I knew I was slightly losing the plot when I thought creating a platter of edible circles would entice my picky toddler to take a mouthful of food.
I wasn’t asking much, just a mouthful of “real food.” Not another mouthful, just one, single mouthful. That’s how low my expectations had become. Up until this point, my 12-month-old would only take milk, pureed pouches or sweetened dairy with any kind of enthusiasm. Basically, his diet had become a menu of all the things I said I’d never feed my child—until I had my child.
Back then breakfast was a sugary yogurt (for shame!), lunch was a pouch (don’t judge me!), dinner was a pouch (OK, you’re judging me, I’m judging me). It was washed down with milk as a second meal and accompanied by a splash mat covered with my failed attempts at home-cooked nutrition. I was driving myself—and my husband—bonkers.
I felt like I was constantly chasing my son around the house with a spoon in pursuit of the elusive mouthful. I had become obsessed, and probably a little scary. Kind of like the character Ms. Trunchbull in “Matilda” when she forces Bruce to eat an entire chocolate cake. I even had her greasy, mom bun, so this probably isn’t even an unrealistic analogy. Still, all I wanted after months of trying was a decent bite.
Related: Scientists found an easy way to get your toddler to eat more veggies
Where was I going wrong with my picky toddler?
OK, this is where you start to wonder why I didn’t try X and if I had considered Y. Well, yes and yes. Like you, everyone seemed to have a magic solution that I’d already tried and failed. I tried baking those eggy frittata things with all the greens and all the cheese. I made scones, muffins and gourmet sandwiches. I tried blitzing meat and hiding it in pouches. I snuck nutritious cereal in sugary yogurts. Nothing seemed to interest my fussy eater.
Social events and playdates with other moms were even worse. When lunchtime arrived, we’d all whip out our baby lunchboxes. My friends would produce brilliantly-formed brioche buns, perfectly-carved carrot sticks and dippers of Greek yogurt. I’d present a pouch. If there was ever a time where mom guilt was at its most conspicuous, it was those lunches.
Related: Confession: I’m a dietitian and feeding my daughter is a struggle
Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of the things I was feeding my son, if they formed part of a balanced diet. Clearly, in our case it didn’t, and I was acutely aware that there was no variety in his diet with several food groups being ignored. Knowing this made me feel even more ashamed.
Did it look like I didn’t care? Did onlookers consider me lazy or uniformed? I promptly followed up with an explanation that nobody asked for.
“He’ll get there,” my friends would smile, and I’d grit my teeth and agree with about zero percent sincerity.
Having a picky eater had an impact on my mental health
The comparison culture we live in today has a lot to answer for, but as long as my son was putting on weight and following his curve, I really didn’t need him to be shoveling anything in his mouth. I needed to read my baby. But that didn’t exactly stop me. Like I said, I was losing the plot.
I felt defeated, if not a little sorry for myself which I knew even at the time shouldn’t have been my focus. I was so prepared and willing to be a modern-day Nigella for babies, but it was a wasted ambition and this felt unfair. My innate sense to nurture and nourish my child was compromised, and although eating issues can be common, I felt like the only mom who was failing so spectacularly.
I was so desperate to feed my child and keep him healthy, but the cruel reality was he just didn’t share my enthusiasm. It was around this point that I wondered (and Googled!) if they sell 18-year-old boys the pureed fruit pouches in high school cafeterias. Apparently they don’t, so perhaps there was hope.
And so it continued.
The wild idea I had to help my picky eater
When I was feeling particularly empowered one afternoon, I decided to put my creativity to the test. Kids love messy play, right? I’ve got nothing better to do than clean up my kitchen again. What about a messy play buffet? This was a concept I created and coined to add some interest in feeding time. I wanted to take the pressure off my picky toddler, and myself, and have fun with food.
It kind of worked. I laid out sensory flavors like soft spaghetti strands, fluffy scrambled eggs, whipped cream and jelly. It was most parent’s worst nightmare because the mess was obviously next level. But in some tiny way it taught my son that food was something to be enjoyed. Of course, he didn’t eat anything, but I’d like to think this was the beginning of a new chapter.
Related: The scientific reason why your toddler only loves mac and cheese
At this point I’d also noticed my son had a penchant for circles. I don’t know why. Some kids go through a truck phase; this was our circle phase. He was fascinated not only by circular-shaped toys and blocks, but holes, screw heads, balls, buttons and puzzle pieces. Desperately, I concocted a new idea. I scoured the fridge like a starving college student, looking for anything circular or with the potential to be circular.
I presented my son with a tray of Babybells, cheese puffs and round sandwiches cut with the rim of a glass. It looked cute on Instagram. Not so cute on my floor. I went back to the drawing board.
Hoorah! A turning point for my picky toddler
And then one bright, summer’s day, it happened. My son took a spoonful of greek yogurt—and he swallowed it. Then a bite of toast—and he swallowed that too. I think I cried. Then I took a video and sent it to the family with the caption “we did it!” And then he had a pouch for dinner.
Then 18 months since our gorgeous boy was born, we were eating. He was enjoying ground meats with baby pasta, and then full chunks and spiraled pasta. He was opening his mouth like a baby bird waiting for his mama to drop in another mouthful of actual, nutritious, home-cooked food.
In what seemed like a 24-hour turnaround, he ate a whole banana—himself! He went back to pouches in between, but soon enough those rare occurrences became the norm and today he’s enjoying mini-me versions of the dinners my husband and I enjoy—something I honestly doubted would ever happen.
So, what happened to help my picky eater?
I don’t believe there was one thing that helped progress my son’s eating. I’d love to say my messy buffets and circular platters inspired him, but the truth is I really don’t think it made much of a difference. Well, other than to create a fun activity and provide another opportunity for exposure. What did make a difference was time, and don’t you just hate it when people say that?
Related: Viral TikTok teaches parents how to stop making separate meals for picky eaters
Eventually my son figured it out on his own, with his parents behind him cheering him on. The guilt I felt for months was natural, but unnecessary. The judgment I imagined may have been real, or imagined, but the person who was really judging this mama was me. I was so desperate to be the perfect mom for my perfect son, that I let mom guilt consume me and drive me to make some pretty desperate calls.
My son was doing fine, he was just doing it in his own time and there was nothing to indicate anything unsavory toward his development. In truth, it was my development that needed the most work. Together we just needed to take baby steps.
“See, I told you he’d get there,” my friend smiled. And this time I agreed.
I’m no longer worrying about whether he’ll ever eat, because he can, and he will. If his eating patterns change, which I am fully prepared for, I’ll know to approach it calmly to just be there for my son, focusing my attention on patiently cheering him on, just like I should have done in the first place.