Toddler Fussy Eater – My Son and Food

Grit & Glamour Club_Toddler Fussy Eater

The Fussy Eating Survey conducted by Annabel Karmel reported that three out of four parents lose sleep fretting about their toddler fussy eater, with 94% of us feeling stressed daily.

I can totally relate to such statistics because my son was a war with food for the first five years of his life. Over time he became distressed by any meal time call. It was something that took over every waking minute and created a huge amount of stress on our family… for years. Only now, as I reflect on it, am I able to realise how difficult that time was for me and my child. It was the phase that never ended. I almost consider the term fussy eater too mild.

As silly as it might sound, these eating challenges began at birth for my first son. He was under six pounds and had quite long limbs. After the first eight weeks, he began to develop gastric reflux. We monitored every change in his size weekly at the doctors due to the lack of milk negatively impacting his weight gain. Having all these early experiences led us in the wrong direction with regards to food and a relaxed attitude. We even spent a few nights in the hospital for feeds. Looking back, we were on edge, and I can see how these feelings affected our responses in the future. How could they not?

Undoubtedly, I’ve learnt a lot of dos and don’ts over the years. In fact, things only improved following guidance from health workers, who visited regularly before my son was due to start school. They sat alongside us to work out next steps – we all needed to break this awful cycle. It was incredibly difficult, but we held our nerve, were consistent (what else was there to try) and are now on the other side. Food is no longer the enemy for our once toddler fussy eater. Here’s why…

All emotional reactions stopped

This is a very simple concept but the reality takes a huge amount of control to execute. Don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t scream at him for not finishing a potato but there was a tenseness at all meals. We would try to be strict on some days and tell him that he won’t get anything else if didn’t eat. On other days we would let it go, then make up with snacks. Some days we would remove the plate in frustration. Our emotions led whatever our approach was in the moment and there was zero consistency. We would emotionally deliver the consequences because we felt strongly about it. Quite often there would be tears as he felt he was being naughty. When I explained this to our health worker, she said in the most relaxed way, just stop. Be consistent and non-emotional and give your son the responsibility. 

What this meant in practice was no matter what the outcome, just remain calm and neutral – pressure never works. And it doesn’t, we had years of that behind us and it was a concept I believed. So, we started putting the meal down, leaving my son to eat what he wanted without any eyes on him. If he ate it great, if he didn’t then I would remove the plate with no reaction, a silent manoeuvre if you will. If he started crying about coming to the table, instead of forcing him I would say that he only has to eat what he wanted to. Just relieving the pressure encouraged him to start to finish his meals more regularly because it was his choice. I put myself in his shoes – If a giant was standing over me at meal times would I want to eat?

Give two options for every meal

This worked extremely well because it was never a free choice as such. I would come up with two options I was happy with and my son would have the final say – putting him in charge. Brown toast or Weetabix; tomatoes or cucumber; pasta or a jacket potato? If he wanted to choose peanut butter toast for breakfast for the whole week/month, that was fine. I was reminded that it would only be something he would do temporarily. It was more important at this stage for him to enjoy a meal. It wasn’t about me ticking off the nutrients list. This really hit home because food is to be enjoyed and it was something he’d never felt. It saddened me to think that he didn’t even have a favourite meal. As expected, he did pick the same option for weeks but then he started to broaden and loved the responsibility. 

Let them feed themselves

Don’t spoon feed or use distractions. My family would often use both these methods during particularly tense periods with our toddler fussy eater. I would spoon feed while my son was playing with a toy or distracted by the television. If I got through then I would view as a success, of course it wasn’t. But, It was my way of getting more in him, just as I had to when he was a baby. These were always short wins though and never always worked. I was then told to give the cutlery at the table or serve up finger food, forget about the scenes of the exorcist that would follow and let him crack on – whatever the outcome is fine. Children will not starve themselves and will take what they need. We must have faith.

Don’t compensate with snacks 

If my son didn’t touch his meal, I would fuss about with snacks for hours after. I would even be known to make another meal from scratch. It was ridiculous. He was probably not even hungry by the time the next meal time arrived. I then learnt the importance of snack structure and followed some simple rules. If a meal wasn’t eaten, or fairly little was touched, the plate would be silently removed and no compensation for that meal was offered. My son had to just wait for his snack time a few hours later. If he asked for something, I would say he would have to wait for his snack. Food wasn’t available all day. 

This helped my son’s eating habits so much because he actually started to feel hungry with a set structure. I started to worry less if a meal didn’t go to plan as he would be eating again within a few hours, he didn’t have to wait long, and the tides had already started to turn. 

Know portion sizes for your child

As a general rule of thumb, toddler portions should equal about a quarter of an adult portion size. These really are pint-sized portions. You can look at your child’s hand palm to distinguish how much of each food group to put on their plate. When you use this visual, you’ll see how small a recommended portion is. You’ll also see this if you let your child help themselves to elements of their meal, something we did effectively to change the food vibes in our house. Simply lay out the various food groups on serving plates at the table, give a bowl and let them help themselves without standing over them adding what you’d prefer to their bowl. Remember you control the food options provided so allow your child to experiment and find their own preferences. 

Set the time for meals to last

When I look back at the hell of mealtimes, the whole thing could last up to 90 minutes. That’s a huge amount of time for one meal. No small child has the capacity to sit that long and for it to be a success. I was told a child will eat the most from a meal in the first twenty minutes so a long, drawn out meal has zero benefits. We now have a 30-minute meal window and we stick to it. On school mornings I use a half-hour sand timer, my children like this as they know where they stand and it encourages some increased speed without the pressure. It also helps with preparing for school meal time lines. If you see your child is really trying and could do with a few extra minutes, you can always manipulate the sand timer discreetly. 

Annabel Karmel also reported that 89% of children go through at least one lengthy phase of faddy or picking eating so we are pretty much all going to experience it at one stage, but just like all childhood phases they will pass, and this is what we must remember. 

Armed with my suggestions, I hope you too can ride the wave with minimal disruption. I now see my once toddler fussy eater enjoying food, he even has a handful of favourite meal requests and there is no better feeling. I’m proud of us for getting there.

Grit & Glamour Club is where you’ll find my latest posts. Think chatting to a good friend and expect to read articles on motherhood, self-care and work-life, home-life balance.