From 5 pm each night, in homes across the country, parents are despairing at their children’s dinnertime antics. The all-too-familiar routine of fussiness and refusal of (mostly) lovingly prepared, nutritious meals, of tears and tantrums at the dinner table, is enough to drive the most rational of parents to tears themselves.
Of course, there is nothing new about children being fussy about food. A child psychologist stated a painful truth to me once: that there are three things you cannot make a child do – eat, sleep or go to the toilet – and refusal of any of these is a powerful weapon a child can wield against his or her parents. The savviest of children will wield all three.
There are so many reasons why a baby, toddler or child might be fussy about food. Usually it is a behavioural trait – a developing palate and an expression of will – that improves with time, and patience is what is needed – in bucket loads. But sometimes there are underlying reasons for a child’s poor appetite or fussiness at meals – low iron, sensory processing difficulties or digestive health problems, to name a few – and medical or other professional support will be needed, along with saintlike patience.
So at what point does a child’s fussiness about food move into problem territory? This was the question my husband and I faced, and continue to deal with, in respect of our older daughter.
The warning bells that we would be in for some serious mealtime headaches were there early on. As a breastfed baby, our daughter fussed. She preferred little feeds, frequently. There would be no bottles; breast was best as far as she was concerned, until the day I pulled down my top and called it quits. A cautious first-time mum, I deliberated long and hard whether to introduce zucchini or pear first, and yet once I’d made that decision solid food was of no interest to her at all. We stopped, waited, then struggled to introduce solids again. I watched in awe as other bubs in my mothers’ group scoffed purees and demolished finger foods. And yet, by nine months mine was accepting amounts of food fit for a sparrow. Well-meaning parents told me, ‘Food before one is fun.’ Had I tried eating in front of her? What about baby-led weaning? We tried it all; meanwhile she became thinner and thinner, dropping off the body weight chart for about a year. Not helping either was the fact she suffers from chronic constipation, a condition she has had since birth, and one which, cruelly, contributes to a poor appetite, and which the poor appetite perpetuates. We consulted numerous health professionals – with some, albeit limited, success – and slowly she came to accept a narrow range of foods.
Now at three and a half, her diet consists almost entirely of bread and cereals, fruit and milk – oh, and flying fish roe sushi, naturally. Children’s favourites – fish fingers, hamburgers, homemade pizza, shepherd’s pie, spaghetti bolognaise, tacos, tuna pasta bake – all offend her deeply. Variety is always offered but is largely an exercise in food wastage, or fattening our dog. If Miss 3.5 years doesn’t like the look of something, she will simply refuse that meal, and the next one too, if necessary. At times she attempts to replace meals with drinks, sculling water to fill her tummy – an innovative solution perhaps in her mind, but a disturbing one to witness as a parent. Regularly she throws herself from her chair to the floor – a sure-fire way of getting our attention and a cunning escape from the table all in one!
I spoke to Tracy, another Inner West Mum of two boys, who knows well the agony that mealtimes can produce. With severe GORD (gastro-oesophageal reflux disease), chronic constipation, low iron and sensory processing difficulties at play, it’s not your average childhood pickiness in her household either. Tracy says: ‘Some days I can barely get through it, it’s so painful, all the refusals, the moving around and not eating much. My elder son has the appetite of a tiny bird. He is not really interested in food, unless it’s chocolates or sweets.’ Despite having seen a paediatrician, dieticians, a gastroenterologist and an occupational therapist, Tracy has found there are unfortunately no quick fixes for her elder son’s restrictive eating habits. Now he has reached six years of age, she tells me, things are ‘slightly more tolerable . . . Slightly.’
Like Tracy’s family, we have made a few gains too – the biggest win is that our daughter is now growing well and, in spite of her restrictive diet, has no nutritional deficiencies – although I will acknowledge it is far from ideal. After more than three years, we have come to understand our daughter’s ‘food rules’ too. Crunchy foods are good, smooth foods bad. Sweet foods are good, savoury ones meh. Bland foods are good, strong flavours bad. Food temperature is everything. While we appreciate the importance of these rules to her, we continue to provide healthy, varied meals, and she chooses what or whether she will eat. Importantly we have learned not to fuss over her refusal or acceptance of food, and this has reduced the stress of mealtimes for all of us. And paradoxically, while Miss 3.5 years may not particularly enjoy her food, she does make a keen (if not terribly helpful) sous-chef.
Another former Inner West Mum and friend, Kerry, made me laugh recently when I described her three-year-old daughter, who would exist on just bread and cheese if she could, as a ‘beige eater’ and she quickly retorted, ‘No, she’s a pain-in-the-arse eater.’ I could relate entirely – I have one of those too, an individual who knows her mind and who happens to love cooking, and eating flying fish roe sushi.
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