the pickiness isn't as bad as the fact that they can't/won't eat any healthy food whatsoever. Many of us know one; the person who lives off frozen pizza, or hamburgers and chicken strips. Knowing how to cook well from an early age can help prevent this.
I cook for someone who is very mildly picky(threads like this always make me thankful), and something that has helped ease my mind about nutritional worries is trying to pack more nutrition into the food they do enjoy. Does he like rice? Make it brown rice. White bread? Those new fake-white wheat breads are awesome(disclaimer: in many, whole wheat is not the first ingredient, so they're not as healthy as real wheat bread, but better than Wonder).
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:53 AM on May 3, 2006

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