Is your child a fussy eater? Help is at hand

After her son was diagnosed as a problem feeder, Louise Lennox got to the bottom of it

‘The three things in life an adult cannot force a child to do is sleep, use the toilet and eat.’ Photograph: iStock

‘The three things in life an adult cannot force a child to do is sleep, use the toilet and eat.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Almost every family, at one time or another, experiences it. The toddler who wants only beans and waffles, or won’t eat at the table. A daughter who, after what feels like hours of coaxing and bribing, refuses a meal completely.

For parents of fussy eaters, the struggle is a predominantly private one, endured every time breakfast, lunch or dinner rolls around. But after her son Alex was diagnosed as a problem eater, Louise Lennox, a former chef and co-founder of Foodoopi, decided it was time to bring this stressful battle out of the shadows.

“Alex was 20 months old when I noticed a change in his eating habits,” says Lennox. “Up to that point, he ate everything I would cook for him. Feeding him was a joy, effortless and so easy. He was such a confident adventurous eater. Suddenly he began rejecting foods that he’d usually eat. He had been very sick with croup, so I thought his going off food was temporary, and that once he had made a full recovery, he’d be back to normal. But, his eating – or more like lack of eating – was very quickly getting worse, and Alex started rapidly dropping foods without replacing them with another. The sight of food began to cause him stress.”

Louise Lennox’s and her son Alex
Louise Lennox’s and her son Alex

After a gruelling two years of worsening symptoms, including chronic constipation, weight loss, mood swings and stomach cramps, Lennox sought medical help. “My doctor’s surgery became a revolving door. He was put on medicine to help with his constipation, and I was advised to give him butter on digestive biscuits to help him put on weight.”

Alex was officially diagnosed as a problem feeder, which meant he was eating fewer than 20 types of foods. “At his worst, he didn’t eat any type of meat, no vegetables, no fruit, only a few carbohydrates consisting of breakfast cereal, white bread and plain pasta. Protein came from cheese, milk and that life-line food, the humble fish finger. It broke my heart. I knew that the real medicine was unprocessed, wholesome, home-made food. I felt helpless, alone, frustrated. I blamed myself and felt I must have done something wrong.”

The psychology

Lennox and her husband stopped bringing Alex to birthday parties and avoided eating out in restaurants, as the sight and smell of other people eating caused Alex distress. Knowing these were short-term solutions to a much bigger problem, she began to research extensively and uncovered a training course at the Texas Children’s Hospital in the US, with one of the world’s leading experts in dealing with problem, picky and fussy eaters.

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“My now business partner, Aisling Larkin, and I decided to attend, and though we were the only people there who didn’t have a medical background, we absorbed every single piece of information.” The pair heard from leading experts on the psychology behind problem eating, with scientific insights supported by child development and parental studies.

Energised and inspired, Lennox and Larkin returned to Ireland and founded Foodoppi in 2016, a consultancy that offers practical advice for parents tackling children’s picky or problem eating. “Their stories and situations mirror mine,” Lennox says of her clients.

I was that powerless parent, and I had to find my own way of helping my son

“Up until my training in Texas, I had been very private and never spoke about Alex’s feeding problems with friends. There is a degree of shame and embarrassment as a mother or father, as if it’s a failing on our part. Parents now tell me that hearing our story was a huge relief to them as they felt so alone. Until you experience it first-hand, it is very easy to pass off fussy eating with the belief that when a child is hungry, they’ll eat. That’s factually untrue, and leaves us at a loss when we need practical solutions.”

This month, Foodoppi will host a masterclass for parents, a one-day intensive course providing practical tools that families can use to move forward.

“The three things in life an adult cannot force a child to do is sleep, use the toilet and eat,” Lennox says. “I was that powerless parent, and I had to find my own way of helping my son. Do it not just for their health, but for the wellbeing and happiness of the entire family.”

Foodoppi’s Fussy Eaters Masterclass for parents takes place in the Mutiny Theatre in Dublin 2 on Saturday, March 21st. Book tickets at foodoppi.com

FIVE TIPS FOR PARENTS OF FUSSY EATERS

1. Parents need to stop blaming themselves. To know and believe this is not your fault is vital.

2. Listen to your gut. If you are concerned, see your doctor and ask to get your child assessed to rule out any underlying medical problems like poor oral motor skills. Nobody knows your child better than you.

3. The more you push a child to eat, the more they push back and refuse. Try not to make them the focus of the meal. It will help create a happier environment at mealtimes.

4. Remove the invisible food wall. If you are eating a lamb curry and your child’s preferred food is a fish finger, serve yourself a small piece of fish finger too, to show there is no division between adult food and child’s food.

5. Family meals together are critical for providing children with multiple opportunities to learn about eating. Reinvent play dates and instead host feeding dates, where children play and stay for dinner. It’ll help expose your child to the foods their peers are enjoying.

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