Feeding FAQ: 24+ months – Food Fussiness

My 3 year old son is a very fussy eater. What can I do?

My son is an extremely fussy eater. He survives on a limited number of foods namely bread, fruit purees, dry shreddies, peanut butter and chocolate yoghurts. The problems with fussiness began at around 14 months and peaked at 18 months when his sister was born. From 18 months to now (he is currently 3); he has eaten the foods listed above and only those.

With hindsight, I can see some of the reasons why this problem arose and got worse with time. I have always been very anxious about what he eats which stems from a very bad experience with breastfeeding in his early weeks. I was so determined to breast-feed at all costs (and was completely brainwashed by midwives and NCT people) that I battled with it for 10 long and very painful weeks. It took my son nearly 4 weeks to regain his birth weight and 3 weeks to move his bowels, but I still persevered, believing I was doing the right thing. As a result, I became obsessed with not being able to ‘provide’ for my baby and felt extremely inadequate. I really wish now that I had given up earlier and moved him onto formula as I’m sure this experience has affected my relationship with him and feeding.

Consequently, when he did start refusing food I reacted in all the wrong ways, getting upset etc. I also offered him alternatives which set up a negative pattern. Slowly the balance of power shifted, and he gained complete control over this area of his life. Generally, I am a firm but fair Mum who believes in the value of routines and consistency. However, in this one area, I really lack confidence. Interestingly, I don’t have the same problems with his younger sister who has always been a good feeder (she breast fed successfully for 4 months until I weaned her) and eats a wide variety of foods now, at 18 months. I do worry though that she might pick up on his behaviour and start to only want what he eats.

One other point to mention is that he is very fastidious about mess and getting his hands dirty. I try to ignore this and encourage him to play with messy things (painting, sand etc) but it really bothers him. I think this is one of the reasons why he prefers mainly dry foods.

I’ve been to see a paediatrician about this problem and their assessment was to just carry on as we are doing i.e. eating together as a family, encouraging messy play etc and wait for him to decide when he wants to try new foods. However, I feel that this problem is so entrenched that it needs more than this. My biggest question is should I be a bit more assertive? There is no doubt in my mind that a large part of this problem is control i.e. his control over me in this context. A number of my friends, also with young children, think that I should be more ‘bloody minded’ and offer him the same food as the rest of the family or let him go hungry. I would be interested in your view on this as sometimes I feel I’m being too soft. Also, I feel like I need a proper strategy i.e. first do this, and then try that etc and if you can recommend anyone who could help me with this, I’d be very grateful.

At present my son eats a bowlful of dry shreddies for breakfast with 5ozs of orange juice. Lunch is 1 slice of wholemeal toast with peanut butter, 4 slices of cucumber and 2 fruit puree pots with 5ozs of Ribena. He has no snacks but is given 3ozs of juice or Ribena at 3pm. Dinner is 1-2 slices of crusty white bread [dry], 4 slices of cucumber, 2 chocolate pots and 5ozs of juice or Ribena. He sleeps from 7pm to 7am.

As your son’s eating problems have been going on for a long time it will take time to solve them. There are several ideas you could try in order to get him more interested in food generally and, in particular, to try new things.

Include him in all aspects of meals and their planning. This can begin with giving him a shopping list to help you when you are in the supermarket. This means shopping will take longer than normal but it will give you an opportunity to talk to him. Make him a short list and use pictures to illustrate what he needs to find. For example draw an orange, some heads of corn, potatoes, a tin of baked beans, a loaf of bread, tissues and a magazine. These are the things he must find on the shelves. It is a good idea to include one or two items which are not food related. Perhaps the magazine could be one he chooses for himself as a Thank You from you for helping with the shopping. Talk to him about where the various items of food come from, how they grow and how they are transported to this country. Emphasise the areas you know he is interested in, such as how they are transported, to gain his attention. You may end up talking about large trucks and ships but, in doing so, you will be helping him understand that food is an integral part of everyone’s daily life and that is the point you are trying to make.

Once you are at home again, involve your son in preparing food. At his age he will be able to do quite a few things in the kitchen. He can arrange slices of fruit on a plate for a snack. He can count out potatoes ready for you to peel and then put them into a saucepan. Also, there are many processes such as stirring, pouring and mixing with which he can help you. It may all take longer and be a bit messier than when you prepare meals on your own but such participation will encourage him to be more interested in food.

If you can, buy one or two of the excellent cookery books on the market specially written for children and look at them together with your son. Let him decide what he would like to make. Having a baking session is a good way to pass a rainy afternoon but most of these books include recipes for both savoury and sweet dishes which can be made into a meal. Help him prepare something he chooses but don’t push him to try it unless he wants to. He may prefer to offer it to Daddy or let his sister try it. Whilst preparing food he may have to get his hands a little dirty or messy. Wipe them down if it bothers him but often a child becomes quite involved in the process of making something and does not notice the mess so much.

Your son may like to make bread as this is one of the things he already eats. The process of kneading and pummelling the dough fascinates most children. As bread dough is fairly dry your son should not be too bothered by the mess. Whilst the dough is rising he can go off and play and then return to finish off. The dough can be used to make all kinds of shapes, not just loaves. Use currants for eyes and other details. You could include the end result as part of his tea.

Another way to encourage your son to be more interested in food is to make him his own food file. Make the cover colourful with cut out pictures of food and his name. This can be a scrap book or loose leafed file. Keep it in a special place in the kitchen. Let him look through magazines for pictures which he can paste on to the pages. These might be a field of corn growing or a picture of a pizza. If you have started to talk to him about food, where it comes from and how it is produced, you can find suitable pictures to include. When you have had a cookery session and he has made something, take a photo of him with the prepared dish and paste this in. Copy or print out the recipe and paste it alongside the photo.

Using “picture food” is another way to tempt a fussy eater. This is when food is presented as a picture on the plate. Again you will find plenty of ideas in books, such as “First Foods” by Miriam Stoppard. Show him the book and ask him to choose a dish which he can help you make. All the recipes in this book would also be suitable for his sister so, even if he does not want to try them himself, he will see his sister enjoying something he has helped to prepare.

Once you have got your son more interested in food preparation and in finding out where food comes from, he may be less reticent about trying new things. Make him a star chart to encourage him. You may decide to have three columns, one for each meal of the day or draw a column for each day of the week. Explain to your son that each time he tries one new thing he will receive a star or sticker. For example, if you have three meal columns and he tries one taste of a Satsuma segment at breakfast he receives a sticker in the breakfast column. If you feel that trying something new at each meal is too much for him have a chart marked with the days of the week and see if he can get one or two stickers each day. Use an incentive such as a new story book, if you like, once he has reached six stickers. The idea is that he tries a new food, but he does not have to eat it all. With a problem which has gone on for so long you may need to take things very slowly and not push him too much.

When your son has begun to take a greater interest in food and helps you make meals you could begin to be a little more assertive. It is said that no child will starve himself. But many children can hold out for a long time after being told they will have nothing to eat if they do not try to eat what the rest of the family is enjoying. You will need to be strong enough to carry through with your intentions as it will be hard to resist the temptation to give in to tears and tantrums, especially if you know your son is hungry. It would be best to seek professional advice from someone who deals with eating problems such as Dr Rundle, who has a link to this site, once you feel that you are ready to tackle the problem. However, by getting your son more interested in food first it may not take long for him to begin to eat the same food as the rest of the family.

It may also help you to look at a case study in Gina’s Contented Child’s Food Bible, page 11. This shows that sometimes, despite a limited diet, your child is taking in too much of one thing, such as carbohydrate, to the detriment of other nutrients. You would find this book a very useful guide to the amount of food your son needs to take from each food group in order to have a more balanced diet.

It may help to cut down your son’s juice intake a little. As he is drinking juices rather than plain water he may be filling himself up too much and therefore knocking the edge off his already small appetite. Offering him a drink at the end of the meal rather than with it can help prevent this.