Little Miss H had allergies from birth. It turned out she had a dairy allergy so although initially purely breastfed her diet needed to be modified. In real terms that meant a dairy free diet for me. We had no problem with that especially as we saw an improvement in her symptoms.
Once weaned we had the fright of an anaphylactic shock after giving her scrambled egg – it wasn’t pretty. That added another allergy to her list.
When she was four she kept saying her mouth hurt after eating crisps and that turned out to be a potato allergy – apparently not as uncommon as I thought, something to do with the nightshade family.
Add all this to her sensory preferences then there were very few foods she would eat – texture and temperature being a big problem for us.
Texture wise nothing claggy or gloopy is tolerated even to this day. She gags at the tiniest bit of porridge, cheese sauce, béchamel (white) sauce, custard, yoghurt, syrup and the like.
She would tolerate her prescription formula milk and water. To this day she only has water as a drink, even at parties. Now and again if she’s in the mood and I mean like possibly three times a year (and she doesn’t drink it all), she might have chocolate milk but that’s only been since she was 6 and a half, I think she just likes the idea since she went on a café visit with a local Autism Charity that runs social groups for girls and they ordered hot chocolate!
She always liked her food cold – preferably fridge cold. Once I started adding (prescription) formula feeds to her diet that suited us as it meant we didn’t need to faff about warming the milk! Nothing warm could get past her lips. As she has matured she tolerates warm food now but her preference still is room temperature or cool.
As a baby and toddler there were times when Little Miss H’s diet was so limited I was worried about it but more than that, to be frank I got bored. In my past life I was a chef and food is a great passion of mine so it was also soul destroying. I blamed myself thinking I had done the weaning phase ‘wrong’. I’d failed at getting the most basic thing right – feeding my child.
Running alongside this there were other elements of her character coming out, like the tendency to be controlling and very demanding, I was conscious that it could all be toddler manipulation so I got creative with my approach.
I did lots of different things to try and help sort this tricky eating, determined that she would not be a ‘fussy eater’. She still is limited in what she eats but I now understand better the motivation and reasons behind it. She has an enormous appetite, with a fast metabolism and I do think food is also a coping mechanism for her anxiety so ensuring she eats healthily is something I am mindful of for the future.
Here are a few of my approaches on the off chance it helps someone else.
I gave her limited choices, ‘would you like a or b?’ for example. I lost count of the number of times she’d opt for c/d/e or f which weren’t available to her and yes it became a battle of wills many times. Anyone who knows me though will recognise that Little Miss had probably met her match so eventually a or b would be chosen (or she’d opt to go without) but it was exhausting and time consuming. At times I did add something else into the equation to make my life easier. As an example I would allow option c, but I would add a caveat like ‘OK you may have option C if you promise to help mummy get you ready for going out after lunch’ or something along those lines. I felt it gave her the chance to ‘succeed’ at negotiating but on my terms and we found our groove (ish) – it largely worked for us.
I encouraged her to help in the kitchen and in food preparation. She loved messy play so for her this was a natural extension but it had zero impact on what she ate. Genuinely, at that age it made no difference at all so please don’t lose heart if the same happens to you. I had so many people, often of an older generation, suggest that if she helped prepare it she would eat it. I know that does work for lots of children and that is terrific. It’s also true that it doesn’t work for all children and that’s OK too. But it became a fun way for her and I to bond and play especially after Tiny was born. She’d help me prepare Tiny’s food when it came to weaning her and she became confident at safely using a peeler and an appropriate knife. Her attention span was limited unless I made it actively fun so I turned it into a learning game whenever I could but it really taxed my energy and creativity and at times I didn’t have it in me – exhaustion and a desire to just get the job done did mean I couldn’t be bothered to ‘turn it into a game’! With Tiny screaming and Little pulling on me speed sometimes was the best option!
I made food fun. I would cut sandwiches to tiny sizes and called them dolls house sandwiches, we’d use cookie cutters to do great shapes – her favourite being the star because I always told her she was my super star. We would cut vegetables of different colours up very tiny and stir them through plain rice and called it treasure rice as the vegetables looked like jewels, this is still a firm favourite today! We also made the food look appealing by arranging it on the plate. I’d stand sandwiches up on end to make a castle, or have the sandwich like petals of a flower and other such designs that appealed to her. Of course we made faces too!!
I’d introduce choice where she didn’t have choice. An example, she’d be having carrots and that was not optional but she would get to choose how we prepared them and would describe how she wanted her carrot cut up – like sticks (she was a real forest forager), like coins (treasure), ribbons, fairy wands, flowers – you get the gist.
I would serve the whole meal at once. If her meal was a sandwich, fromage frais and fruit I would serve it all at the same time and it was up to her which order she ate it in. The pudding was not a reward for eating her main course. If she only ate her fruit and fromage frais that was fine by me. Even now when I am cooking tea she will have fruit or fromage frais first as she is so hungry and it calms her to wait patiently for her main meal. Now that she’s older we often now serve pudding after the main course but I’m pretty flexible about it.
Distraction. This is a great technique which helped us loads. We would play a game during the meal and before each turn she had to take a bite, or we’d play music and have a table disco with a section of the plate eaten before the next song is played for example. Yes we even put the TV on sometimes or have a screen at the table – I can see the aghast expressions of some but I promise you it helped us and hasn’t destroyed the sanctity of family meals!
Watching Cookery programmes and reading cookery books. I watch cookery programmes on TV and it was something we could do together and she became really obsessed with ‘I can cook’ and ‘Junior Masterchef’. She has a range of cookery books that she often reads them just for fun. Initially our babysitter got a bit of a surprise when Little Miss presented a cookery book and asked for it to be read as her bedtime story, we were quite used to it so thought nothing of it but I suppose it is quite unusual! We choose recipes to cook out of her books. She doesn’t always eat them but I believe in time that’ll gradually change. Regardless, an interest in cooking is a great life skill to have so I’m in favour of it.
Marbles. We have a reward system that if she earns x number of marbles she can choose a reward which ranges from playing a game with mummy or daddy to choosing a toy and we vary it and allow her to choose to keep her motivated. She earns a marble for trying a new food. She is not forced to try new foods. She is encouraged to touch, feel, smell, lick etc any food she likes but to earn a marble it has to be tried. We have a rule in this house that you can’t say you don’t like something until you have tried it and trying it is swallowing a proper mouthful down to the tummy.
Sitting at the table. Every meal is at the kitchen table. No debate.
Family meals. With my husband’s work it is not possible to have our weekday meal all together so at weekends we try to have family meals where we all sit down at the table and I serve the food in serving dishes in the centre of the table for people to help themselves. Without fail she is the most adventurous at trying food when it served in this way. We allow the girls to serve themselves but of course help them where necessary but spills don’t matter and keeping the atmosphere light and calm is a priority.
Opting for school meals. Her diet was so limited that I couldn’t face making a dry ham sandwich every day for the rest of her academic career so I opted for her to eat school meals. I also felt socially it would be better for her too. It has been a poisoned chalice though as she does try more new foods out of necessity but she has also copied other children in starting to refuse some foods that she previously ate, specifically broccoli. It has worked for us and she undeniably eats a broader range of food due to being exposed to them at school.
Last but not least Upside Down Days. This is possibly my favourite of all my attempts to take the pressure off the food issue. I came up with the idea when she was in a phase of eating an extremely limited diet and was exhibiting very rigid behaviours so I wanted to show her that mixing things up could be fun. Initially she was reticent about the idea until I suggested spaghetti for breakfast! She thought that was hilarious so we mix the day up. We have tea for breakfast, breakfast for lunch and lunch for tea or any mix up of her choosing. She chooses and we go with it. The answer is yes to all her suggestions so I make sure I only offer an upside down day when I know it can work! It’s something we will keep in our arsenal as it is fun and a great way of snapping them out of a rut!
A combination of all of the above coupled with perseverance have resulted in her eating what is now a very broad diet compared to what she used to eat. The point is the pressure is off and food isn’t the crisis it once was. The dining table is no longer a battle ground and meal times are more relaxed.
I’ve been through all the experiences of the ‘helpful’ suggestions from nursery about ideas to put in her lunch box where I just smiled and thanked them through gritted teeth. I’ve been through the tantrums of her insisting she wants a packed lunch at school rather than the school cooked meals. I’ve been through the desire to force a spoonful of food into her mouth to prove to her she’d like it! I’ve been through the stand off where she refused to eat and I refused to offer her anything else.
I’ve been through it all and I get it. It has not been an easy journey. It is a journey we are still travelling.
The best advice I ever received was from our great GP, Dr Brown Bear (Peppa Pig fans will understand that one) who said “if all she’ll eat is kitkats, give her kitkats” (other chocolate bars are available).
The point he was making is don’t stress it. Get calories of any sort into her. Don’t make food an issue. Enjoy life. Now she didn’t eat chocolate of any sort then which I thought was ironic but I got the point and applied it as best I could, to the extent that she has ketchup with everything (except perhaps coco pops!).
I’m a chef, I’m a foodie so for me it’s been an endless source of frustration. I will never give up trying to broaden her range but that’s MY thing, not hers. I respect her choices and if she doesn’t want to try something it’s FINE. Genuinely. But I will keep offering.
I understand the temptation to force them to eat. We want to get healthy stuff into them, your motivation may be organic or vegan or home cooked rather than convenience, or manners or starving children in another part of the world, or whatever but realise that is YOUR thing. Their little body is theirs. They are entitled to their preferences and they are entitled to their choices. Support them and take the expectation and pressure off and make sitting at the table enjoyable and eating will come (eventually).
Good luck and Bon Appetit!