What do you do when mealtimes become a battlefield because your toddler doesn’t want to eat? The advice I received from a paediatric dietician helped me transform my fussy eater into a happy eater!
When Chicco moved onto solids, he didn’t like to eat and only had a few mouthfuls at a time. I was constantly feeding him, but even by the age of one and a half years, he still weighed the same as a one year old. I was worried enough to see a paediatric dietician.
She was brilliant. The advice she gave me was invaluable. I want to share this now as I remember the frustration and fear I felt. But please remember that I’m not a professional and this may not work for everyone, though I’m hoping it helps you a little.
The first thing she advised me was to make mealtimes about the food. So no more letting him run around while I chase him with a spoon, and no more TV at dinner. These are things which distract from the food and take away the mealtime focus. She then suggested I give him his own dinner set. Maybe even with characters he likes. So a plastic plate, cup, bowl and cutlery. This would all make mealtimes more special.
I don’t know what to call this except ‘building up the mealtime’. All this means is, whilst getting the food ready and just before we eat to say things like, ‘yummy yummy! We’re going to have delicious food now.’ Maybe even rub your belly and lick your lips when you do it! I know it sounds silly, but it works – trust me (Make sure your child is watching though!) By seeing me do this Chicco was excited about eating, and mentally was already thinking the food will be delicious and something to look forward to.
Set meal and snack times
This was probably the most important thing I learnt. I was feeding Chicco all the time and so he never had any notion of what a mealtime was. Essentially, he was just grazing, so his tummy was never empty and he never felt the hunger sensation. This meant that he never had an appetite, or longing to eat. She advised 3 meals and 2 snacks a day at set times. He was to be given no other food apart from this. Children love and need routine. So by allocating set times in the day to eat meant he would eventually expect it and be more focussed on eating.
Eat it or lose it
As a mother, this was a tough one for me, emotionally. The technique was to present him with food and explain this was breakfast/ lunch/ dinner or a snack. Then let him eat it. If he plays with it, messes it up, or throws it away, the food is not to be replaced. Even when he becomes hungry and grumpy for food, I had to wait till the next meal/ snack time before I could feed him. After a while Chicco made the connection that losing the food equalled hunger. Before the week was out, Chicco was finishing his meals and I cannot explain how much joy that gave me! (Obviously, This will only work through patience and persistence, but I’m not saying starve your child. So if after trying this for a little while you see this really isn’t working, feed them!)
This was about trying to encourage Chicco to eat by himself. Then when he is able to eat independently, I will no longer feed him, only encourage him. This was a difficult one for me. As a mother with a full-time career, it become a habit to rush things with Chicco. And because I’m always in a hurry, it’s easier to do it myself than wait for him to do it. So no matter how much I was itching to take the spoon from him and feed him, I had to hold myself back. My patience was rewarded as now he will feed himself, with the occasionally bit of help from me.
Children love to copy other people and other kids. Since Chicco is an only child, at home it was important that I sat with him at mealtimes and we ate together. As an added bonus, this was a nice time for me to bond with my son. At nursery all the children sit and eat together and so he was less likely to run around and play when it’s time to eat. Plus, seeing other kids eat encouraged him to want to try different types of food.
There were lots of other bits and pieces that we talked about and if I remember anything else important, I will make sure I update this.
But these 6 points were key for me. They’ve helped me become less panicky and less anxious about my sons health. My son is still a slim boy, but by instilling these practices early, he has now developed not only a very healthy appetite and wonderful relationship with food, but beautiful manners at the dinner table. Although there are still those odd days when his energy levels are high and I end up chasing him with food, or he’ll sit with his food in his mouth forgetting to chew because he’s distracted by… anything, on the whole, I am very pleased with the progress we have made.
If you’re struggling with a difficult eater, I hope this advice has been useful for you or given you ideas about things you can do. Keep your head together, be patient and persevere. Our children love to test us, but it’s up to us to be the adults and show them the way.
Adios for now!