5 Tips for Helping a Toddler Who Requires a Highly Restricted Diet

This is my third go round with a 2-year-old. I have loved all of my children as they have gone through the mini-dictator phase that seems to come with the toddler territory. However, nothing is more frustrating to me than spending a long time cooking a meal only to have a toddler refuse to even touch it and ask for familiar chicken nuggets instead.

My perspective is changing as I work through food issues with my youngest. He has food protein induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES) and eosinophilic esophagitis (EOE). His symptoms were so severe that his doctor, my husband and I finally decided to do a total elimination diet for him. We started at elemental formula and now we trial one new food every eight to 12 weeks.

What has become acceptable in the toddler food realm has changed drastically around here. Before we’d have hard line rules: no chicken nuggets until you taste your casserole. Now the goal is positivity around food — especially new food.

Here are five things I’ve learned from dealing with a toddler on a highly restricted diet:

1. Don’t mess with the favorites.

One thing I’ve learned from having a child with a restricted diet is that it is OK to have a staple food every day, sometimes every meal. For us, that is rice pasta. He asks for it usually for two meals a day. At first I’d try to use his rice pasta as a vehicle for new foods, but then I realized how frustrating it was for him to encounter an alien invader in his noodles. It always ended in disaster. Noodles are a no touch now. They are always served the same way — just boiled with some salt on top. And that’s OK. When he is older he can decide if he wants to change things up.

2. Find your zen.

We are currently trialing zucchini with my toddler. He, like many kids his age, thinks vegetables are poison. The thing is he has failed every single vegetable he has tried so far — so in a sense he isn’t wrong. Vegetables have made him super sick in the past. We all feel that zucchini is going to be a passed food though, the trick is getting him to eat it. I spent a long time one afternoon making deep fried zucchini tots. These things belonged in a five-star restaurant. They were super delicious. He took one lick, declared them yucky, and fed them to the dog before I could stop him. The worst thing you can do in this situation is lose your cool. Losing your cool can mean years of continued food battles. Respect the fact that learning to like a new food when you are used to only eating a few is something that can take months, or even years and that’s OK. Vent those frustrations when your toddler has gone to bed for the night, but in the moment, try to stay calm.

3. Get creative in the kitchen.

I was diagnosed with celiac disease before having celiac disease was a thing. Like back when I had to special order certain gluten free flours I wanted to experiment with. Back when all gluten free bread tasted like cardboard. Prior to my celiac diagnosis, I literally knew how to cook rice a roni and hamburger helper and bake cookies. Because I didn’t want to eat cardboard bread for the rest of my life I had to learn to cook. When you are on a highly restricted diet, prepackaged foods are hard to find. My son has about five prepackaged foods and snacks he can tolerate. So I’ve had to get creative in the kitchen. Prepare yourself for lots of fails. I have lots and lots of fails. But just consider that Thomas Edison took years to perfect the lightbulb — it’s OK if it takes you a few weeks to perfect a safe waffle recipe. The end result is worth it. (If your kiddo eats it, if not refer back to number 2 and enjoy those waffles yourself).

4. Set your sights on safe food exploration, not necessarily safe food ingestion.

One thing one of our dietitians taught us is that food exploration is an important step in learning to accept new foods. So teaching your child to smell, touch, lick, and yes — even occasionally play with — a new food can eventually lead to great results. Talk about things other than taste when your child is exploring — it feels squishy, it smells like cookies, etc. Teaching them to appreciate things about food beyond just the taste and texture can help them to eventually accept it.

5. Make it a family affair.

Because my toddler only has three foods and is trialing number four, a safe family meal seemed out of the question. However I realized that always having to eat something different from the rest of us had to be frustrating for him. So now we occasionally have family meals where all of the components are safe for everyone in the family. The first time my toddler did this he started grabbing food from his sister’s plate once he realized that everything was safe. She ended up just trading with him, zucchini tots for zucchini tots. And funnily enough, he ate them this time. Apparently the ones his sister had were better than his own. If at all possible, find a way to have a family meal now and then. Being the odd one out all the time has to be frustrating for these little ones.

Being understanding and compassionate is difficult when you are putting in hours of work every day to help your child eat, but that understanding and compassion can eventually have big payoffs. Just remember, this is super hard for these little ones who have experienced so much trauma around food. Your patience, understanding, and compassion can play a big role in helping them overcome their challenges and learn to eat.

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