Solving my picky eater’s infuriating fussiness led us both to food sanity

I used to feel like screaming into a pillow because of my daughter’s picky eating.

She was four, had two younger sisters, was underweight, and she only ate beige food. Two bits of pasta. Then:

I’d say:

It was harder work than feeding our toddler. Or our baby.

When my husband arrived, he’d loosen his tie and take over. I’d go into our bedroom and kick the wardrobe.

Was this a power struggle? Was my daughter rejecting me? (That’s how it felt!) Or was food physically repulsive for her?

Maybe she wanted to be babied, like her sisters? But her picky eating started long before. Now, I worried they’d copy her.

I tried everything: Mums’ forums. Reward charts. Baking carrot muffins. Sneaking avocado in smoothies.

But although I slept better knowing my daughter had four extra pomegranate seeds that day, she wasn’t liking or tasting more foods.

The ironic thing? I’m an eating psychology coach! I help people solve disordered eating! And yet I couldn’t even get my own kids to eat a healthy diet?!

And yet here I was, trying to kid myself that giving my daughter a star for a clean plate was harmless encouragement. I knew it wasn’t: Most of my clients’ problems — as well as the teenage binge eating that compelled me to become a coach in later life — started when they tried to follow a diet or please their parents, instead of sensing their own appetite.

I was overriding my daughter’s body wisdom, but I was too frightened to trust her. It’s one thing to teach adults to eat intuitively, but could I really let my underweight four-year-old feed herself? Wouldn’t she waste away?

I’m not the kind of person that has to research every single thing. But on this occasion I Googled like mad. The research papers I found weren’t a surprise, but seeing proper psychology studies reassured me. Children can naturally choose the right amount, and the right balance, of food.

My husband and I agreed to change our supper style. A simple sit-down buffet. We promised ourselves that for three months, we’d let her serve herself, and not try to influence her.

Sticking to it was hard. We made a parents’ reward chart.

It was nail-biting sometimes, letting her not-eat at dinner. Would she sleep through the night?

But she did. And then she asked for porridge at breakfast. With bananas, raisins, milk, and honey. Two bowls.

It was a relief to stop threatening her with “no dessert unless you…”, but it took presence of mind to stop ourselves cheerleading. Towards the end of the three months (we were marking the calendar, placing bets) she voluntarily ate some broccoli. She showed me a mouthful, clearly expecting a “Wow!”. I felt like pulling a party-popper, but I kept cool. I didn’t want her to eat to get my approval anymore.

After six months, all at once, she started tasting new things — (cue fanfare) — An almond! Brie! The cherry tomatoes that had been served so many times I’d considered just getting plastic ones!!

She didn’t like them of course. She didn’t eat them. But she tried them.

And so it went on. No quick fixes. Small victories. A lot of recycled leftovers.

Now she’s five, and eats OK. I try not to monitor her too closely. But I can’t help noticing when, on a very good day, she mixes food: pasta with pesto and nuts, or layers in a burger. Layers in a burger, people.

In those moments of totally trivial triumph, I feel stupidly ridiculously heartburstingly proud of us, because it felt risky feeding her this way.

Looking back, it was especially hard to teach my kid to trust her appetite because I still didn’t fully trust my own. Sure, I’ve been binge-free for years, since I gave up dieting. I love my body and I like fresh food. But I was still often letting my food rules take over from my real appetite.

It’s hard to notice fullness, or pleasure, when you’re concentrating on your family during a meal.

© Laura Lloyd

So I went back to eating mindfully— I stopped multitasking, and started tasting. Although I had to practise, it was also fun waking up my body’s senses again. Brunch on my sunny balcony, ALONE — heaven!

I also did intuitive eating exercises to learn to judge fullness. For example, I drank water and thought: “now I’m 50% full.” It felt weird to practise something that should be so natural, but it paid off: the awareness lasted.

These days, if I’m upset by my daughter getting down after a few mouthfuls, I know she’s touching a raw nerve. After all, she can naturally leave food alone when she’s satisfied, where I have to concentrate to notice when to stop.

So if you’re ready to experiment with giving your child their appetite back, here are three simple strategies that helped me:

Laura Lloyd is a food sanity & confidence coach. If you want to see more of her illustrated wisdom, you can get her free ebook, How To Ditch Dieting, Lose Weight and Love Your Body Forever After here.

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