Toddlers Don’t Starve

A year ago, I met with a pediatrician nutritionist. I was worried! My son was turning into a picky eater and I had him hooked to the iPad during all mealtimes. Food time had become the most stressful part of the day.

I always envisioned my child would be a big food lover like me, and maybe it’s a little dramatic to assume that he won’t become one just because he is a picky eater at the moment. I feel like every week is different with a toddler, so who knows what he will like and dislike in the future. I remember my brother being a difficult eater as a child and now he can inhale 10 hotdogs in no time and then ask for a burger.

My food journey with Milan has been a roller coaster and given me lots of anxiety. Was he always a picky eater? Not at all. He was never a bad or a good eater. What bothers me now looking back on his food journey, is the way I handled his meal time.  I am sure I am not the only one who had a child with an iPad or smartphone in front of them to get them to eat full portions. The truth is, it worked so I stuck with it.

I introduced the iPad/phone as early as his formula days, just to get him to finish his bottle. My theory back then was, a full baby sleeps better, right?

However, as he got older he never really saw what he ate or how much. My husband was against this method from day one, but I insisted that if he ate full meals then he would not fall off the growth curve. In my eyes he was pretty tiny, or I got used to hearing people tell me that (aka my mom). In my head, it was my responsibility to make sure he got some nutritional food in his system.

At 4 months, we started oatmeal and a few solids which I now actually regret. I think we should have waited for a few more months when he showed more signs of being interested in food/eating. I think being a first-time mom and sleep deprived, I assumed that if your baby is full, he would sleep better and longer. But looking back, I wish I had waited and not rushed into the food part (as exciting as it is). I would also have  moved at a slower pace and not be so focused on how much he ate that day, have him try new a type of food every few days, and let him feel/play with the textures to see what he was going to put into his body.

I started to use TV/iPad/phone at a very early age, because in my mind that was the only way he would finish meals. I am NOT saying that using an iPad is wrong; if your child likes to watch and eat and it’s working, go for it (whatever works for you). It’s not the actual iPad that bothered me, it was the whole tricking him to eat just so he would finish the full portion (and this was extremely time consuming by the way). I always felt better when he ate the full meal, even if it was a struggle. I had done my part of being a good mom, my child was fed and happy. But our mealtime was not relaxing at all and I started to realize this was the worst thing I had done for my child. He could not sit at the table for a longer time period and my methods had made him dislike the dinner table unless he was entertained.

Milan learned to eat by himself at school but again I would always obsess that he didn’t eat big portions and always feed him at home. Again, feeding your toddler is not the issue. If you have a great bond with your child and mealtime is fun and relaxing, it doesn’t really matter what technique you use, as long as it isn’t a stressful one like it was for me.

As he turned 2.5 years old, I realized I needed a change to happen ASAP.  He, now, didn’t want to try new food and said no to everything (unless it was a OREO cookie or ice cream). My habits of feeding him with an iPad at home had started to impact his eating at school. He was almost afraid of food time, since he probably associated it with a stressful situation. He didn’t like to sit down at the table anymore. During mealtime, I would get frustrated at him and yell “YES, YOU DO LIKE THIS, YOU ATE IT YESTERDAY”. Although did he really know what he ate yesterday? He didn’t actually look at the food, he was looking at the screen while I was shoving it into his face. My goal was always to make him finish his meal.

It was a total fail-fail situation, I had created a person who was hangry but didn’t want to eat unless I entertained him in some way.  Maybe it’s my pregnancy, but a few months ago after a long working day, I came home to cook a meal for my child (something he normally likes) and he refused to even take a bite. So I started to YELL (a lot) and CRY in front of him (like that even helped). I was tired of making food and throwing it away, I was so mad and took him out of his chair and I went upstairs to lay down and calm down. I felt like a failure. What had I done wrong? Did my food suck? What if he did not get the nutritional value that he needed? How could I change this behavior? Could I even change it?

The nutritionist I had met a year before told me about 10 times that “toddlers don’t starve, toddlers don’t starve, toddlers don’t starve”. I knew she was right but why was it so hard to follow her advice?

My Approach to Create a Change
My husband had been on board to try something new for a long time, but I just could not get over my obsession to control his mealtime. But I finally gave in and listened to him of letting go of all entertainment during dinner time, and let him decide what and how much to eat, just like the nutritionist had told me. We also wanted him to be able to sit at the table even if he didn’t eat that much.

I started to give him some carbs, some protein and a veggie (of which he would usually take only a bite, if that) and then let go. When he was done, my duty was going to ask him: Are you done? Is your belly full? And he would tell me if he was or wasn’t. That was it, so I started to implement this during all mealtimes.

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I am no perfect mom, I negotiated and added some sprinkles to his morning yogurt.

The First Few Days
The first 5 days, he basically ate close to nothing, maybe a bite. It was really hard for me to watch to see him and not to take control of the situation. It’s pretty fascinating how long they can go without food. Although I knew he was hungry, since he would ask for cookies or other random unhealthy things (which he btw did not get). I would offer him a different alternative healthy option if we had any, but most of the time he would just scream ” I want cookie”. So he was sent to bed hungry for those days.

First Signs of Change
So, the first few days were hard, he went to sleep hungry and woke up cranky but still didn’t eat a good breakfast. But then one day we were out for a family walk and went for our weekly Sunday grocery run and suddenly three little words came out of his mouth: “I am hungry, I want pizza”. He must have spotted it at the store.

We were at the grocery store so I got him a big slice to take home, but he insisted to eat it in the store and YUP, he sure did. He ate it like it was his last meal.

So did everything turn that day? ABSOLUTELY NOT! But there has been such a change in his food behavior that I wish I had done things differently a long time ago.

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Some days he will love something and the next he doesn’t but I just learned to go with the flow.

What Kind of Eater is He Today
He still eats very small portions, but I’ll take it any day. The biggest win for us is that he actually enjoys sitting at the table with us and even if he only takes a bite or two. Me and my husband still find this fascinating, how he went from hating sitting down at the table to loving just hanging with us.

The nutritionist had told me NOT to look at what he eats in a day but to look at what he eats in a week (they should eat about 2000 cal a week). Remember that every toddler is different, some may need more or less calories, I would check with your pediatrician.

Toddlers Don’t Starve (I Promise)
It’s true, toddlers eat when they are hungry, I have witnessed it. Some days he eats amazingly (I will just stare at him when he does) and some days he eats a few bites here and there, but I have learned to let go. Sometimes he sits at the table for so long that even I am telling him to CHOP CHOP, because he will sit and tell stories and take a bite and then tell 5 stories again (ain’t got time for that every morning). Some mornings when he is not as hungry as other days, I’ll just pack the food for school and let him have it for snack time. This has saved us a lot of arguments and stress in our mornings.

Another thing I have learned not to obsess about is how much he eats when we are out or at play events. I used to feel pressure if he didn’t sit down to eat with the other kids but these days, with the change, he will actually tell me if he is hungry and if not, he will definitely eat a bigger dinner later that day.

So what exactly did we accomplish with this whole experience.

  1. He eats by himself and he seems more relaxed at the table. This way I get free hands to eat my own food.
  2. He feels like he is in control of what and how much he eats. We still can remind him, “are you not going to try that?” and sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t (and sometimes I bribe him with a treat after, I AM NOT PERFECT OK!!)
  3. He tells me when he is done and I let him leave even if don’t finish his meal. If there is any treat, he only gets it if he ate a good portion of his meal or else he does not get it, but I don’t argue with him if he decides not to eat anything.

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I’m not lying when I say it is frustrating to see him say no to a good meal, but it’s been very rewarding to see the changes in him and we are thankful for that. I also used to think that I have to give him dinner a specific time every day. These days (this works for our family) I will ask him if he is hungry and if he is not, I wait 15-30 min before I ask again and usually by then he goes to the table on his own. Obviously, I help him out (especially with rice dishes) if he needs it. Sometimes, if he seems a little restless I will sit down and have a conversation with him and have him try a little, but the difference from before is that, I won’t force it on him. In the end, he is in control of what he eats.

My goal is that maybe in a few years he will have a good relationship to food. He changes so much each week and therefore I know that a lot can change in the future. We are glad to be able to teach him some table manners (although he loves making a mess at the table when no one is watching).

To be clear, my ways might not work for your child but they have done wonders for us. He has become a total different person with his food and table manners, but he still eats smaller portions and does not like veggies. Like I said earlier, I will try my best to give him options and maybe later in life he will be open to those too. All I can say is that if you want a change in your child, you have to be patient and consistent. It works!


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