My life living with a fussy eater

I’d never imagined that after 15 years of being a professional chef I’d find myself serving up fish fingers and pasta, on a nightly basis, to my own child. No restaurant worth their salt would dream of serving such basic fare, leaving customers wondering if there was even a chef in the kitchen.

That was the little nugget of wisdom that really got to me.  Eventually – that single word haunted me.

I sent my son to bed hungry. He awoke starving yet balked – loudly – at the breakfast offered, refusing to touch it. I literally got down on my knees and cried. None of the typical foods favoured by fussy eaters interested Alex either. Myth busted.

Indeed, there was a chef in the kitchen cooking for the world’s fiercest food critic – one more terrifying then Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsey put together and letting off steam. Alex, my then 22-month-old son, had overnight, turned into what is euphemistically called a “fussy eater”. Up to that point, he’d eaten everything and was a joy to feed, but suddenly, and without any obvious explanation, he rejected certain food items and I struggled to replace them with nutritious alternatives.

Like any worried mother, I initially googled information on the frustrating and soul-destroying hoo-ha that mealtimes were becoming. But nothing beats human feedback, and soon neighbours, friends and randomers at supermarket check-outs were giving me tips galore.

Don’t worry, if they’re hungry enough they’ll eat.

“If they don’t eat what’s on the plate, take it away and serve it to them again at the next meal. They’ll eat when they realise they’re not getting anything else.”

“Send him to bed hungry and he’ll eat the following day.”

“Give him chicken nuggets, sausages, chips, pizza and burgers. Sure, that’s all finicky kids will eat”.

“Send him to bed hungry and he’ll eat the following day.”

“Oh he’ll eventually grow out of it”

That was the little nugget of wisdom that really got to me.  Eventually – that single word haunted me.

I sent my son to bed hungry. He awoke starving yet balked – loudly – at the breakfast offered, refusing to touch it. I literally got down on my knees and cried. None of the typical foods favoured by fussy eaters interested Alex either. Myth busted.

I Felt Like a Failure

A mother’s fundamental duty is to nurture her offspring, and I felt like a spectacular failure. The mounting self-blame and desperation became horribly isolating. Of all people, I should be able to get my child to eat, how hard can it be? I had to find a way to help my son – for his well-being and for the happiness of our family.

There were warning signs that his refusal to eat was beginning to affect his health. He suffered from chronic constipation, weight loss, mood swings, and stomach cramps that roused him from sleep in the middle of the night. He grew increasingly distressed by the very sight of food and eventually stopped sitting at the kitchen table. At this point, the GP surgery felt like a revolving door. My doctor was concerned about Alex’s weight loss and constipation. The only way to get him to pass anything was giving him regular laxatives. He was prescribed medication and I was advised to give him buttered digestive biscuits to help him gain weight. This broke my heart; I knew that proper wholesome food was the real medicine that he needed. If he could just eat what I cooked he’d be cured, everything would be fixed, all would be well. But, as I discovered, it wasn’t that easy.

Louise Lennox and Son Alex - Fussy Eater no more

The Reward Chart Didn’t Work

Finally, I got Alex referred to a specialist. I was thrilled, relieved, optimistic. At last, someone would have the answer and my boy would soon be eating a Sunday roast with gusto! Unbelievably, however, all the specialist proffered was “Give Alex a reward chart and explain to him that if he eats X, Y and Z he’ll get a prize.” The cashier in my local supermarket had already suggested that! I was dumbfounded. Nonetheless, the reward chart was duly tried and tested. But after three weeks it too went up in smoke. So, once again, we returned to the GP.

This time, she suggested enrolling Alex in a hospital food eating programme. It sounded good, legit. But inevitably there was a glitch: there was no guarantee he’d get a place. Places limited, proof of severe eating problems required; blah, blah, blah. Alex was deemed a severe case and secured a place, in a year’s time. Because like almost all health issues in this country, waiting lists apply.

Alex was nearly three at this stage, the prospect of facing into another year of dealing with the crisis was sheer torture. During the following 12 months things deteriorated further and Alex was diagnosed as being a “problem eater” – he ate no more than 20 types of foods and dropped foods without adding substitutes back into his diet. He wouldn’t eat any type of meat or fruit or veg. He was surviving on selected breakfast cereals, milk, bread, cheese, pasta and the humble fish finger.

The Psychology & The Science

On Alex’s first day of the hospital eating programme I was paranoid that the medical team would hold me responsible for Alex’s eating problems, and wanted to tell them that I did everything by the book: had breast fed my child for 14 months and cooked all his meals from scratch. The staff of course were kind and understanding. And for the first time, I met other parents who were experiencing similar problems with feeding their children.

The eight-week programme marked the start of a new beginning. And professionally, it was an impetus for me. I was passionate about helping my son learn how to eat again and rediscover my love for cooking. With my background in cuisine, nutrition and food education, I completed a course in the States with a leading world expert in problem, picky eaters. I learnt the psychology and science behind why children won’t and don’t eat.

Armed with this new found knowledge, my business partner, Aisling and I developed the Foodoppi Feeding Programme. Elements were fine-tuned and the trial results looked promising – the Foodoppi programme took flight.

Today, Alex is a happy, healthy 6-year-old, bursting with energy. He no longer runs from the dinner table. The food tantrums, fear and daily mealtime meltdowns are, thankfully, a thing of the past.

The ultimate high was sitting together as a family over last year’s Christmas dinner, watching Alex help himself to turkey and all the trimmings. It was the very first time we’d had a traditional Christmas dinner together. Knowing how far we’d come on this food journey as a family, how much Alex’s life had improved was the best present EVER.