Our daughter has always refused meals. How can we encourage her to eat better?
For two years my wife has had a running battle with our daughter of 2 years 4 months at mealtimes. We have tried removing it when she says “no”, to telling her to face the corner until she eats. Neither have been a success. The GP’s are not worried as she is gaining weight, (she is currently 11kg) but for my wife it is a nightmare. If we travel the whole feeding experience is even worse. We are both at our wit’s end and it seems as if our daughter wins at every mealtime. When she doesn’t eat she wakes up at night and is tired the next day. What can we do? At present she will take 4-5 spoons of cereal at breakfast, 1-2 spoons at lunch and dinner of pasta and rice. Sometimes she eats less than this. She has 2-3 cups of water and milk during the day. She sleeps from 1-3pm and from 8pm-7am.
From your notes it appears that your daughter was weaned quite late at 10months. As feeding her has always been difficult, it may well be connected with this. As she was older when solid food was first introduced she may have missed the stages when she was ready to learn skills such as chewing and this is now continuing to cause problems.
As you rightly observe the whole issue of food has become a battle, which your daughter is constantly winning. As she is gaining weight and apparently well, it is as important to change your own attitude towards the problem and how you handle it, as well as changing her attitude towards food and mealtimes. The whole situation needs to be diffused.
As your daughter seems to have a very limited diet, continue to serve what you know she will eat, but in very small portions. Use smaller plates or bowls, even toy ones to help her. Both you and she will psychologically feel better if she finishes one small bowl of pasta and rice, rather than picking at a much larger one. Praise her for her empty plate, but don’t offer her any more unless she requests it. If there is another course for you, then again put a small portion on a small plate for her. If she refuses it, then just take it away without comment. Mealtimes have become time times of great tension for you all. Once she has finished, allow her to leave the table and don’t offer her anything else until the next meal is due. Continue in this way but very gradually begin to increase the amounts that you offer her. If she shows interest in other dishes, then give her a very small portion and let her try them. Praise her if she just tries and ignore any refusals.
Alongside this strategy, begin to get her more involved in food preparation, the social side of meals and even in the buying of food. At her age she can be encouraged to help stir sauces, whisk eggs and mix dry ingredients, arrange salad stuffs on a plate and even decorate a finished dish for you all to enjoy. She is able to help lay a table by counting through place mats and napkins: “one for Mummy, one for Daddy and one for me”, and also fetch spoons and forks.
Encourage her with cookery sessions in the kitchen making cakes or biscuits, pizzas and sandwiches. These are all things she can then sit down and enjoy to eat.
Take her on a shopping trip and tell her where food comes from. Encourage her to learn the names of fruit and vegetables and to tell you their colours. Encourage her to see how lovely a shiny red pepper is to look at and hold, how dusty an unwashed potato is as it has been dug from the ground.
If you have a garden then growing herbs and vegetables can all encourage an interest in food other than fighting about it. Even without a garden, mustard and cress can be grown on a window sill, seeds such as alfalfa sprouted in a jam jar, and yoghurt made either in a maker or by following a recipe. Getting your daughter interested in all aspects of food, not just the battle she can win by declining it, should help diffuse the situation. Keeping yourselves slightly distant too, not being drawn into a battle of wills at each mealtime, should also help.