I know I have written quite a few blogs about mealtimes and the ups and downs so I am writing this blog over quite a long period to try and have, in one place, what we tried, and what worked and what didn’t. I have looked for a lot of advice, and found many people on various forums saying “My toddler won’t eat! What do I do?” So I know I am not alone with these struggles. Friends with older toddlers have also assured me that they have been through this stage and come out the other side and their toddlers are no longer fussy eaters, at least not all of the time!
One thing that I have heard over and over is that if they won’t eat their dinner you shouldn’t make another meal as you are encouraging the fussiness and showing them they can get what they want by kicking up a fuss, and that they don’t have to try food. This worried me so much as Monkey was only about 13 months when the battles started and seemed so young to be not having a meal! Plus I knew I was the one that had to deal with him really cranky and miserable because he is hungry and tired and hasn’t eaten. So I held off from this tactic for ages, out of fear. Maybe I prolonged our problems, maybe I didn’t, who knows?
For ages we had Postman Pat on the TV for every mealtime, even on our phones in restaurants or when we were out, because then he would eat without a fuss. But we knew this wasn’t a solution in the long run. So we stopped using the TV, and moved his chair round to the end of the dining table so he can’t see it during meals. Sometimes were more successful than others, though generally he seemed fine with with the no TV part but was still hugely fussy with foods other than his favourites (fish fingers, baked beans, peanut butter, toast). Occasionally we will put some music on to help keep him occupied as boredom can affect how long he wants to stay at the table. We try and mix it up with nursery rhymes, classical and pop (he really likes Katy Perry haha).
One day we decided to go for it and if he didn’t eat his dinner then we wouldn’t give him anything else. This was a big step for me but Monkey went to bed without tea and no harm done, he was a bit cranky that night but no worse than he has been before at bedtime. He slept through the night and was fine in the morning. One of my biggest worries was that if he didn’t eat his dinner then he would wake up in the night hungry or something, but I guess he really isn’t a baby any more! It made a huge difference to my train of thought as I stopped trying to force him to eat and I calmed down a lot at mealtimes. Let’s face it they feed off of stress and it only makes situations worse so having a calmer environment is definitely better. Plus I now know that he isn’t going to starve if he doesn’t eat his dinner one night. It’s basically take it or leave it and if he wants to eat then he will, if he doesn’t he won’t.
I’ve also read about offering food you know they like alongside new food. If it’s just new, or something I’m not sure of then he won’t try it. If he has a small portion of something he definitely likes – like sweetcorn fritters, then he is more likely to try the newer food. This definitely helped for a while. The same goes with having either a slice of bread or Pitta Bread with the food. As he likes that and will start to eat and then will usually eventually try the other foods. He eats all sorts of things in pitta bread, our homemade veggie burgers, risotto, curry, anything really! It’s just so weird, I read a lot about toddlers his age being scared of new foods, but for the most part we aren’t trying to get him to eat new foods, it’s meals he has eaten loads of times before, and generally loved. I just don’t understand it, but I am trying really hard not to let my frustrations show as I know that makes things worse.
Like one night, for example, it was a thai curry and I make a really mild one for him. He used to love it, but now it’s like I am trying to feed him something awful. So I gave him a slice of bread which got him started. I then dabbed a bit of his bread in the sauce, and eventually after a lot of screaming and wailing he ate that bit of bread and it was like ooh yeah I do like this, and then hey presto he scoffed the whole plate of potato, chicken and carrot. I don’t even give him the rice anymore as I know he won’t eat it, but he did well! I try to give him a lot of praise when he eats well and then he gets like a yoghurt or some fruit or something if he’s still hungry, I just wish it wasn’t so stressful getting him to try something in the first place! aaaah!
Our rule is that if he tries his food, then we are happy and he has done well. He is allowed to not like things and he will get something else if he tries it. If he won’t try it, then he doesn’t get anything else. I hate doing it but if he really won’t eat any of his food then we let him down and he usually runs off to play while daddy and I finish eating, Though sometimes he tries to take us with him or brings toys for us to help him with and then it is really hard but we have to be firm and make him wait till we finish eating. We really try not to give him any attention when he isn’t eating (so no shouting or telling off or cuddles) but lots of praise when he does eat well.
Urgh since writing the above, I feel like it is 2 steps forward, 1 step back. He hasn’t properly eaten his dinner any evening this week and both hubby and I are getting stressed about it again. Need to try and be stricter on the snacks, or try and change times of eating or something because it is just not working anymore. Even some of the things we knew he liked, such as pitta bread or sweetcorn fritters, he now doesn’t like. So bang goes that plan. It’s just a battle of wills at every mealtime again with him screaming while we try to carry on some semblance of conversation and pretend it isn’t happening, until we eventually let him get down to play. He puts the teeniest bit of whatever it is, into his mouth then spits it out without trying it. We don’t give in and he doesn’t get any pudding or anything else if he hasn’t eaten his dinner but it doesn’t make me feel better.
Hubby doesn’t get in until just after 6, and I know that is quite late for Monkey to be eating but I also like us to have a family meal together. Even at weekends when we eat at around 5.30 we have the same problem. We have lunch at 12, which isn’t usually as much of a problem, (though today it was a nightmare) then a snack at 4, after his nap as he is hungry by then. Then I have to keep him busy as by 5 he seems to want to eat more, but I don’t let him eat after 5, so that he is hungry in time for dinner at 6. He is usually chomping at the bit, crying at the doorgate into the kitchen, or trying to and something to eat at the table, then he gets in his chair, sees what is on his plate, and most of the time he then cries more and tries to get down from his chair. I encourage and coax and talk about how yummy the food is etc and occasionally if he tries something properly, then he will eat it all up. But most of the time, he tries a teeny bit (not really tries, just puts it to his lip and then spits it out) and then screams to be let down. When I eventually let him down he then screams and pulls at me until I go and play with him. Which I don’t do until I finish eating, but it is horrible and stressful trying to eat when he is screaming at me and pulling my arms and clothes.
I try really hard for all of his snacks to be healthy foods, like dried fruit, fresh fruit, cheese, biscuits/treats made with wholegrains and oats etc. He doesn’t really like chocolate so never has that, and only occasionally has some pom bear crisps (which are really low salt). I have been trying to convince myself that it doesn’t matter if he eats a lot of snacks because at least they are healthy snacks (or at least not unhealthy) but the dinner does need to be the main event, and a snack should only be quite small really, so I need to try and be a bit stricter in limiting those maybe.
Right, after the uphill struggle of the weekend which I have written about above, we seem to be back on level ground again. Not sure what happened, whether he was just trying to assert his will, or if he was feeling rotten (he had had a cold for a week or so) but today was so much easier. I didn’t really do anything different… maybe being strict with him over the weekend paid off…. who knows! But he had his normal snacks (he likes sweetcorn fritters again so had those this afternoon, I make them with added veggies to get hidden vitamins in :)) at pretty normal times, and we had a mild curry tonight (which I always give him with bread and milk in case it is too spicy for him) but he did really well. He ate his chickpeas, potato and chicken and a lot of his bread so I was happy with that and he got fruit for pudding. He seems to have had an attitude switch over night… who knows, maybe it will switch back tomorrow!
Other things I have tried include:
Shaped food – for example he has star and moon shaped pasta. He is definitely more interested in this pasta than normal pasta but I can’t say it makes him eat it more often!
Eating from our plated – I know it isn’t ideal but sometimes, randomly, even if we are all eating the same thing (which we do 99% of the time) he will like it if he can eat from our plate, but not from his own. This isn’t always the case though!
Getting him involved in food preparation – I have read quite a few things suggesting you involve a fussy child during the food preparation stage, so they are more interested when it comes to eating it. I feel Monkey is a bit young for that though and it would be way too dangerous having him involved, maybe I just worry too much I don’t know, but I wouldn’t let him loose with a cheese grater and if I tried to get him to stir something I think it would go everywhere! Sometimes though if he is hovering around me while I am trying to sort dinner I will try and give him a little taste of something we are having – like a piece of sausage, or pasta sauce. He will generally reject it initially but sometimes he will go ooh yum, and gobble it up, then it can make mealtimes a bit easier. Emphasis on ‘can’ hehe.
Being massively enthusiastic about the meal – My mum did this actually and I had never really thought about it – I am usually feeling pretty harried and am a bit brusque with him – come on Monkey, dinner time, etc. When you think about it, not really the best way to start a mealtime. So now I make a real effort (and it can be an effort) to be more like ‘wow, look at this yummy food! Mmm this looks so tasty’ as I take it over to the table. It really works if he is paying attention and gets him going mmm mmm along with me.
Tonight we had a combination of all of the above and it was the first time he has happily eaten pasta in sauce in months, so I take that as a small step towards success. I’m not sure there is any easy fix that will stop the problems forever, maybe not until they grow out of this phase a bit, but in the meantime I will just keep trying anything I can think of! I might do a post soon about some of the best recipes I have found to get those veggies and vitamins in them sneakily too!