Is mom's eating history affecting her toddler's eating habits?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 27, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi There,

I'm the mom of an almost 2 1/2 year old little girl. She is a very happy, outgoing, joyful kid who has tons of energy. The reason I'm writing is because I'm having an awful lot of trouble getting her to eat at home, or I should say with her father and me. Whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner at home, or in a restaurant- she just doesn't eat much at all. She'll pick at a couple of things, or it'll take her upwards of an hour to eat the simplest things. I'm very afraid of giving her eating issues like I have, so I don't force her to sit in front of her plate till it's cleaned, nor do I make a big deal out of giving sweets or any food as rewards. However, when she spends the day at my parents house, or the homes of friends who help me out w/ babysitting from time to time, they all report that she eats non-stop! I've been told she'll eat 2-3 helpings of something that she'd never eat at home, if my parents take her to a restaurant, she eats everything AND picks at their food too. What gives? I joke that I'm just going to drop her off at different houses for meals just so she'll eat something. What am I doing wrong, or what can I do to get her to eat well when she's with us?

Thanks!

From: tlo, Meddford, MA


Dear tlo,

First of all, keep in mind that many toddlers are picky eaters. It's just what they are about. All you have to do is read through past questions here to see how true that is; in fact, eating (at all ages) is the single biggest topic that gets raised in this space. And while it's understandable that any parent might worry when a child seems to not be getting appropriate nourishment, I suspect you are more susceptible to this worry because of your history. I wouldn't necessarily go there.

Children this age are all about control. They want it, and they are willing to engage in all sorts of behaviors to see how they can get it. Somehow, your daughter has come to perceive mealtime and eating as an issue around which she can exert control, especially -- only? -- when you're present. That tells me that in some way, perhaps so subtly you can't recognize it, you give off some vibes that she's picking up on.

Defuse eating and mealtime as best you can by putting food in front of her and not talking about it. No chatter about food, about what she's eating, or what you're eating, or not eating. Make eating just another activity in your home. Do your best to make family meals a pleasant time. Try to become an impartial observer about your own behavior around food. What happens differently in other homes where she eats willingly? Talk to your pediatrician so you can (presumably) get reassurance that she is a healthy child who is getting the nourishment she needs; if your anxiety is assuaged, you may be more able to relax around mealtime. Lastly, get some guidance from a nutritionist. I suspect that because of your history, this is something that will be beneficial. Forgive me if I'm over-reacting to this, I know you mentioned it only in passing, but I strongly suspect it's playing a role here.

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2 comments so far...
  1. A general observation: if both parents have been away all day, the child feels a very strong need to interact one-on-one with them. Food is NOT priority #1 if you need face time with your parents.

    If one parent can sit with the 2-4YO child on their lap before supper and the other one after, this urgent emotional need would begin to be addressed with maybe 20 minutes of conversation with each parent.

    I have sat at friends' supper tables where the working parent walks in, eats supper, and then goes back to work. Their kids react by dragging out their portion of food as long as possible. Parents who sit at the table and prepare supper while talking to the child do NOT have this same result.

    I have a strong sense that when mealtime ceases to be the only place for parental facetime, the eating becomes less inhibited by other significant emotional needs.

    Posted by Irene December 27, 11 11:59 AM
  1. If it helps, the "eating more and a greater variety of things with the grandparents" thing is not unique to your little girl. My son does it too. I realize your case might be more extreme and involve other issues, but some toddlers who don't have a thing like what you describe with your daughter will still sometimes eat things for their grandparents that they won't eat with their parents.

    Posted by Meri December 29, 11 11:57 AM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. A general observation: if both parents have been away all day, the child feels a very strong need to interact one-on-one with them. Food is NOT priority #1 if you need face time with your parents.

    If one parent can sit with the 2-4YO child on their lap before supper and the other one after, this urgent emotional need would begin to be addressed with maybe 20 minutes of conversation with each parent.

    I have sat at friends' supper tables where the working parent walks in, eats supper, and then goes back to work. Their kids react by dragging out their portion of food as long as possible. Parents who sit at the table and prepare supper while talking to the child do NOT have this same result.

    I have a strong sense that when mealtime ceases to be the only place for parental facetime, the eating becomes less inhibited by other significant emotional needs.

    Posted by Irene December 27, 11 11:59 AM
  1. If it helps, the "eating more and a greater variety of things with the grandparents" thing is not unique to your little girl. My son does it too. I realize your case might be more extreme and involve other issues, but some toddlers who don't have a thing like what you describe with your daughter will still sometimes eat things for their grandparents that they won't eat with their parents.

    Posted by Meri December 29, 11 11:57 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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