My preschooler is the slowest eater on the planet
May 12, 2014 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I have a 3 1/2 year old who will be starting preschool in the fall. He currently attends a home daycare, where he has breakfast and lunch, and often dinner. Once he starts preschool, we will have to manage breakfast and dinner at home. He is an incredibly slow eater and when we eat dinner at home, it literally takes him until bedtime to eat. This makes breakfast a major challenge as well. Getting him up earlier doesn't necessarily help because then he's groggy and uncooperative and will spend that extra 20 minutes moving at the speed of molasses in terms of getting dressed and toothbrushed. Please help.

This is our schedule: 6am, baby wakes up hungry. 6:30am, baby is done eating and I go take a shower. 6:45, wake up son and get myself dressed. I can have him at the table with breakfast by 7 if all goes well, though I can't necessarily sit and supervise him the whole time. I'd like to leave by 7:30. However, it's very difficult for him to eat breakfast within that time frame. Friends have suggested giving him breakfast in the car, and I have been known to toss him a granola bar, but I don't relish him having sugary processed food for breakfast every morning. I'd also prefer not to destroy my backseat with gross spills.

We are typically home by 6:15 or 6:30 (we have a commute, and daycare pickup always takes time. Leaving work earlier is not really an option.) Bedtime routine starts at 7:30. So even if I get dinner on the table by 6:30 or 6:40, that only leaves an hour. It's nice to sit and chat with him while he eats, but by the end I'm basically just nagging him to take another bite. I hate always telling him to eat faster because that doesn't seem to be building good lifestyle habits. However, he does occasionally need a bath, and I hate not getting to play with him or baby at all. Part of the reason he frequently has dinner at daycare is to reduce this significant source of stress in our lives. (Plus, it's often the difference between him being willing to eat dinner, and not.)

One option is setting a time limit on meals. I guess we could try this. However, he's not a great eater and he is very skinny. Not so skinny that the doctor is actively worried, but enough that I'm uncomfortable with him skipping meals. In the past we've tried the approach of, he'll eat when he's hungry, and he'd end up eating so little that his blood sugar would crash and then he'd be too irritable and distraught to eat. This is not a food sensitivity; he cheerfully eats everything at daycare (it just takes him forever and a day). We've also found that he eats better in the company of other toddlers/preschoolers, which we have a shortage of at home. Mom does not appear to have a similar effect.

Will he magically outgrow this? Do I need to take action to fix it? Can I fix it? I want him to get off to a good start at preschool, preferably without our life turning into a never ending battle over food.

I'm interested in a variety of ideas as to what worked with your kids.
posted by telepanda to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
does he eat everything slowly, or do pizza and fried chicken go down faster than spinach? what kind of food are you feeding him? can you cook as well as the rat in "ratatouille"? what does the doctor say about this, because the opinion of his attending physician trumps everyone here.

i would be leery of imposing time limits to make him gobble. you would be tinkering with a sensitive system before you understand it.
posted by bruce at 9:25 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is it possible that he's dragging out mealtime because he misses you and wants more of the conversations you two have during dinner? How many minutes each day does he have for your undivided attention?
posted by Houstonian at 9:27 AM on May 12, 2014 [17 favorites]

Our five year old is also a slow eater. In the mornings, we do sometimes give her food in the car - there's a particular pureed food pouch she really likes, and applesauce in the pouch, and cheese tend to be easy car-foods that don't make a mess.

On the dinner front, we have found that she very very rarely eats a dinner meal. She gets breakfast from us, a snack, lunch and pm snack at school, and comes home hungry - so she gets another "snack" at home - usually fruit and cheese, sometimes cereal or a PBJ, sometimes a hard boiled egg, sometimes a cookie or ice cream. The she sits with us for dinner, if we are having it, and gets a little bit of what we're having but she often eats very little or not at all at that point. This has always been true - she's just more of a snacker than a meal eater. Our doc told us that until kids are 6 or so, they generally get (and should get) at least 80% of their calories before late afternoon, so after she told us that, we stopped worrying and trying to force the dinner meals. So it might just be that he isn't hungry at dinner.

If it seems like she is hungry (usually because the school lunch was something she didn't like), we'll allow her a yogurt or something similar after her bath.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:30 AM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can you start practicing with a timer? Maybe one week just use the timer to let the kid feel out how long he'll have, and then the next week, actively take the food away when the limit is up?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:34 AM on May 12, 2014

My boyfriend's 4-year-old niece is skinny and a picky eater, and her parents give her a homemade smoothie (yogurt/fruit/etc) to drink in the car on the way to daycare. That wouldn't eliminate the gross spills on the backseat, but you could make them ahead of time and keep them in the fridge to cut down on morning breakfast issues.
posted by jabes at 9:42 AM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

My daughter was always an incredibly slow eater, as slow or slower as what you're describing. It turned out that she had bizarre, wide-ranging, and counterintuitive food intolerances, and she was eating slowly because eating made her tummy hurt. She had been in pain her whole life so she didn't really have words for "my tummy hurts" because that was just the way it was. We got her diagnosed, fixed her diet, and now most of the time she eats a meal in a normal amount of time.
posted by KathrynT at 9:54 AM on May 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Smoothies may work well for breakfast and they can really be packed with nutrition (and protein, too, if you throw in some protein powder). They can also hold a crazy amount of sugar, so watch out for that. Is he HUNGRY after he eats a small amount? Is it just that you're expecting him to eat more than he really wants? When I was a nanny I would pick a new/desirable book and read one page or paragraph (depending on the book) per bite. If you want the story to continue, you have to keep eating. Is there a series/character he's particularly interested in?

I also hate hate hate to suggest things like this over the internet, but sometimes a kid that's a skinny reluctant eater actually has some undiagnosed food allergies that make eating unpleasant for them so they subconsciously try to avoid it. Do you have a family history of food allergies? Does he have stomachaches or loose stools? If so it might be something worth investigating.
posted by kate blank at 9:56 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does he not want to go to school, and eating slowly helps drag out the time before he has to go? Similarly, does he not want to go to bed? Houstonian is on the right track; it doesn't seem like you have very much time to spend with your kids.

Can you start practicing with a timer? Maybe one week just use the timer to let the kid feel out how long he'll have, and then the next week, actively take the food away when the limit is up?

I was (am) a slow eater with an anxiety problem and this would have ramped up my food anxiety to unbelievable proportions. This is something you do with dogs.
posted by desjardins at 10:12 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

My nephew used to eat phenomenally slowly, turned out he had reoccuring bouts of tonsillitis and his main symptom was it hurt him to swallow so he liked to chew everything really fine. For some reason he decided he didn't need to tell his parents his throat hurt or maybe he'd had it so long that like KathrynT's daughter he'd had it so long he just thought that's how it was. He still eats slowly even 5 years later as he has gotten in the habit of chewing things super fine. Smoothies are his mothers way of getting him out the house early in the morning, with a substantial mid morning snack for recess.
posted by wwax at 10:16 AM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would take this to a doctor. My son's father had this issue because he had an esophageal stricture which ultimately required that he have emergency surgery, and then another corrective surgery. Now he's fine.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:22 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

My guess is this is physical (an allergy or other impairment) or psychological (wants to spend more time with you, is trying to control something in his life).

I'd start with looking at all possible physical issues - allergies, gluten, soy, dairy, etc.
posted by barnone at 10:26 AM on May 12, 2014

Also, my son is a slow eater for a physical reason. For a long time he was very skinny and just not motivated to eat much at all, he needed to be coaxed and constantly pushed to eat. Now with some minor diet modifications (he eats relatively calorie-dense foods) and with him growing out of it, he's really gaining weight and growing. We thought it was just his personality or him being picky or any number of little things. We really had no clue there was anything "wrong". It's not always easy to tell, unfortunately.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:28 AM on May 12, 2014

Hmm. The questions about stalling to get more time with me are legit. That said, we have a 40 minute commute together in the morning and in the afternoon, and if he wants to talk to me during that time, I'm all his. I do my very best to make car conversations fulfilling, and engage him as much as possible.

Also, on the evenings I don't feed him dinner, I am usually doing something with him. I'm acutely aware that our time together is limited, and defer as many things as possible til after he's in bed.

To me, it's always seemed like a combination of distractability and control. He'll start talking and forget to eat, but then if you try to make him take a bite of food he'll either dig his heels in and refuse, or he'll be "silly" (nascent sense of humor developing here) and take bites that are approximately one micron in size, then giggle his head off. He *is* capable of eating a good meal in a reasonable amount of time. It just doesn't seem to be high on his priority list.

I've wondered about food sensitivities myself, but I kept a very detailed food log for quite a while and neither I nor the doctor could identify any specific foods of concern. We discuss his eating at every appointment and will continue to do so. He isn't a reluctant eater at daycare, he just needs occasional reminders to keep eating and he's the last to finish.

Appreciate the ideas; keep them coming!
posted by telepanda at 10:36 AM on May 12, 2014

My first thought was what wwax said. I'd have him checked for swallowing problems, dental problems, jaw problems. As you know, 3-1/2 year-olds don't really know how to self-diagnose or attribute, they're just working with whatever the world throws at them (i.e. they don't know what's "normal"). So you have no way of knowing what he's working against unless you have unusual symptoms like this checked out.

FWIW, I doubt it's food sensitivity or allergy, I'd expect that to cause different behavior.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:37 AM on May 12, 2014

It's great that the possibility of allergies has been raised already. At this point, I'd ask for specific allergy tests to be done. Gluten, soy, dairy, and other food allergies.

It does sound like it could have developed into a bit of a common dynamic. Have you read Ellyn Satter's work? She has a very helpful series of blogs and books on how to feed kids. Her concepts are based on a division of responsibilities, and put faith in the kid's ability to know their body. This is assuming there isn't an underlying issue of *why* they are having issues with eating, which is why it's critical to go through those steps first. But I think you'd probably find them helpful to reset the dynamic, even as you go through some basic testing to check on things.

I'll put a bunch of links here in case they're helpful:
How to Feed Children - Ellyn Satter Institute
Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense - Ellyn Satter Institute Store (on Amazon: Child of Mine)
Division of Responsibility in Activity
Division of Responsibility in Feeding
Intervening with Food Refusal Step 2
posted by barnone at 10:51 AM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

This sounds really tough and super, super frustrating. You're doing the right thing by trying to figure out a strategy for dealing with this.

Honestly, if it's not a physical thing (and I agree that there might be something physical besides allergies or intolerances going on), then you do have to simply let him skip meals if that's what he wants to do. He'll learn quickly that skipping meals sucks. Of course it sucks for you too, but them's the breaks. It's temporary.

My son has cheerios whenever/wherever he wants them, and of course, always has access to water. He doesn't always have access to mom's attention and time, because it's a finite resource and Mom has feelings and desires, too, including the desire to have a dinner time that isn't taken up completely with nagging and coaxing and worry.

Consider providing him at all times with a standard, boring snack. During breakfast/dinner time, don't sit over him reminding him. Just a quick reminder, "mealtime is done in two minutes"..."mealtime is done, time to play". After that, he can have a dry, easy-to-vacuum snack and water. He'll get the idea after a few miserable tantrums. Frankly, I'd even consider letting him eat by himself while you do something else. Hell, have a glass of wine. Have some chocolate. Read a magazine. Treat yourself for putting up with this so long! Mom's attention is a huge reward and he's getting it by exasperating you and being difficult, and it's not okay. Yes, time with you matters, but your sanity matters too!

And yeah, food spills in your car suck, I get it, and you want him to eat a healthy meal at mealtime, but you can't make that happen. Something has to give. Absent abusive behavior, you can't make him eat when you want him to, and nothing is ever going to change that. It's frustrating as shit, I know that, believe me, but it doesn't have to be. You can have healthy, firm boundaries around dinner time and then spend the time you have with him actually enjoying yourselves. It'll be better for both of you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:51 AM on May 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

Serious follow-up question for those who have experience with swallowing issues: Son breastfed and bottle-fed great, and ate every kind of baby food I made for him until he turned into a stubborn toddler. He has normal speech and drinks appropriate amounts of fluids from an open cup without difficulty. Did the kids you know with swallowing problems do these things normally too?
posted by telepanda at 10:54 AM on May 12, 2014

I suppose it's possible he's picked up on your worry - like when you have to give a urine sample and suddenly you can't go to the bathroom anymore. But it's hard to "just relax" about something like that when you're truly concerned.

I can't really give a lot of advice on that angle, but I'm wondering about non-messy car foods. Maybe make-ahead homemade breakfast burritos? The storebought ones can be messy because of how big and overfilled they are, but if you made them the right size to fit in a kid's hand, with a texture that was more solid and less likely to crumble?

The aforementioned smoothies are also a good idea: frozen bananas and a spoonful of peanut butter would be tasty and protein-rich.

You mention he eats better with other kids around - do you have family or friends with a kid his age you could have over for dinner once a week? Maybe having that one fun meal a week would would get the pattern in his head of heals at home = good times instead of meals at home = stress.

Whatever the outcome, I think you can relax and give yourself a break; if he's made it this far without his doctor being worried, I think you've got a ways to go yet before you need to panic.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:35 AM on May 12, 2014

Your son sounds exactly like my son, so you're not alone. Mine has no allergies and is capable of telling me at other times that his tummy hurts. But by God does he dawdle at mealtimes. I wish I could try Satterizing him, but I think that my husband would undermine any attempt.

My son seems to eat independently only when it's something that he doesn't have to chew, like pureed vegetable soups. But for anything else, we either have to literally feed him, or constantly remind him [Toddler], take a bite. [Toddler], it's time to swallow now. Daycare says that he eats slowly there, too, although they don't have to actually feed him.

We do allow him to watch 1-3 episodes of Thomas the Train after dinner (episodes are about 5 minutes long), and threatening to take them away works pretty well, I have to admit. Before he discovered Thomas, Bugs Bunny worked as well.

Another thing that has helped is hiring a mother's helper. In our case it's one of the assistants at his daycare who brings him home twice a week and then gives him and his baby sister a bath while I make dinner. They get attention and a bath, and I have one less ball up in the air to juggle on those nights.

Finally, on some nights, I just have a glass of wine. And by a glass, I mean two.
posted by Liesl at 11:40 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like it's probably something else, but just a different viewpoint regarding stretching out mealtime: I've known kids who seemed to stretch things out not because they wanted mealtime to last longer but, counterproductively, because mealtime was so boring relative to everything else they could be doing. It's like a kind of procrastination. One way to test this, maybe, would be to have a dinner that's more interesting than usual -- maybe a friend comes over, maybe you have some kind of food that requires a fun activity in order to eat it (like fondue), maybe instead of sitting at the table you cook something he likes together and let him have bits and pieces from the frying pan/pot while you're cooking -- and see what effect that has on how he approaches the food.
posted by trig at 11:44 AM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

My son has problems with hard or crunchy foods and mixed foods (I.e. soups with chunks) as well as straw cups. Specifically, he has low muscle tone in his jaw. He also had some trouble breastfeeding, but no trouble with a bottle. A speech therapist diagnosed it in about 2 minutes. They're trained to handle swallowing and chewing disorders as well as speech problems.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:08 PM on May 12, 2014

Is he just really tired by the time you get home? Daycare can be an exhausting thing for a kid especially when it goes all the way into the early evening hours. What's his nap schedule like, if he's napping anymore? What is he like on weekends?
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:08 PM on May 12, 2014

I myself seem to be wired for very slow eating, so I'm sympathetic to him. On the other hand, 3.5 year olds sometime find inertia to be an effective form of protest, without the understanding that they're just sabotaging their own fun (our 3.5 year old has slow motion battles about pajamas lately). I find that the lollygagging is dramatically reduced when I am really explicit about how much time we have, and how he has some control over how we spend that time. For the dinner time thing, I'd start dinner by deciding on a leisurely-but-reasonable length of time and setting a gentle alarm for that (we usually use the quacking sound alarm on our phones; the humor seems to help.) Before dinner starts, we'd start the alarm and say that it's dinner time until the quack, and after that we will have time for [reasonable fun after-dinner activity].

Alarm goes off, kid says "I'm still hungry!" Well, okay, we won't have enough time for [fun after-dinner activity] but I'll set the alarm again and if you're done by then we'll still have time for [clearly reduced activity]. Alarm gets set for 5-10 minutes, we start cleaning the kitchen, where he's slightly ignored but still part of the family. Repeat until there's no fun time left. It seems to take 2-3 days for my son to start making the connection on his own. If he truly can't eat faster, you'll probably see the alarm become a source of distress, in which case, you have some data and don't need to use the alarm anymore.

Alternatively, if it's purely a matter of getting enough calories into him, throw a few calorie-dense snacks in his play area right after you get home. Even grownups get in odd self-sabotaging hunger spirals sometimes, and although it sounds counter-intuitive it's seemed to make dinners go more smoothly for us.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:09 PM on May 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Are you guys eating dinner with him or is he eating on his own while you sit with him? If you aren't all currently eating dinner together, that's the first thing I'd start with.
posted by incessant at 2:08 PM on May 12, 2014

If it is about getting more of your attention - perhaps you could eat with him and converse while you eat your own dinner, and then a couple of minutes after you've finished, get up and do something else (have a glass of wine in another room, or stack the dishwasher, or whatever.) Since the best behavioural interventions have you and your son on the same side, working against the problem behaviour, perhaps you can frame it as "It's been nice talking to you while you eat dinner, but now I'm going to go and do X while you finish up, so I don't distract you."

Disclaimer: not a parent, but I'm pretty sure this is what my Mum would have done.
posted by Cheese Monster at 2:36 PM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

My experience is that little people eat a lot more if you make them finger foods and add a tiny dish (NOT just on the side of the plate) of their very own dipping sauce of some kind.
posted by taff at 2:40 PM on May 12, 2014

My brother also breast fed, drank from a cup, spoke normally, etc. but was extremely adverse to certain foods. It turned out he couldn't move his tongue from side to side, and thus had difficulty moving small things around his mouth to his teeth to chew properly. (Open your mouth slightly and touch the corners with the tip of your tongue.)

A little speech therapy fixed it. So it's very possible there's some weird minor physical thing going on despite normality in other areas. He could very well be using the sillies to distract both him and you from the task at hand.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:53 PM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

My daughter is a slow eater and has been since she was a baby. She's seven now. She loves food and she hates for activities to end, ever. It's just who she is. We do have several snacktimes worked into the day, but we also have a time at which we just let her finish at the table by herself, however long that takes. Her school lunches are small, at her request, so that she also has time to play at recess, and then her snack when she gets home from school is pretty large and usually lingered over with a book for at least an hour. I don't know if any of that works for you, but just to let you know that it can be normal and not a sign of anything wrong.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:27 PM on May 12, 2014

My daughter is a notoriously slow eater unless she's really really hungry and it's something that appeals.

We've instituted rules where if we have all finished dinner, she's not allowed to keep chatting - she needs to focus and eat. She's still allowed to say when she's done, but getting distracted playing/talking is curtailed if she's turning dinner time into an hour-long affair. We tried the timer for a while but it did ramp up her anxiety and she hated it so we just talk to her about the time she's taking compared to us, and what the schedule is.

We have, on occasion, left the table because we are genuinely sick of sitting around while she takes one bite, chews it for two minutes, plays with her spoon, then tries to tell us the same dream she had three weeks ago.

I try not to tie it to food consumption though - this is about politeness and care for others. It's not fair to make everyone wait while you play instead of eating and it's not polite to leave the table while others are eating, so we need to work as a family.

The timing makes it hugely difficult though, since he obviously is tired in the morning. My daughter does really well with oatmeal as a breakfast, but have you tried something like a quiche in the car? Protein dense, easy enough to clean up. And if he just isn't hungry (when was his last meal) leave it and in the morning he's more likely to be hungry and eat to satisfy that.

That said, the 'skinny and doctors aren't concerned but I'm worried' is a bit of a red flag for me. Every family I've ever known with that kind of mentality has had some incredible food issues lurking around - big glasses of milk before/with/after dinner and wondering why the kids don't eat, bribing and rewarding with certain kinds of food, punishments and forcefeeding, absolutely insane amounts of food being delivered, provision of calorie-dense foods that tend to be packaged sweetness, giving up and feeding them snacks constantly, and things like that which all actively interfere with the kid eating 'normal' food, and eating as a communal experience, or developing their own sense of taste and hunger. And in all of those families it has been about the parental food issues too - from having a low-birth-weight newborn, or their own eating disorders, or it being a control issue for the parent and then becoming a control issue for the child and it's all downhill from there.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:39 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

My kids ate most willingly when they were stuck in car seats or strollers. Yeah, it could be messy, but it was totally worth it to not have frustrating mealtimes. I would try giving him breakfast and dinner in the car and see what happens. It might solve the problem.

If that doesn't help, I would move on after a reasonably -lengthed dinner and give him the option to keep eating or join you. Leave dinner out on the table so he can go back and help himself as desired.
posted by metasarah at 7:17 PM on May 12, 2014

I asked a friend with a son your son's age, and this may be something you've already tried, but she says she starts out with tiny portions on a tiny dish to make the whole thing seem more manageable and less stressful, and then offers seconds if he finishes and is still hungry.

It made me smile, because it reminded me so much of one of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories I read as a kid.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:11 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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