Got a Fussy Toddler at your dinner table? I remember like it was yesterday – nearly 3 years ago, trying to get our eldest to the dinner table.
Screaming, kicking, throwing plates of food….
There are 2 massive elements at play with a child with autism who won’t eat. Sensory processing issues and compliance issues. Our daughter’s biggest issues are compliance (listening to and following any instruction), communication (can’t say “i don’t like it” so this leads to a meltdown) and of course, sensory issues – she has always had sensory issues with her mouth e.g. Pica, and for a long time, couldn’t eat soft foods / overstuffed her mouth to the choking etc.
So when it comes to picky eating / fussy eaters or as a mum ABSOLUTELY DREADING MEALTIMES, I have some experience….
I Thought I’d Nailed It…
By the way, it never used to be like this! She weened like a dream – ate everything! Everyone used to say what a fantastic eater she was, and then she entered the terrible 2s and it all went a bit wrong.
Interestingly, our youngest also entered a fussy stage at the age of 2 and she had loved everything too. However luckily with her, I was already armed with a whole host of tools and strategies so the picky eating got nipped in the bud quickly.
I naively thought as a new mum, ‘Oh mine will never be fussy eaters’ as I spooned spinach and apple puree in to their mouths. After all, we did everything right. We’ve fed a wide variety of tastes and textures from day 1, encouraged independent eating with success and all seemed to be going to plan. Until it wasn’t.
So before I start, I want to tell you where we were in 2016: –
She would only eat cereal, toast, grapes, apple, raisins, rice cakes, pasta and very basic tomato sauce and ‘Goodies’ kids crisps. She stopped eating fish fingers, potato, any kind of meat, banana, fruit pots, curry, spaghetti, lasagne, eggs, salmon….literally it felt like overnight.
Now cut to 2019:
Daily she has a smoothie with avocado, spinach, raspberries, strawberries, mango, banana, or whatever else we have in when it comes to fruit – whizzed up with apple juice and coconut milk. I also put in probiotics to help her gut and Eskimo kids omegas EVERY DAY so her brain can function well. That way I know she’s had her essential fats and omegas and some greens, calcium and fruit to start the day.
The key to getting this started was her obsession with ‘collecting’ and enjoying ‘dropping’ things in to bowls and other containers. So we used this to our advantage by laying everything out for her to throw in the pot to make the smoothie. It worked a treat.
She has chicken or tuna sandwiches for her lunch every day; all kinds of cereals, yoghurts, home-made healthy chicken pizza, pasta with 6 veg (tomatoes, courgettes, mushrooms, celery, carrots, peppers). She also likes peas, sweetcorn, carrots (sometimes) spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and will eat the occasional chip! She’ll eat any fruit – watermelon, bananas, blueberries, raspberries, mango, strawberries – you name it.
We are currently working on getting her to eat a potato wedge, a sausage, a fish finger or meatball by including them on the menu every week to increase familiarity. More to make life a little easier when we go on holiday or out to eat.
I get so bored thinking of ideas and menus that keep in with my own healthy diet that fuels my workouts but Pinterest, and my mums Facebook and WhatsApp groups are a great source of inspiration.
So whats been the key? We started slow and gradual. For example, we didn’t just give her a chicken sandwich one day. We put a tiny bit of grated / shredded chicken barely visible mixed in with spread cheese which she would already eat. One day she ate a whole sandwich and then said ‘more’.
Use your child’s interests and try to insert food in to their interests, rather than trying to gain their interest in food. If they love fruit, expand their tastes in that category first. If they love chocolate, get a load of foods they can try dipping in chocolate. If they love Peppa – get Peppa plates etc. If they love cereal, put down another food, e.g. fruit WITH their bowl of cereal in the morning. Create as many positive associations with food and sitting at the table as you can in the early days.
With our littlest one, any kind of cajoling or encouragement will make her do the opposite – typical toddler! So with her it’s all about modelling and showing her us all having a try. We never ask her to eat anything. Just try it or leave it. If there’s preferred foods on the plate, she’ll never go hungry and 9 times out of 10, tries whatever else is on the plate.
How and Why Does Picky Eating Start?
No idea really. Both our girls got picky around the age of 2, but our eldest took it to a whole new level.
It all started when she began Nursery, although we didn’t make the connection at first.
After a couple of weeks of mealtime battles at home, I asked them what she did at lunch time. First lesson I learned – never assume your childminder or nursery will proactively tell you what’s happening with your child. ALWAYS ASK!
Anyway they told us how she would only eat certain and very bland foods, and ignore the well-balanced meals from the nursery menu. To ensure she wouldn’t go without anything to eat all day, the kind nursery staff were simply making her something else they knew she loved, such as a bowl of cereal. They did this day 1 so that she wouldn’t go hungry….
You can see where I’m going with this right??!
Now at that time, little did even we know then is that it only takes our little girl just 1 occasion to learn an expectation. For any neuro-typical kid, this would have created a problem. However for our little girl something only has to happen once, and she expects that to happen again the next time. It is an issue highly associated with Autism – called inflexibility – and is a tricky business. This issue can present in having to walk the same route every day, play with a toy in the same way each and every time, or eat the same foods daily. You can create habits without even realising – its unavoidable. It can make life virtually impossible, as we all know things can’t be exactly the same every single day.
So the little monkey started to refuse her favourite meals at home too, and instead we were seeing epic tantrums demanding cereal every single day.
Nutrition Vs Convenience
So the first thing I had to get my head around was what I wanted to achieve. Yes I wanted to be able to go out as a family and order off a menu but my main concern was her nutrition.
Nutrition is a huge deal for me. I’m a qualified Personal Trainer (although not a practising one) and I LOVE food, and learning about how food can heal the body.
When I started to notice our daughter was experiencing developmental delays and considered that Autism was a very real possibilty I set out to ensure that her body had everything it needed to grow and learn. She was already dealing with so many other disadvantgaes and distractions within her own body and mind, that I had to ensure that at least her body and brain could function optimally to take away some of the strain.
3 years ago her little body was so fragile. She used to break out in hives frequently all over, had lots of sensory issues, her eyes would be wide and pupils dilated, anger issues, and diarrhea all the time, I could see that her body was not functioning the way it should. Again a large part of this can stem from the brain injury and the impact it has on the gut – the brain-gut dynamic is a well researched one.
If you want to know more I love the book :
Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia by Natasha Campbell-McBride.
Aiming for Increased Nutrition
We needed to address nutrition BUT this was hard to do, when she was refusing to sit at the table at all and THIS was all to do with behaviour.
So we had to start here. Sitting at the table. From there we expanded the length she sat at the table, and the foods that she was presented with which now means today, we can go and sit in a restaurant like every other family.
So here are my top strategies for helping you to deal with a fussy eating toddler.
1. Remove Any Battles
The hardest thing about a picky eater, is how stressed it makes you as a mum. We all know our kids need to eat, and none of us want to just feed them chocolate and cheerios all day, but sometimes we can get so frazzled that we end up ‘giving in’ and giving them poor choices just so they eat something. This leads to feeling like a ‘failure’ as a mum.
This inner conflict makes us frustrated / angry / mad – mixed with toddler tantrums and food being thrown all over the place. This isn’t a good happy daily routine for anybody. Especially you! So lay down your weapons and draw up some boundaries. If you’re clear about what you want to happen, and what your standards are going to be upfront, you won’t be INDECISIVE and UNSURE in the moment when they’re begging you for cheerios. Therefore you are less likely to give in.
The answer is ‘dinner first, cheerios after’. They can have what they want, just AFTER they do what they’re told…. well for now anyway! We use this strategy with our kids all the time. It’s different to bribery which is ‘if you have your tea, you can have chocolate’. It’s setting expectations based on what they’re motivated by….use what they’re asking you for as motivation. ‘Yes of course you can have it AFTER you do what I ask….’
Know that you will most likely have to put up with tantrums the first few times. They might be EPIC ones, but don’t worry – your job doesn’t involve fighting with them any more. Your job is simply to put nutritious food in front of them, and create an environment that makes them as motivated as possible to sit at the table.
You will get there.
2. Decide What Success Looks Like Upfront
So start by DECIDING.
Decide your expectations, your realistic goals and rules for dinner time. What’s acceptable and what isn’t?
For example if they try a pea, and they’ve never eaten a vegetable in their life, surely that’s a success!!!!! Focus on that, and don’t force or cajole them to eat any more. Praise them for what they’ve done and it’s quite likely they’ll do it again in future. Start forcing them to eat more and they might rebel!
3. Put Boundaries in Place for Mealtimes
Kids respond really well to routines and boundaries. Especially kids with Autism. It’s essential they know what to expect and what is expected from them, as it makes them feel more secure.
We produced a clear outline of what was and was not acceptable behaviour for mealtimes. We were consistent with it daily.
This included her sitting at the table, using her utensils, and trying at least some of the food on the plate in front of her. Even if it was 1 pea.
Meal times were always regular (although they always had been).
You know your own child and what they are capable of, so you set the boundaries. Just because they are capable, it doesn’t mean they will choose to do it, so you have to enforce it time and time again until they realise ‘hey it isn’t actually that bad when I ….’
So for example, if she’s wanting to play CBeebies games on the iPad or wants some grapes, we say ‘dinner first, iPad/grapes next’. We repeat this over and over and ignore the screaming, tantrums and throwing things around the room. We still have to do this from time to time if I present her with something she doesn’t like the look of.
In the end the initial resistance to sitting at the table and eating some tea subsides. It works a treat.
4. Be Realistic
I’m a massive fan of Your Kids Table – a blog about picky eaters with sensory challenges, but it’s a great resource for all mums and dads.
One of my favourite tips has been to always have at least 2 things on the plate that my child likes or loves, and minimise the new, disliked or scary foods until the child becomes more comfortable. This has been a winning strategy for us.
We know Sienna loves peas and sweetcorn, so we make sure that she has peas or sweetcorn on each plate whilst we build up her tolerance of other foods. This has worked a treat! We even sometimes put grapes (her fave) on the plate to create positive associations.
5. Portion Size
When having any issues at mealtimes with fussy eating toddlers, try to limit the portion and not overwhelm your little one with monster sized meals. Rather than them think ‘Oh no, I have to finish all that and that means I’ll have to sit still for ages!’, they may be inclined to have a few bites. At this point in the game, even one bite or taste is success, so don’t get bogged down with ‘how much’ they’ve eaten.
6. Don’t be their Servant
With all kids, it’s important that they learn independence and self-regulation and a great time to teach this is at mealtimes. If you follow your kid around with the plate, cojoling, bribing, forcing, blackmailing them to eat, this removes the opportunity for them to learn.
By leaving the plate on the table, being clear about your expectations of them and rewarding them for trying their food, they’ll quickly learn that if they don’t sit down and eat now, they may regret it later on.
7. Make Sure They’re Hungry
This sounds obvious doesn’t it? But if your child has eaten too many snacks, or even if they have been doing sensory play in a load of cornflakes (and having a sneaky taste), this will prevent success at mealtimes. I usually ensure a minimum of 2 hours in between meals / snacks to make sure they’re hungry when food is presented.
8. Get them Motivated
Think about what makes your child happy and use that to get them to the table.
If they like to be your helper, get them to help set the table. If they love ‘Frozen’ put “let it Go!’ on when its mealtimes, and give them a Frozen themed plate and cup. If they’re a good eater with a good appetite, make sure they’re hungry and begin with serving them favourite foods, then slowly introduce little bits of new foods each week. If they like to be on the move, you may have to sit with them for the first few times and play a game whilst they eat.
It’s all about positive associations with a) sitting at the table and b) trying a new food (not necessarily eating it).
9. Be Consistent, and Lead by Example and Model
If your child never sees you or anyone else eat a table, you can’t expect them to do it either. However it is really, really difficult to serve up a family meal when you are juggling work schedules, baby feeds, toddler tantrums and school runs so don’t beat yourself up if this isn’t manageable for you.
Not only that, but if you have a child with Autism, it can often seem like they spend most of the day ignoring you, and they don’t even realise or take any notice of what you ARE doing, so it’s all a bit pointless. Don’t fall in to this trap!!! Just because eye contact might be difficult for them, and they may seem in a bubble, it is your duty to climb in to that world and find a way to connect at the dinner table.
I myself try to eat with the girls at 5pm at least 3 nights a week, which works for me, as I either do a mini-fast for the rest of the evening, OR head out to bootcamp for 8pm with lots of energy! We then try for a family meal together at least once over the weekend.
However be aware if your child does go to a nursery that they may be (unknowingly) reinforcing behaviours that aren’t helpful when it comes to mealtimes. ESPECIALLY if it’s suspected that your child might have Autism.
For us, at the nursery she was at when she was 2 assumed (wrongly) that our daughter was overwhlemed by the other children so ‘couldn’t’ sit at the table. In response, they were letting her wander off and following her around with a plate of food she had chosen to eat (usually cereal or toast!). So our daughter was quite happy – she didn’t have to play by the rules and sit down and was getting followed about and fed!
Once we told them our strategy at home, and asked them to stick to it too, ensuring consistent boundaries and expectations soon saw huge improvements within 2 weeks.
10. Have Goals
If you’re having challenges around mealtimes try to aim for small goals each week and build on that as time goes by.
If currently, your little one won’t even come to the table and sit down, make that is your only goal. For them to sit at the table for 2 minutes.
Maybe even get a sand timer for them to watch at the table, whilst you play a game – on this occasion, serve something you know they will LOVE LOVE LOVE. The goal is JUST to sit at the table for now. If they eat BONUS!!!
Once that becomes less of a battle, you move on. Don’t move on until you’ve nailed this first step.
Once they are doing this, the goal may be for them to sit there and eat a little more, or use a spoon, or to try a new food. It’s up to you to set the goals, but try to just focus on one thing at a time. Don’t make the goals too big, otherwise everyone will get frustrated. Use your instincts to set what you think could be an achievable goal. That way your child won’t feel overwhelmed and you won’t feel as frustrated or stressed.
11. Get Dessert Out the Way
This is a tactic that has worked for us, with both children but still shocks my mum and dad everytime who are convinced it will backfire. It never does.
We always serve a fruit pot or yoghurt (pudding / dessert) WITH their meal.
We found that with our eldest where sitting for mealtimes was a source of stress, the expectation of getting a yoghurt or a fruit pot was just making her more focussed on getting that, so she would refuse the meal. Giving her the dessert upfront, instantly removed any barriers. The first time I did it and I was gobsmacked when she then went on to eat an entire bowl of pasta and vegetables until it was all gone….
It still works a treat now!
12. Workout for the Tastebuds
Tatsebuds are funny little things, but it’s really important that kids taste a wide variety of food so that their tastebuds begin to develop and grow. The worst thing you can do for a fussy eater is just keep feeding them bland food. (Easier said than done I know!)
One way we began to get our daughter to eat more foods was to sneakily smear a taste of a new food, on to one of her favourite foods, or if she was in a playful mood, we would dot a blob of new food on her finger, which she would usually then automatically put in her mouth without thinking. Again sometimes this will freak kids out so may not be a great plan, so try the path of least resistance first.
It seemed once the initial fear of the look of the food passed, and she realised that this thing on the plate actually tasted pleasant, she began to have little tastes all by herself.
Under no circumstances try to ever force your kid to put something in their mouth that they don’t want to!! All you will do is create an aversion to mealtimes all together. That’s why we found that popping something in or on her fingers worked, as it didn’t bother her and usually went straight in her mouth!
13. Olfactory Stimulation
This is a funny one, but if your kid is mega picky when it comes to food, try to start with smells instead. The sense of smell is strongly related to taste and increasing the sense of smell will make them more open to new foods.
Start with some pleasant smells – 3 different smells and smell them 1 by 1 each morning. For example, basil leaves, oranges and vanilla pod. You show your child first how to smell so they know what to expect. Use the same smells for a week and then move on to three new ones.
As you go along, you could have 3 smells in the morning and 3 different ones in the afternoon. Make it part of your routine and you may be surprised by the changes.
Its also a great therapy for children with Autism as certain smells boost energy, mood, memory and stimulate the brain.
It is recommended over time you include all kinds of smells from nature – good and bad.
The additional benefit of this ‘smell therapy’ is that for kids who have social communication delay like our daughter, their sense of smell and taste are highly associated with the parts of the brains to do with social communication. Work on these, and you may be surprised to find that eye contact and social interaction can improve.
You can also use your smell therapy sessions to get down at eye level with your child and really engage all their senses!
E.g. Show them the word ‘lemon’, then a picture of a lemon, hand them a lemon to touch and feel, then smell and taste it. Voilla, in 30 seconds you have stimulated all their senses and helped their speech!
Just beware if you know your child is especially sensitive to smells and has a violent reaction or sensory meltdown. It would be wise to start with one smell you felt certain they liked or weren’t offended by.
So in essence picky eating is a stressful trial, BUT the more you stress and force them, the more they resist and the more you dread every mealtime.
Start small, remove the battle, and give yourself and your kid the best chance of success by laying down the boundaries and sticking to them consistently for at least 60 days.
Good luck! 🙂 Happy eating!
AS ALWAYS PLEASE NOTE I AM NOT A CHILD EXPERT, JUST A MUM! PLEASE DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH AND DISCUSS ANY COURSE OF ACTION WITH YOUR OWN MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS, OCCUPATIONAL THERAPISTS AND PAEDIATRICIANS.