For those of you who have only just stumbled across my blog I’ll introduce myself. I’m Samar, a mum of two boys aged 4 (Jack) and almost 2 (Chaz). I’ve previously shared a few moments of my struggles with the Fussy Eating stage that I have been faced with. I can’t count how many times I’ve googled about why my 4 year old won’t eat the delicious meals I prepare. Healthcare professionals say it’s normal for children to become fussy after they turn one. Most online forums talk about either giving in or denying the children of the foods we think they shouldn’t be having.
So when I came across the adverts for the Learn to Eat. Love to Eat. Workshops I was intrigued. These workshops have been developed by two speech therapists who are mums themselves; Nicole Wu and Rachel Smith. I’d already learned a little bit from what the two ladies from this business share on their socials. So I have finally made it to a workshop that was presented by Rachel.
It was a nice small group of parent/carers. The conversation flowed and went in a few directions because we each had so much to share about fussy eating. I was expecting to hear similar stories to mine. But I wasn’t surprised to hear about the differences and the experiences that I couldn’t relate with as well. As we mixed and matched the topics on the day you may find this post a little uneven too.
Part 1: Understanding Your Toddler and How They Learn to Eat.
It was incredible for me to be able to note down changes I could make from the very beginning of the workshop. The topics covered were changes in your child’s development; physical, emotional, cognitive and social. You can think of a lot of differences in children’s physical growth. But the one that made me think the most was how the taste buds change. So when my first boy was accepting so many different flavours in his first year, his taste buds were happy perhaps. Could it be because the taste buds were not yet at the stage of knowing how strong the taste of those bitter olives was? Or how peppery that kabana was?
There is so much that I started to think about with regards to how my reactions may have affected the change in my child’s approach to learning to eat. With my second boy I subconsciously became a lot more relaxed in a lot of ways. Also, if he didn’t like the first taste of something then I’d avoid offering it to him too soon again. For my older boy I kept trying frequently with some foods. I was so concerned with what he should eat and how much of what he would eat. I’d seen a post about the dramatic changes in appetites that a child can have a while ago. But my #mumbrain doesn’t hold information well all the time. At the workshop Rachel explained it again and it sunk in with me this time.
One day Chaz ate two eggs for Breakfast. I made him one and he came back and asked for a second one. The next day I served him just one because I’ve learned from experience with Jack not to think he’s going to eat as much the next day. Can you guess what happened? He left a few bites of the one egg and didn’t come back for seconds this time!!! But he ate. That’s the main point.
How clean or messy they can be is another thing. My younger boy, well sometimes I call him messy because he has a natural tendency to enjoy eating messy. He does a lot of other things in a very messy way too! When I tried to keep him neat during feeding in the early stages like my first boy he fought back. I decided to let go instead of force him to be clean.
I’m not saying that I forced my eldest to be neat. He actually showed signs at an early age of disliking mess. He liked it when I wiped the food away from the edges of his mouth or hands. My youngest could live in the mess all day long if I let him. He even runs away instantly when he sees me get the wet wipe after he’s finished with his meal. Well we’re kind of nearly over that as he gets older and cleaning routines are being understood but he still likes to be cheeky sometimes.
So the next part of the workshop was the discussion about seating… as in where and what we use to have our meals. There was an exercise we did involving eating a lolly (a delicious fantail). Rachel didn’t just get us to eat the lolly. We had to try it out with a few different chewing methods to understand how our children are developing their own techniques. Then we had to lift our feet up off the floor. This was very interesting to put ourselves in such a position.
As adults if we aren’t comfortable where we are seated to eat we aren’t happy. So for my own kids, I thought about how much they love sitting on our high kitchen stools. It’s so much easier when the high chair is no longer suitable and they choose to use the other furniture in the house. But they end up sitting on their knees or their legs dangle because the support on the stool isn’t high enough for them.
I noted something that I had been doing right with regards to seating. But I just wasn’t doing it often enough. Breakfast times were a good mealtime for my family because I had started to use the setup of a little table and chairs that is usually used for activities.
So when I got home from the workshop I asked hubby to help me change it around by adding the identical table I had stored in the study for more than a year now. We adjusted this set up to have two little tables and the two little chairs for the boys. One of us (daddy) gets to sit on the couch right next to the tables and a dining chair is brought closer for me. Jack is very particular with who gets which chair. I haven’t been allowed to sit on the couch when it’s just me and the boys because that’s Daddy’s chair!
So this was one step to success for dealing with fussy eating. We have a family dining table where not only the little people of the family are comfortable but also the adults.
Ok, back to the workshop again… We took time to stop and think about the type of food our children enjoy. These are their safe foods. We were encouraged to think about their senses. My eldest doesn’t like crunchy things, strong smells or anything that has a big flavour. He’s big on sweets and only a few savoury foods that are bland. So he is fussy but what I picked up on here is how I’ve been concentrating so much on the fussiness. I’ve been providing him with what he does like but not often enough.
We then watched a YouTube clip from the TV show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. It was one of those challenges where someone is offered two meals – one yummy looking and the other creepy looking. The foods offered were a pizza and live grubs! Rachel asked us a few questions that got us thinking:
1 – What would you choose out of the two dishes? Me: Pizza!
2 – Would you eat the grub to win the challenge? Me: No!
3 – If the grub was the only food offered to you, would you eat it? Me: No!
4 – If the grub was the only food around and in order to survive, would you eat the grub? Me: Absolutely Not!
My thoughts then were; my child gets his fussiness from me! He is a fussy eater because I am too.
Others in the group said they would give it a go. I know that there is nothing on earth that can make me eat a grub. I would starve and not eat it. So if that’s me, why am I trying to force my child to try different foods? You could say that at that point the music and chimes of a choir singing Halleluiah were in a bubble above my head!
So there was another change to my approach of providing meals for my fussy eater. I now include one or more safe foods at every mealtime. There’s so much more thinking I have to do but if it helps my child eat and start loving to eat then so be it.
We went on to speak about the Journey of Learning to Eat. Rachel emphasised that there can be at least 35 steps in the journey. They include looking at the food, having food in your space, interacting with and smelling, touching and tasting, and eating. The eating part (all of these parts actually) for the children may happen and it may not. And when it does it may not be repeated too soon. Remember, nothing will get me eating a grub…I won’t be touching one either.
But we as the parents/carers are learning at this point to celebrate the little steps! If my son wants to look at or touch a grub I’ll sit back and watch. But I won’t encourage him to eat it. I’d most likely jump in and push it out of his hand if he makes that strange decision… haha!
Part 2: Achieving Mealtime Success
The fundamentals are: responsibilities, routine, fun, and family mealtimes. All of these when brought together lead to trust. We are responsible for providing the meals. Routine is a major part of all of the child’s development, not just the learning to eat. So it makes so much sense to include it with the mealtimes. Making it fun and including the whole family when you can is something I realised we could easily do in our home. Especially if we are ready to accept the fussy eating and let go of old school methods.
The old school methods I’m referring to are: eat everything on your plate, and eat what you’re given or starve. Or in my case, when I was old enough I’d help myself to the junk food in the pantry. This ideology is known to cause long term issues such as obesity. And like myself, there is the instance of living on different, unhealthy diets for many years. These are things I’d like to try prevent for my children. And so I attended this amazing workshop and now I’m sharing my experience with you.
Serving sizes and portions can overwhelm a child if they are bigger than what their appetites and little mouths can handle. So I’ve learned to offer less. Even better, with some meals I’ve chosen to use the self-serve method. Our 4 year old jack calls these foods ‘choosing foods’ or ‘sharing foods’. They get to plate up themselves! And if they still don’t finish the plate I don’t freak out anymore. For now without a dog in the house we have to just accept the waste. Or try to use the leftovers again if they are in a decent state.
We make the decisions of what types of food to offer. The children decide what and how much they eat. Their appetites constantly change and accepting when they don’t finish their serving allows them to learn how to stop and not overeat!
We have daily routines for so many things in our lives. Rachel prompted us to think about the mealtime routine in our own homes. I wasn’t surprised to find that even though we have our typical 3 meals a day with snacks in between that there was so much still missing. We weren’t always involving the children. I used to think this mainly included helping prepare the food. But going to the bathroom to wash their hands on their own and then setting the table has proven to be a big winner.
That’s the start. So we have to think about the middle of the routine now. This is where the serving of the food begins. If it’s a meal that requires one bowl per person I give my eldest the chance to serve each bowl. (The younger one is happy to sit and be served for now. I’ll worry about what to do when he wants to serve when I get to that stage). If we have a variety of foods both Jack and Chaz get to place them on the dinner table. Jack is proving to be great at hospitality and showing his brother how to do things. We just make sure there is at least one safe food – a food that he will eat. I talk about my eldest more because the younger one isn’t overly fussy… yet!
The end of the mealtime routine is another point I hadn’t considered before. Rachel explained that it could take up to 3 weeks for changes in mealtimes to achieve the results we are after. In about that much time we’ve managed to cut down the time we spend at the dinner table. We have less distractions happening and we talk about our day. TV isn’t banned from this time but we choose when it can be on. We make the judgement at the moment of whether or not it is going to be a good or bad distraction. Sometimes my children eat better when the TV is on.
So mealtime passes nicely. It doesn’t take as long as it used to – have you ever seen a child sit for one hour and not eat his dinner?
The boys get more involved in the clean up now. They get to scrape their plates and wash up. Which reminds me of another solution for when they have more than what they want and may start throwing it. Placing an empty bowl (scrap bowl) for unwanted food is a brilliant idea that saves some of the cleaning and picking up scraps from the floor. It may take time for adults to accept so much food being put back as scraps. But it pays off as positive reinforcement for the children.
Implementing a new routine, especially at dinner time, in our home has helped us get so much more done. We were having later bedtimes before but now we are back to having the kids showered and in their PJ’s by 6:30pm some days. Sometimes it’s a little later but we’re not getting them to bed after 8:30-9pm anymore. Sleep is improving slowly too – #winning.
There are some other pointers I can share with you from the workshop that I noted. But for me, these are not things I’ve needed to implement but they may be something you are waiting to read about. Some children can live on milk and dessert only. Or there’s that white diet thing where a child will only have milk, plain pasta, rice, bread, etc. First you can try turning one of these foods as the safe food that you will offer. Just remember to provide a portion size that isn’t too big.
Dessert for us is one of the favourite parts of mealtime. We’ve had the odd argument here and there about having it before breakfast, lunch or dinner. There have even been moments of wanting dessert as the meal itself. But hubby and I have persisted with this as the last course of a meal or a treat. But if you have a child that will kick and scream without listening to your reason you can try to include the dessert on the mealtime table. You can try having it there as a promise that there is a dessert. If you give this one a go I’d love to know how it works out. Or how many attempts it will take for it to work out.
Part 3: Common Mealtime Behaviours.
Food Refusal; I used to force my boy to try foods. My reaction wasn’t positive when he didn’t like the food I was making him try. I now realise this has a negative impact on him and takes away the fun of learning to eat.
I now offer the safe foods and don’t force my children to try something. I’ll place different foods at the mealtime table (or even on the kitchen bench while I’m cooking so that they can see it and explore). I allow my boys to make their own choice of what and how much they eat. After three or so weeks my eldest is now enjoying eating. He even has started eating raw carrots when he sees me preparing meals. He just asks for one as I’m peeling them and I allow it. I try so hard not to show major excitement. Because another thing I learned is if I make too much of a big deal he may develop the notion of eating something is only to please us.
Leaving the table; we used to force Jack to stay until he ate what was still on his plate. He would sit, and sit, and sit, until we couldn’t take it anymore. A friend recently told me if her children said they weren’t hungry she would put the meal aside for them until they were ready. So why wasn’t I doing that, I asked myself. A child will ask for their food when they are hungry. The time they eat or if they have it cold isn’t that much of a problem.
Having this new routine has worked well. We all stay seated for about 20-30 mins. Sometimes hubby and I are just sitting there waiting for the boys to finish eating. But enjoying that time together without focusing on why the kids are or aren’t eating has made mealtimes so much better than they were.
Another challenge I’ve had to deal with is when Jack requests help with feeding. He can use the cutlery very well on his own. But at times he’d ask for us to help. Our initial reaction was to tell him he knows how to use a spoon so he can help himself. We thought it was just Jack being fussy as usual. After about ½ an hour or so we would give in because he would just sit there and talk to avoid feeding himself. Rachel helped me understand how Jack may be feeling in this circumstance. She suggested observing the type of day he has had.
He may be tired from his long day at kinder and is just seeking that little bit of help from Mummy or Daddy. One solution could be to prepare a meal that is easy to eat and avoid foods that are too chewy. If he persists with wanting help it’s ok to accept and give him that helping hand. There will be a day where he no longer asks for this help and I may actually miss such moments.
There could be another simple reason for my son to be asking for help with feeding. It could be because he doesn’t want to touch the food. There are napkins and baby wipes in our house all the time. So I could help my boy by making sure these are in easy reach during mealtimes.
I got a lot out of attending this workshop. In summary my solutions were;
– To have at least one safe food on offer at every mealtime.
– To set up an arrangement where we could sit together as a family and each of us was comfortable.
– Start including my boys more in the preparation of the meal; washing hands and setting the table, serving, cooking, etc.
– To create a conversation at mealtimes that wasn’t focusing on what or why they are not eating.
– Observe my children’s day and record anything significant in a food diary.
– To make mealtimes fun and enjoyable. This is why I’ve called this post Fussy Eating Games!!!
For every hurdle that creates aversion to food there is a solution. Sometimes it just takes a little prompting from somebody with a little more knowledge or experience to work it out. Before attending this Fussy Eating Workshop for toddlers I can say that I had some ideas of how I wanted to help my children learn to eat. After the workshop I have a better understanding of learning to eat and how it can lead to my child feeling like he would love to eat.
I hope that what I have learned and shared with you in this post is helpful. If you are in Melbourne, Geelong or surrounding areas and would like to attend one of these workshops check out the links below for more information.
Learn to Eat. Love to Eat.