Thursday, 28 January 2010

The taming of a fussy eater

The previous post seems to have struck a chord with lots of readers about fussy eaters. I don't think I've ever gone into detail on the blog about my experience with Littleboy1 so I thought I'd recount the tale now: hopefully it will give some hope to those of you are at your wits' end with fussy younger children.

Before I had kids, I scoffed at people whose children were fussy eaters. Surely it must be the parents' fault - they hadn't introduced them to a wide variety of healthy foods, they gave into them all the time and let them eat what they want, they let them have too much junk food, and so forth. I vowed to be different. I love food, I am married to great cook, and neither of us has ever been fussy. We are both firm believers that cooking from scratch is important. Even when we were at our busiest with careers, getting home late in the evening, we never ordered takeout or popped a readymeal in the microwave; we always took the time to cook, even it was just a bowl of pasta with cherry tomatoes. So, MY children were going to eat anything and everything, and meanwhile I would lovingly cook them delicious meals from scratch every night. Weren't they?

Before weaning Littleboy 1, I read Annabel Karmel diligently and started to prepare little purees of apple, pear and carrot, blending and freezing them in ice cube trays. I waited till he was six months' old (despite everyone around me giving in at about four months in desperation for their children to sleep through the night). His first meal was a little bit of a baby rice blended with breast milk.

Bleugh. He spat it out. OK, Annabel said that was normal, I thought. But on the second and third day, bleugh and bleugh again. So I tried the fruit purees. Nada. Mashed banana? Niet. Carrot? Projectile vomit.

This went on four about three weeks. By this time my friends' babies were all, naturally, eating pasta with lumps, mashed avocado and (probably) coq qu vin. Eventually someone gave me a tip - try yoghurt/fromage frais. So the first food he accepted was a commercial banana baby yoghurt. I already felt like a failure....

As time went on, Littleboy 1 started to eat a few more of the fruit purees. I'm not sure he ever accepted a vegetable one -perhaps butternut squash and pear - but we managed to make the move to things like lentils, beef stew and fish. But lumps were off the menu until he was over a year old (it didn't help that he was a late teether); he wouldn't eat any jarred food (which made travelling with him a nightmare) and introducing a new food was always a trial. We had tremendous kitchen battles, he and I: he sitting in his highchair, jaws mutinously clamped together, me cajoling with a spoon, trying to make him laugh so he'd open his mouth. Usually something ended up being thrown across the kitchen - and it wasn't always by the baby. I'll admit now that mealtimes were my major source of stress and anxiety with him during the baby years; I let it get to me, and badly.

As a toddler, while other people complained that their children were fussy, Littleboy 1 was in a different league. For example: he didn't even eat the stuff that all children supposedly like: cake, chocolate and sweets; people at parties were always amazed that he refused these things, thinking that I must have trained him really well, but, while I'd like to think it was my good parenting, actually it was more that they weren't on his list of prescribed foods. This was an extremely small list. He always liked breakfast cereal and toast, and thankfully all fruit, but staple foods such as meat, vegetables, pasta, rice - these were all off the menu. While his diet was actually pretty healthy - his favourites included baked potato with tuna and pitta bread with hummus - it was very limited.

When Littleboy 2 - who ate anything and everything as a baby - came along, it became ridiculous: I was determined not to limit Littleboy 2's diet, so he would be getting chicken curry while his brother ate yet another baked potato . There was no question of us all eating together as a family (well, unless we all wanted baked potato with tuna every single night). So at one point I was preparing three separate meals every evening. This soon became impossible. And far from cooking delicious meals every night for my children, I was running around fobbing Littleboy 1 off with marmite toast while Littleboy 2 tucked into Plum Baby.

I tried all sorts of tactics - including sending him to bed hungry if he didn't eat his supper - but he did not seem to care. He was stubborn beyond belief, and did not seem to have much of an appetite either.

But you know what? There is light at the end of the tunnel. As Littleboy 1 gets older, and more rational, I can explain to him why certain foods are good to eat and he is more willing to try them. "Mummy," he'll say. "If I eat all my supper I'll grow up to be a big boy, won't I?"

At four and a half, he now happily eats rice, spaghetti, chicken, pork and beef; he eventually grew to love carrots (at first dipped in hummus, now alone as as snack). He has accepted green beans (with ketchup, but it's a start). There are still several things that are off the menu (penne pasta, for some reason, eggs and green veg like peas and broccoli) and he insists on a salami sandwich every single day in his lunchbox. Eating at friends' houses can still be a challenge, when he turns his nose up at a perfectly acceptable-looking meal just because he doesn't recognise it.

One thing I did do was stick to my guns on the healthy diet. I tend not to buy foods such as biscuits and cakes, unless we are having a party, so if he wants a snack, it's an apple or clementine. I won't let him scoff bread late at night if he hasn't eaten any supper; he knows the deal. Fries, chocolate (which he now likes, but only as of Halloween last year) ice-cream - these are all treats and not something we generally have at home.

So; my advice to others dealing with the hell that is fussiness; don't give up. Keep trying new things; not night after night (unless you want every meal to be a shouting match), but after a few months, when they've forgotten they didn't like the thing before. Eat with your kids whenever you can, and let them eat with other children. If their diet is limited, don't worry too much, but try to ensure that the things they will eat are nutritious. Toddlers are capable of making fussy eating into an extreme sport, if you let them. But get through these years as best you can without turning them into junk-food junkies, and they might start to surprise you.

I don't know if I dealt with my fussy eater the best way - I know that, at times, I got very stressed and angry about it all and I think my stress probably filtered through to him, making him even more difficult about food. But looking at him now, fit, strong and healthy, and demanding another bowl of carrots, I think I must have done something right.


rosiescribble said...

This is hugely helpful. I remember readig your last post on fussy eating as my daughter is the same. She was also refusing lumpy food at age one. She is now 6 and is not doing as well as Littleboy 1 but I'll follow your advice and I'm sure our situation will continue to improve.

Iota said...

I like your approach.

I love it when my 12 year old tries new things: Chinese, Indian, spicy food, new veg. A few years ago, if it wasn't fish fingers or sausages, you could forget it.

I'm just hoping that my 9 year old will soon go the same way.

Almost American said...

DS was a wonderful eater until a few months ago and he has suddenly started refusing to eat anything served at our evening meal. Tonight he ate 2 mouthfuls of peas. I figure he'll eat when he's hungry - and that's apparently what he's doing. At morning snack time at school he eats EVERYTHING I've sent in for snack *and* lunch - apple sauce, cheese stick, yogurt and a (large) sandwich - and then has nothing left for lunch! His teacher just asked me to send more food in each day!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

I've been thinking about doing a post on fussy eaters too. It is so hard having a fussy eater - not just an oh, he won't eat his spinach fussy eater, but a really fussy one, one that only eats one or two things, total.

Adam is (hopefully growing out of being) a really fussy eater, on the scale of your LB1. It has been one of the most stressful things I have ever had to deal with. I pretty much tried the same as you, keeping on with the homemade nutritous meals and it seems to be getting a little better.

Thanks for this post, sometimes I can feel that I'm the only one with such a fussy eater and it is difficult not to take it as a personal failing.

Kit said...

My oldest was the opposite of yours as a baby - he ate everything on Annabel Karmels menu, including chicken korma. Then as a toddler he started crossing things off his list of acceptable items, until we were down to just a few items.
At 11 he's still pretty fussy. His younger sisters will try new things while he scrapes the sauce of his meat and sticks with potato and rice (no pasta) and only broccoli as a vegetable. I'm hoping tht he'll grow out of it eventually but he is extremely stubborn.
And I've always done the home-cooking thing too. I'm sure it is just the child's tastes and temperament and very little to do with parenting techniques!

Mud in the City said...

I totally agree with you about some children being fussy eaters from birth; nothing to do with what they are fed or what their parents eat etc. I friend of mine ate nothing but sausages and baked potatoes until she was 16. Then she went on a date with the man who was to become her husband. He ordered steak and veg for both of them - she ate the lot, and hasn't looked back!

Home Office Mum said...

my second son sounds like Kit's. He was eating proper food at 10 months - absolutely anything we ate, he ate. He would eat an entire tub of cherry tomatoes if he was allowed to. Now he will not touch tomato. Or sausages. Or mashed potato. Or just about anything really unless I feel it to him. He's 4. It's a phase. He's a strapping young boy and if he doesn't eat what's on his plate, he goes hungry till the next day.

Meanwhile son 1 has elected to be a vegetarian (because meat is too chewy). i don't care. I cook meat and I serve it to him. If he has some, he gets praised. If he doesn't, he doesn't get punished but he keeps getting it served to him

I will NEVER force a child to eat what's on their plate (I was the world's fussiest eater and my parents tried that with me. I always won and was a stick insect for a long time). But in our house, they don't get offered an alternative. They either eat what's on offer or go hungry.

Nota Bene said...

Oh he'll be eating a doner kebab soon....

nappy valley girl said...

Rosie - glad to be of help. We'll get there!

Iota - I'm sure he will. I think tastes change quite a lot in the teenage years; I know mine did.

Almost American - 2 mouthfuls of peas would be a triumph in this house. Sounds like it's just a phase.....trying it on with you perhaps.

Brit in Bosnia - it's almost impossible not to feel it's your fault; I'm just glad that I had another child who was so different, because it made me feel much better about it.

Kit - my sympathies. Littleboy 2 is more like this - I hope he grows out of it, but have never worried so much about him because I know he likes his food.

Mud - yes, I know someone who was fussy as a child and now likes to eat at offal restaurants etc!

HomeOfficeMum - yes, your strategy sounds similar to mine - I did used to try and force them but it just SO doesn't work. Praise rather than punishment is the way we do it now.

NB - yes, more's the pity....

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

We have the same tactic as you and Home Office Mum - this is what it is, eat it fine, don't eat it fine, but you are not getting anything else.

They do get a smartie if they finish their plate, but no fuss made if they don't. This is more to try and hurry it along a little. Adam can take a good hour to eat 2 mouthfuls. He says he isn't finished yet, but doesn't actually do much about eating any more. It is agonising!

Expat mum said...

I've had the opposite experience with the Little Guy. When he came along, 7 and 10 years after the other two, I just mached up and gave him whatever we were eating. He loved it all - roasted tomatoes, hummus, salmon, carrots, - I was in heaven as you can imagine. (And not a little smug I must admit.)
Now - he picks at a lot of things and won't try anything 'new'. Pah!

Lucia said...

This is good for me to read right now. My 11 month old girl has recently become very hard to please at mealtimes, after a fantastic start where she ate everything offered to her.

nappy valley girl said...

Brit in Bosnia - an hour to eat two mouthfuls? That must be REALLY frustrating. Mine are just more likely to say they are finished or 'full' after two (quick) mouthfuls.....

Expat Mum - I hear this a lot from people whose babies were excellent eaters. Hopefully he will revert to type once a little older?

Lucia - I think it is a rare child who eats everything always. Being fussy at some point or other seems to be part of our genetic makeup. I hope for your sake it's just a phase.