Monday, August 22, 2011

Whaddya Do When Your Kid Doesn't Eat?

I keep looking over my shoulder. Because I have been here before.

When Thing 1 was born I got an epidural, much to my disappointment. He came out groggy and lethargic. He had trouble latching. I had trouble keeping him awake for feedings. He slept so much, but only when I had things to do. Whenever I laid down to rest with him he would wake up and howl.

I made every mistake in the book with Thing 1. I tried keeping him on a schedule, rather than nursing on demand. I introduced the bottle too soon. I gave supplemental bottles too often. Nursing and working and pumping all day were really hard. Like evil awful terrible hard. But to my amazement my kid who was always in the 40th percentile for weight and the 90th percentile for height ate solids pretty well. And when he transitioned to table foods he would eat broccoli and corn and even spinach in his 'baby soup', just not much at all, sometimes only 3-4 bites.

When I got pregnant with Thing 2, working and caring for my older son became a true challenge. I was wrecked and pulled in a million different directions. I started relying a little more heavily on the hormone free chicken nuggets and the nitrate free hot dogs and the organic frozen pizzas. Thing 1 was never a GREAT eater. But serving him these processed foods made me feel like I was getting something into him. He didn't like soft mashed foods, he didn't like meat if it was too grainy, certain vegetables he flat out refused. Every meal time was a difficulty. He would refuse to feed himself. He cried and thrashed so badly that we kept him strapped into a high chair until he was three. But I blamed myself. 'If I had offered him better foods he would be eating kale and roasted chicken and sweet potatoes. I served him junk and so he eats junk' I told myself. But being a pregnant mommy, working full time and then bringing home another baby two days after Thing 1's second birthday proved too much stress. I didn't have the energy to clean up our food act.

It wasn't until much later, when Thing 2 started table foods, thatI realized we needed to make a change. I didn't want to give my 9 month old processed foods. That is when I started the blog. I didn't (and still don't) plan on getting pregnant again and so I was sure that I could keep Thing 2 on a straight and narrow food path.

I am pleased to say that I delivered Thing 2 without the aid of an epidural. I really got the birth that I had wanted, the birth I was unprepared and uneducated to perform the first time around. Thing 2 came out super fat, 10 days before his due date and 9 pounds 3 ounces. He, naturally, came out hungry and latched on right away in the delivery room. Our time in the hospital together was almost like being at a hotel. The staff was supportive and friendly. And I just nursed around the clock with the confidence of a mom who'd been around the block before.

Thing 2 was a fantastic nurser. He maneuvered between the breast and the bottle effortlessly. Pumping at work proved to be no problem. And unlike when Thing 1 was born I had no supply problems. When he switched to solid foods he ate like a champ. And even the switch to solid foods was easy. He ate everything and in such great quantities! Mashed avocado, bananas, beans and rice, finely chopped poultry, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, all fruits. I never had a shortage of things to feed him. I could always take one or two of the elements of our dinner and put something nutritious together for him. And when he started to feed himself he ate most of the same things, but loved my cumin patties and he never minded when I slipped kale into his smoothies. I noticed early on that he wasn't crazy about vegetables and he flat out refused the baby soup. But his love of fruits and berries was good enough for me. What a good mother I was to my good eater! He had favorites and would stuff himself on those items, Thing 1 was never like that. Even with his favorite foods he would never just eat for the sake of eating.

Then it happened, one day right around the time that Thing 2 was 18 months old. He just stopped eating. Ironically it was around the same time that Thing 1 started eating more rationally. So I had the sense that there would be some difficult times even for my good eater. I gritted my teeth, but did things slightly differently.

1-I didn't force him to eat. I figured that if he was hungry he would eat. Unfortunately our babysitter often fills him up with snacks in the late afternoon, even though I have discussed my concerns with her. She agrees but bad habits die hard. And anyone who works knows that a problem with snacks is no reason to fire or reprimand a long time babysitter who truly loves your kids and whom your kids truly love. Besides, he doesn't eat lunch for her and she has a hard time just letting him go hungry.

2-No time outs for food related offenses. It was obvious (to at least me) that Thing 1's issues were behavior related, not food related. He would get time outs for throwing food or purposefully spilling his glass of milk, for example. He would act out with his food. Thing 2 never did any of those things. He just doesn't eat. Even in my most stressful moments I didn't feel like it was right to punish him for not eating.

3-I didn't force him to stay in the high chair. At a certain point he refused to stay strapped into his chair. And so we just got rid of it. The month afterwards was hard. He ran all over the house and still wouldn't eat. I spent more time out of my chair than in it. But that's getting better now.

4-No special dinners. That one goes without saying. I believe that everyone in the family should have the same dinner, but there should be elements in each meal that appeal to each of the different diners. I try to make sure that there are nutritious things on each person's plate that each one will like and eat, even if it isn't everything that is served.

But even with some of these common sense measures, the kid just doesn't eat. And the list of things he will eat is awfully short. Today he will eat hot dogs (the ones I get are from a biodynamic organic local farm), turkey sausage, all whole fruits except blueberries and honeydew melon for some reason, and wheat in general. He will sometimes tolerate Greek yogurt, hummus, nitrate free deli meat and pasta sauces, but those are hot and cold. Oh! And milk. He would drink milk instead of eating all day if he could. This prompted me to think that maybe he was drinking too much milk. So I moved away from sippy cups to straw cups, now he won't always finish his milk. He doesn't always accept the straw cups. And I started reducing the number of ounces he gets in a day. He drinks between 12-14 ounces of milk in a day, so I highly doubt that he is drowning his appetite.And now it is getting worse. His eating habits now seem preferential and purposeful. It doesn't seem to matter if he is hungry, he simply will not eat what he doesn't care for. Last week he ate breakfast, no lunch and no snack and I caved and made his favorite turkey sausage for dinner. He was ravenous. Had I made something else he would have probably gone to bed hungry.

Thing 2 is not unhealthy. His weight is good, so I am not worried about that. Though he has thinned out alot in the last few months as a result of a growth spurt and eating less. But he eats zero vegetables that haven't been pureed and hidden in something and he seems so picky that I am nervous about building good eating habits. I thought I had done everything right. I didn't get lazy and serve him lousy food. But now my weekly dinner rotation is a painful 4 or 5 dishes that I know he'll eat, so I feel stuck in the same rut I was with Thing 1. I don't think it is fair to serve him summer squash and swiss chard pizza with feta cheese when I know he will just starve for the night.

Fortunately though, he always eats breakfast. He will eat my 'green eggs' even if I load them with kale and onions. He always finishes his overnight pancakes. Oatmeal is a fav too. French toast is also a big hit. Usually even if he hasn't eaten in 18 hours I know I can get some protein and fat into him during breakfast.

So my conclusions? Maybe I wasn't to blame for Thing 1's poor eating habits. I did my best by him and got through a particularly stressful time in our lives. I kept him fed and served him mostly good pastured meats. So even though he had a love affair with turkey Bologna, maybe it is time that I stop blaming myself. And again with Thing 1, he eats veggies really well. Today we have moved forward from his standard broccoli and corn. He eats green beans, celery, cucumbers and carrots. He still likes the 'baby soup', and eats whatever I throw into that. Now though I make the broth with pastured chicken feet and he adores it. Maybe I shouldn't beat myself up over his food transgressions, but perhaps I also cannot take credit for his good eating habits. I am simply the cook. I make the food and he chooses what to eat. Perhaps no parent should pat themselves on the back for having 'good eaters', because it isn't really up to you at all. Besides is such a distinction fair to a parent like me who bore such lousy eaters, even though I cook like mad and model such good behavior for my children?

Thing 2 is so young, it is frustrating to see him struggle with eating. It really upsets me to see him refuse foods that I know he used to love. I worry that this is truly who he is. I worry that he will not follow the same pattern as his brother and just work his way out of this. I worry I will be fighting over vegetable consumption for the next 16 years. I get so irritable that he prefers one plate or cup over another. I get so irritable that his choices seem so random. But perhaps it really has nothing to do with me. Dear Lord, please help me to breathe today.

This post is shared with Traditional Tuesdays and Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays


  1. I am a nutrition professional who has worked with children for several years. What you are describing is really rather typical for a (give or take) two year old.

    For the first 18-24 months after birth, a child grows VERY rapidly. The only time a child grows faster than this is in the last four weeks before birth. Sometime between 18 and 24 months, children's growth rates really drop off. They are still growing, just much more slowly. Naturally, their appetite and food intake also falls off. This is what we parents notice and what drives us crazy. This is also the time when children go on food jags, meaning they develop very distinct and often limited food preferences. They sometimes want to eat exactly the same thing for all three meals for days in a row.

    This is normal. They will grow out of it. Their growth rate will pick up again and they will eat more and they will expand their food preferences again.

    In the meantime, you are right not to make an issue out of it. The best thing to do is just what you are doing. Offer wholesome great-tasting food and if they don't eat at meals, they don't get snacks (at least during the times they are with you).

    **No child ever starved or developed failure-to-thrive by choosing not to eat when food is available.**

    If you are concerned about nutrient intake, maybe you could try a good natural vitamin/mineral supplement.

    It seems a long way off now, but when they are teenagers and eating you out of house and home, you will probably wonder what you ever worried about.

    Hang in there and try not to stress. They are only little once and life is short. Hug and kiss more--fret less.


  2. Hi, I have grown kids so I have a different perspective.

    My daughter was always a finicky eater. Now in her 20s, she has greatly expanded her repetoire and suddenly taken an interest in cooking. She still eats many things I'd rather she didn't, but her diet and her knowledge about eating and preparing food is way ahead of her peers.

    Even if kids don't eat the way you'd like at every meal, by exposing them to real food, they are way ahead.

    I think you are totally on the right track. You're serving good food. Not forcing (excellent), not offering unhealthy snacks (though I'd talk the babysitter again).

    Look at what's happening now as a phase and it will be easier to weather through.

    Good luck!

  3. Hello,
    I am a nutrition educator and mother and I think you are doing just fine. My 4 year old son has finally turned a corner these last few weeks and decided to eat most of what I put out on the dinner table. Nothing has changed on my end, I have always offered healthy, nutritious meals and snacks but he decided from 2-4 years old that he wanted to say no to most everything. I have let him go to bed hungry on several occassions but he has eaten twice as much for breakfast the next day. It's hard but I love to cook and eat and refuse to limit my diet and cooking because of his phase. My advice: keep serving healthy, nutritious foods, give them options (family style serving) at the table and let them serve themselves, get them involved in the shopping, cooking, and set up of meals. Praise them for being such good helpers. Hope that helps.
    Take care,

  4. Wow! I have experienced just the opposite. My son, who is almost 11, was an excellent eater as a baby and would eat anything and everything we put in front of him. Now as a pre-teen it is a struggle and a fight to get him to eat anything that is not junk food!

    I, too, blame myself as I have been feeding him chicken nuggets, french fries, frozen pizza and macaroni and cheese in a blue box for years just to get anything into him. Fortunately, he does like a few vegetables and fruits.

    Several months ago I was introduced to Real Foods and I have made a very concerned effort to only purchase whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible and am re-learning to cook for my family. Yes, it is a struggle, yes it takes a lot more time to plan, cook and serve a meal, but I am willing to put forth the effort as I feel like I am doing something good for my husband and son. Unfortunately, my son is not thrilled with the new eating plan and there are days when he barely eats. He doesn't like food "mixed up" like casseroles and spaghetti which are the things that are easier to pre-make, cost less and allow me to stretch our food budget. His taste also changes frequently, sometimes it seems like from day to day.

    I am at a loss for what to do. We live by the rule that you have to eat one bite of everything on your plate, I refuse to cook two different meals every night and the stress level at the dinner table is enormous. I know there are many nights when he goes to bed with an empty stomach. I am to the point that I just want to throw in the towel and feed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night until he goes to college.

    I hope and pray for your piece of mind that Thing 1 and Thing 2 do not have the same aversions to food as my pre-teen.

  5. Colleen, Thanks for commenting!! It is always nice to hear from others who are struggling with something similar. At least we know that they get enough food to keep them alive! Ha!

  6. Hi

    I really enjoyed your post. We have a similar problem with our second son. He eats some things just not enough.

    Our nutritionist recommended the following, real salt and apple cider or balsamic vingear. The real salt is packed with minerals and the salt helps to increase the ph in the stomach to aid digestion. The vinegar also aids digestion but I don't remember exactly how.

    He also recommends some spices to warm his stomach to increase digestion ie: pepper, garlic (fresh and powder), ginger (fresh, candied or powder), nutmeg, basil to name a few.

    In the last few weeks, we have noticed his increased appetite but it isn't consistent.

    Our greatest challenge is lunch when he attends pre-school. A typical lunch consist of quinoa pasta shell with a garlic, olive oil butter sauce with sauteed leafy greens and slices of chicken. Sometimes I give him nitrate free hotdogs since he'll eat it. He also tried chicken nuggets from other kids in the classroom and really liked it. I packed him the bell evans chicken nuggets and he ate a bite of it the whole day. It's not as tasty as the super processed kind. Do you have a recommendation for this one? He also gets apples, oranges, grapes or other in season fruits for snack. We throw in a granola bar as a snack for the bus ride back. He doesn't like bread so I haven't given him any sandwiches.

    If you have any lunch food suggestions I would appreciate it.

  7. Thanks for posting this. I am having similar issues with my Thing 1, and oddly I find that breakfast is always a winner with her too. I am getting ready to start my Wee One on solids, and dreading the transition. It is nice to know that I am not the only well intentioned, slave to the nutrition of my family, mother who just cannot get her child to eat the foods that they once loved.

  8. I have ten kids and I am mean. But when they are older we have a rule that you get what you get and you don't throw a fit. If you won't take the same number of bites are you are years old I wrap it up and give it to you your next meal. They keep getting it until they eat it and no solid food (milk is allowed) until they do. I don't scream or yell, I just quietly tell them the rule and move on.

    But for little guys, Dr. Sears says that it can take seven impressions of a food before toddlers realize it is a food. Keep serving it! My kids are seriously adventurous and I chalk it up to being adventurous and not giving in. No screaming, no yelling, no bribing just put it out there. If your olders kids encourage them, then the younger kids seem to comply more.

    Just my experience.

  9. My son ate just about everything until he was 18 months old at which point he began to refuse things he used to like one by one until he ate very few things. Our pediatrician said this was pretty normal and he'd grow out of it and not to make a battle over it. He is almost 11 years old now and has not grown out of the extreme picky eating. I think it's true that most kids will grow out of this but in some cases there may be other issues. It turns out my son has both ADD and OCD. The OCD is largely why he is a picky eater- tactile issues are huge. No foods can touch each other, he won't eat messy food, he doesn't eat produce, he won't eat food that is irregular in shape or looks "wrong" to him. What I want to say is that with most children what everyone has said above is true, they won't starve themselves and you can keep introducing them to foods and eventually they'll start eating more regularly again. But if your child has mental illness, as mine does, then forcing them to eat food that makes them gag, making a power trip out of the dinner table, refusing to make them food they can actually stomach because you don't want to make separate meals... that's just punishing them for something that is out of their control and is really cruel. My son is not a picky eater by choice or by being spoiled. He certainly isn't a picky eater because I didn't feed him right when he was a baby. He has bigger issues. Your kid most likely doesn't have mental illness like my son but extreme picky eating is very common among kids with his issues and knowing this has helped me cope. I just wanted to give a different perspective.