Feeding FAQ: 18-24 months – Food Fussiness

Daniel (20 months) hates getting his hands dirty and I think it’s making him a fussy eater

My son Daniel is almost 20 months and has become incredibly difficult at mealtimes over the last few months. I followed your Contented Feeding Guide from when I started weaning him and he used to be a great eater, eating anything in front of him. Over the last few months, he has got so fussy that the only thing he’ll eat is spaghetti bolognaise, oat porridge and yoghurt. I am now at the point where he is refusing even these and he refuses to try anything new – I am at my wits’ end. Occasionally he will attempt to feed himself his yoghurt with a spoon but gets very upset if his hands get dirty. He has never been interested in finger foods as his hands get dirty and he doesn’t like it. He also gets upset if he gets food on his clothes. I have tried to get him to play with playdough and get him to help spread butter and jam on toast etc to make it fun but he really hates being dirty. What am I meant to do? Are these two separate issues? I am not and have never been fazed about him making a mess – in fact, I would be so happy if he did pick up a handful of food and so don’t know where it is coming from. Please help! Many people have told me it’s a phase and he’ll grow out of it but I am starting to think it’s just getting worse and worse all the time.

Daniel seems to have two separate issues here as you say he once was a very good eater. His food refusal is frustrating but continue to offer small portions of different foods rather than just the ones you know he will accept. If he eats very little, remove the food without comment and let the meal end. Offer him the food at his next snack time. Make sure he is not having too much juice or water between mealtimes which will affect his appetite. If you feel his milk consumption is high, then cut back on that. A child of Daniel’s age needs between 12 and 17ozs daily, with some of that coming from cheese, sauces, fromage frais etc.

Daniel needs to learn how to use a spoon himself, despite his dislike of being dirty. I suggest that you encourage him by handing him a spoon of his own at every meal. Try to feed him fairly dense things such as mashed potato which will stay on his spoon easily. If you have to, feed him at the same time to begin with but really encourage Daniel to do it himself. One way to do this is to share his mealtimes and sit down yourself with a plate of food to eat.

He is of an age when he needs to learn the social side of mealtimes. If you have friends with children of similar ages or possibly a little older, invite them round for tea so he sees how other children feed themselves without worrying. It may take a few visits for him to really be aware of what they are doing.

When he becomes upset at being dirty, leave a small sponge beside him so he can wipe his fingers. I think that in this case you really have to encourage him to be as independent as possible, so that he becomes more and more adept, but also used to the feel of food on his hands at times. Try to give him dryish finger food such as bread, breadsticks and rice cakes to begin with and then progress on to small pieces of cheese, vegetarian sausage and strips of omelette.

Try to use fun ways of presenting food to him, making faces with small pieces of vegetable on a small round of mashed potato, cutting pieces of bread spread with mashed tuna or egg into different shapes, adding broccoli florets as “trees” to a “house” cut from a simple omelette. Cookery books for young children will have more ideas. Look around for cheap, decorated picnic ware and children’s plastic plates and bowls with familiar storybook characters on them. Offering his food on these may act as an incentive for eating.

Finding ways to get Daniel more used to the sensation of different textures on his hands may need some thought. Keep trying with the play dough and spreading ideas. Again, you may have to initiate the playing while he watches to begin with.
Does Daniel enjoy playing in his bath with water? If he does, give him times of water play during the day. Cover him with a plastic all-over apron to ensure he is not distressed by wet clothes, then sit him on the floor with a washing up bowl half- full of water. Add a few bubbles and some small toys, especially things which pour such as toy cups or plastic stacking beakers. Tea strainers and funnels can also be used. Sit with him and show him how to pour water out over his hands, or over yours. Making a game out of it may help his dislikes. Add some food colour one day and see if he reacts to that. This may be an activity you have to offer several times before he becomes more willing to join in. Keep the sessions short to begin with. There are other things you find at home which you could give Daniel to play with which will give him plenty of tactile experience without getting “dirty”. A small bowl of dried rice or lentils again can be used for pouring over the hands and when the weather gets warmer you could introduce Daniel to a sandpit.

Some children do find it difficult to accept “dirty” hands, however unfazed you are with them but thinking of ways to make them more aware of different textures first can go a long way to them accepting the feeling of something on their hands.