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Coping with a Child Who Won’t Eat

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A picky eater is one thing, but what happens when it gets compounded by a sickness or health issue? At birth, my first baby was tongue-tied and struggled with nursing. We got over that hurdle, and then, at five weeks, he started getting a birthmark called a hemangioma. It appeared on his lower jaw and eventually grew to be the size of a baseball cut in half. A couple weeks later, after vomiting and crying incessantly for several days, he was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or acid reflux. By eight weeks, he had lost so much weight that he was classified as “failure to thrive.” Ask any new mom to live with that label for even a day. As if questioning the ability for your baby to “thrive” wasn’t horrible enough, they threw in “failure.” Even now, seven years later, getting food in his little body remains a struggle and he rides a line well below the zero percentile on our doctor’s growth chart.


I’m no expert on child nutrition. But, I can say I have learned a thing or two about getting a willful child to eat. For what it’s worth, here’s some advice from a working mom (WoMo) who has exhausted more time and energy on food and child growth than she’d care to think about:


First of all, avoid getting emotional about food. From what I can tell, you either have an eater or you don’t. If your munchkin isn’t big on eating, so be it. The more pressure you put on a child, the worse it is for everyone. Stop hovering over every morsel. Lose the pleading, and the bargaining, and the bribing. I have tried every strategy in the book, but I eventually learned a very simple lesson: the more I made a fuss, the more fussy he became. Even a picky child will eat eventually, and believe it or not, it’s usually when they are hungry.


Secondly, it’s okay to be sneaky. Because of my son’s medical situation, I’ve been cramming in goodness since the bottle. Between the massive growth on his jaw and the pain in his belly, he wouldn’t get his little mouth near anything. Eventually, I started pumping breast milk and mixing it with powdered formula so that he was ingesting double-duty dairy (under the guidance of a doctor). Did it help? It’s hard to say, but I’m glad I did it. And I actually continue to rely on hiding nutrition. Here are some quick food boosts that are easy for a working mom (WoMo) to sneak in at most any meal, even those five-minute frozen fixes:


- Olive oil. Pour it into and onto everything, and don’t skimp. (I also cook with a little coconut oil).


- Carton egg whites are pasteurized, do not need to be cooked, and have very little taste. Add to most anything for a healthy dose of protein.


- Carrot baby food and carrot smoothie juices can be added to all that orange and red food that kids love.


- Extra firm tofu can be chopped into small curds and boiled with pasta. There’s no taste. And when asked what it is, casually reply, “cheese.” They’ll never know.


- If you do have some extra time, purée pre-cooked chicken pieces (store bought or leftovers) and throw into mac n’ cheese and pasta sauces without detection.


- Sneak in the unexpected. I just discovered yellow carrots that went over big. And, in our house, breakfast for dinner is always a hit.


Third, give yourself some “snack-sanity.” Both my kids are big on grazing. So why force three big feasts a day on them only to have it result in half eaten meals that end up as cellulite on the back of mommy’s legs (who am I to throw out good grub)? Timed appropriately, they can help themselves to munchies (with smaller meals), as long as the snacks are healthy and the liquid intake is in check. Too much milk or juice and you can kiss any solid appetite goodbye. I will say, though, green smoothie “snacks” are one of my favorite ways to get in some healthy plants.


Fourth, stop trying so hard. Chasing a kid around a birthday party with a slice of pizza is nuts. Take it from me; I’ve done it several hundred times. Equally challenging is trying to get a stubborn, picky eater to try something new or clear a plate. Stop thinking so rigid and go for moderation. If the kiddo loves pasta with butter, serve up pasta with butter for most meals (pour some olive oil over it) and expect to have a little pasta side dish for yourself when the kids leave the table. You can get a variety of other fare in the belly at snack time to ease your mind. The pressure and potential standoff from “finish your dinner!” will be more than enough to send you to bed without eating. We have a policy in our house that seems to work: if you’re hungry enough for dessert, you’re hungry enough to eat your dinner (and dessert is usually yogurt or fruit). If they don’t eat a reasonable amount, then there’s nothing afterward. Simple. Above all else, do not get into a scenario where you’re cooking new meals because there’s balking at the one you already made. This is another mistake that I’ve made over and over. Trust me, that kind of catering is a recipe for disaster (demanding children and long hours in the kitchen remaking meals… time that a WoMo doesn’t have).


Finally, quit worrying. I say this from the bottom of my heart (that was so filled with worry I thought my pediatrician was going to bring in a therapy couch on my next visit). Children are resilient and if there’s healthy fare being served up on a regular basis, they are likely eating exactly the way nature intended them to eat. I can say this now because I’m on the other side of the battle, and ours was likely more extreme than most. After seven years, countless doctors (pediatricians, gastroenterologists and growth-related endocrinologists), blood tests, X-rays, bone age testing, stool sampling, medication and more hours and heartache than I’d like to remember, my little man is … well, little. And it has nothing to do with what he had, or didn’t have, for dinner. He’s a smart, athletic, sweet, healthy seven-year old boy in the body of a five-year old. Is he small because he’s never been a big fan of food? Not likely. Is he small because his genes told him to be? I think at this point, we can confidently say yes. And with that, I think I’ll stop worrying.


Note: My son’s hemangioma eventually went away on its own (although we did initially consider surgery). It is estimated that 1 in 10 children are born with these vascular anomalies. Doctors believe that his reflux continues, though we are not medically intervening at this time. If anyone has any questions about our experience with any of this, please feel free to email me or comment. 

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