Recently I’ve had the good fortune of being successful at getting kids to eat. I don’t take full credit for this, because as weird as this sounds, there’s something about my home that convinces little ones to put that first bite in their mouths, and follow it with another and another. I know it’s strange but I’m seeing a consistent pattern here.
One mother brought me her 15 month old son and sent alongside a bag containing lunch and snacks. She explained to me that he’s extremely underweight and refuses to eat, and that she would be thrilled if he took just a few bites of the sandwich she packed, but she didn’t expect him to. On another occasion she told me that he hadn’t eaten almost anything in 5 days!
There are a few ground rules one has to understand when it comes to kids eating. First and most important, the parent has to avoid a power struggle at all costs. Even a 12 month old can be wise enough to grab the upper hand here, if the opportunity arises. Make the atmosphere relaxed, act nonchalant as if you don’t care whether or not the child eats. Don’t make eye contact for the first few bites, you don’t want him to see the pleading look in your eyes or the happiness and pride when he does intake food. Even if you are the one feeding him, you pretend you don’t even notice that he’s agreed to take a bite.
When the parent starts begging and putting emotional energy into each bite of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks, that’s when the child figures out he can be in control simply by refusing to eat. And kids can be quite stubborn, I don’t have to tell you. We need to avoid getting into this unhealthy pattern at all costs. There is no need for a child surrounded by food to be malnourished.
I looked at the little 15 month old boy playing in my home and saw that although he was healthy, his legs were skinnier than a toddler’s legs should be. I wanted to help him.
Second ground rule: Eating is a sensory experience. Especially for young toddlers whose brains are still being developed. In order for them to get comfortable with different types of food, they first need to feel it, hold and touch it. If it passes that first sensory test, it has a chance to pass the oral sensory test as well. But if the food skips the first part and goes straight in the mouth, chances are it will be spit out.
So I sit the child down and a few pieces of his food (diced) in front of him. He will most probably pick it up, feel it in his hands and between his fingers, and then it will either be put carefully in his mouth or dropped back down (or thrown across the room :)), rejected. If the food is in his mouth, there are so many things that go into deciding whether or not it is swallowed or spit out. Is it salty, sweet, or spicy? Is it hard and needs crunching or soft for chewing or can it be swallowed right away? Is the texture rough against the gums/teeth or is it smooth and slippery? Is it dry or watery/juicy? The food is judged on so many levels, it’s no surprise that so many times it gets thrown back or spit out.
Kids also need time to get used to different types of food. If a fruit or vegetable is rejected today, wait a few days and offer it again. Let him feel it between his hands for as long as he needs to. If he didn’t appreciate the juicy apple bites today, there’s a good chance he’ll be used to it and like it after a few tries.
Also, let him get used to a single food at a time. Ditch the peas and carrots and do just peas or just carrots. Once he likes both, that’s when he’ll agree to eat them mixed. I made this mistake with diced apple and clementines, mixed as a little fruit salad. I got it thrown back at me.
Patience is the third ground rule. Nobody likes being rushed when they eat, not even adults. I know we’re busy but we must allow a child to have as much time as he needs to stay in the high chair and complete his meal. If you’re feeding him, give him a chance to chew and swallow, don’t force the next spoonful on him.
Sometimes when my older kids are in a hurry and I catch them wolfing down their food, I remind them that they don’t have to pick up their forks for the next bite until their mouths are empty. There’s no rush. It’s certainly not worth bringing on an upset stomach. For small toddlers with small stomachs, all the more so.
One mother told me her 17 month old doesn’t like any fruits or vegetables. It was hard for me to imagine because my own kids have always eaten everything in adult-sized portions. Which child doesn’t love juicy clementines or corn tidbits or apple slices? I came up with a plan instantaneously. I put the toddler in the high chair, grabbed a clementine from the fridge and a plastic knife, and sat in front of him. He thought the clementine was a ball (of course) and wanted to play with it. I gave it to him to hold for a minute. Then I showed him how we peel it and proceeded to section it, lining up each piece separately on the table in front of me. He was pretty fascinated, it was cute. I diced each one with the knife, and then made a huge show of eating a piece, saying: “YUMMMMM!” He wanted to try so I dropped a piece on his high chair tray without making eye contact with him. While he picked it up and put it in his mouth, I quickly ate another one and announced again: “Yummm!!!! Just in time because he was about to spit it out but suddenly he surprised me and changed his mind. He wanted another, and another, and soon he liked it so much he was begging and clamoring for more. It had quickly changed into his favorite food.
The next day I heated up some frozen mixed veggies. When they had cooled somewhat, I placed one little piece of a carrot on his tray. He ate it! I was sure it would be thrown down on the floor, but maybe he got used to me giving him weird things to eat. I gave him another carrot, it was devoured, and another and another, until I put an entire spoonful on his tray. Within a minute, his tray was empty. I held my breath and placed a small yellow corn kernel in front of him. Before long he was eating carrots, corn, peas, and lima beans all mixed together and begging for more! I couldn’t believe this was the child who wasn’t supposed to like any fruits or vegetables! Right now we are working on green beans and apples (separately!) and he will eat them in small doses. Of course I keep giving him diced clementine and the mixed veggies so that he doesn’t forget that he likes them. Oh, his mother was pretty surprised when I told her what he’s been eating.
When all has failed so far, the next ground rule was taught to me by the skinny 15 month old. Kids enjoy being part of a crowd. I sat the two toddlers next to each other and arranged two plates of rice with mushrooms, tuna, and sweet potato. The skinny toddler finished off the rice and tuna so fast, I wish I would have videoed it to show his mother. When she came to pick him up later, I was happy to tell her that her son finished off the entire plate (plus half a sandwich earlier) and that he loves mushrooms.
The last method of getting food into a little person is “grazing.” Grazing is when you offer the child small bites throughout the day and it is perfect for kids who needs smaller meals instead of three big ones. It is double-edged though because we do want the child to eat at mealtime and if he’s been eating all day, he may not be hungry at the right times. Grazing is very effective though for the child who refuses to eat and desperately needs to gain weight. Distractions during grazing seem to be a necessity so that the child doesn’t realize he’s eating- when he is interested in a toy, while playing outside, while watching a movie, while being pushed in the stroller. When I wasn’t sure if the 15 month old would eat in my home, I first took him to the backyard along with a sandwich diced into small pieces. As he played, I showed him a small piece of the whole-wheat bread and he willingly opened his mouth for me to pop it in. That was the first of many bites he took here.
It’s an ongoing saga but I’m satisfied with our good start.
Have you ever dealt with a child who simply refused to eat? How did the situation resolve?