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To the worried mama whose child won’t eat enough—let go of expectations

toddler boy rejecting fork of food
Bricolage/Shutterstock

When my firstborn, Max, was young, there was one parenting mantra that always sent my blood pressure soaring. That mantra was: “When a child gets hungry enough, they’ll eat.”

This phrase always struck me as the sort of common sense wisdom that should hold true. But it certainly wasn’t working for us, because Max rarely seemed to feel hungry no matter how long we went without trying to coax or compel him to eat. I had never seen a toddler so unmotivated by food.

When he was born, Max’s height and weight scores were in the 50th percentile. Soon afterwards, those scores began to diverge. By the time he was eighteen months old, Max fell below the 10th percentile for weight and I fell well above the 97th percentile for “mothers who feel stressed about their children’s eating.”

I searched for plenty of advice on conquering the picky eater. Some of the common suggestions—routine, variety of food, minimize distractions—only helped some of the time. Nothing worked consistently to keep Max well nourished, and the things I was doing to get food into my child would have shocked my pre-parent self. The more anxious I got and the harder I pushed, the more food became a power struggle—one we all lost.

Max was almost three when things came to a head at dinnertime.

I served something I knew Max liked. He had eaten nothing since lunch (and barely anything then) so he should have been ready for food, but he wasn’t. Not even to the tune of one bite.

He put his feet up on the table. I told him to take them down. He wanted to get down and play. I told him to stay where he was. He picked up handfuls of food and dropped them down to the dog. I told him in no uncertain terms to stop it.

Eventually I brought out the muffins I’d made earlier that I knew he really wanted.

“You may have this,” I said, placing a muffin beside his plate, “AFTER you eat one bite of fried rice.”

I knew if I could just get him to prime the pump by eating one bite of rice there was a decent chance he would voluntarily eat more.

Max stared at me.

I continued eating my own dinner and pretended I didn’t care what he chose to do. Max spent a minute looking between the muffin and his plate, then he picked up the muffin and handed it back to me.

“No dinner,” Max said grinning.

That was the moment I realized I had little to lose by changing things up.

I started by taking a close look at my own expectations around food—what I thought should be happening. As it turned out, there were quite a few of those. I felt the boys should eat most of what was put in front of them, and when I put it there. They should at least try something when I asked them to. That—because all the research says how important family dinners are—they should sit at the table with us during dinner.

These expectations and desires were far from irrational, but I began to wonder whether I needed to hang onto all of them. After all, my core desire was simple—I wanted both of my boys  to eat healthy food. In desperation, I decided to experiment with jettisoning most of my “shoulds” around Max and food.

I stopped making family dinnertime a thing, and fed the boys in front of the TV instead. Even as a baby, my second-born was perfectly capable of multitasking by shoveling food into his mouth while watching TV. Max was not. When the TV was on he would sit, entranced and consume nothing if left to his own devices. So I sat beside Max and spoon fed him. Or, I carried the TV remote around and periodically paused the show until Max took a bite.

At other times, my husband or I would follow Max while he roamed around the garden and fed him while he was on the move. I blended nutritious mixtures, froze them as ice-blocks and handed them out at all hours. If Max wouldn’t eat at mealtimes, I let it pass and then tried again later. If he wouldn’t eat what I served, I asked him to take a single bite to “test his tummy.” Then, if he still refused the main offering, I shrugged and fed him  something else. In short, I tried really hard to become less controlling around food.

And it worked. It took months, but Max began eating more. He stopped resisting quite so hard when I did dish out requests or instructions around food. He was more willing to try things, and began to eat a wider range of foods. By tossing out most of my expectations about food and doing whatever it took to help us achieve our primary goal, we were finally getting somewhere.

One evening Max wandered up to me in the kitchen.

“Mama,” he said. “I have a good idea.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You give me an ice-block,” he said. “Then you pretend to be a puppy. I can drop some ice-block on the floor and you can lick it up.”

“That’s one option,” I said. “But how about this, YOU pretend to be a puppy and you can eat your dinner out of my hand. Sit, puppy!”

He sat.

He ate.