Help! How Do I Stop Letting My Toddler Dictate My Self Esteem Through Food?

updated Sep 30, 2020
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“What did you make for dinner?”

“Whole-wheat spaghetti with chicken meatballs and Parm.”

“Did he eat?”

“Yeah, three bites of frozen waffle and one strawberry. How about yours?”

“Gagged her way through one yogurt pouch then threw the homemade mac and cheese on the floor.”

The above is a typical text conversation between any number of friends and me. We all try our best to get our toddlers to eat. We try healthy food, treat food, spicy food, and bland food. We pore over cookbooks, blog posts, Instagram accounts, and food television shows. We try finger food and fork food and entirely blended dinners often to no avail.

My own little boy, who up until his second birthday was a relatively easygoing eater, has turned into an unpredictable tyrant at the dinner table. Although there are many schools of thought about picky eaters and how to get through the troublesome 2s, how all of this affects the caretaker isn’t often mentioned.

When my son doesn’t eat, it’s so hard for me not to feel personally offended — like he’s rejecting me instead of just my cooking. Sure, you can say “Don’t be so sensitive — he’s only 2,” and you would be right. But I feel like making him dinner is part of showing how I love my son, and when he doesn’t want to eat it (and by “it,” I mean any of the four or so options I have on the table at any mealtime,) I feel so defeated.

Alyssa Petersel, LMSW, therapist and entrepreneur, founder of My Wellbeing, says the relationship between food and self worth is, “extremely powerful,” and can manifest in a “challenging relationship with control” within oneself — thus, it’s not a far reach to assume what food a toddler eats is his/her way of exerting or experimenting with control. However, that can leave the person who made the food feeling a little demoralized. When the meals we make are rejected, it can leave the cook feeling out of control and rejected herself.

(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

Here’s What You Can Do to Feel a Little Bit Better

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sherry Chen Atanasio says, “Food and love starts early on when we’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding an infant while holding them close and taking them in and it’s a labor of love to cook for others.” When that labor is not appreciated or flat out dismissed, it hurts. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t, so that’s the first step.

Atanasio says it’s vital to acknowledge one’s own feelings. “It’s my job to acknowledge first what my emotion is and what it is urging me to do before I can attend to my child’s needs fairly.” Just because you’re the caretaker doesn’t mean you have no feelings. Let yourself feel the way you need to feel.

When your toddler throws the roasted broccoli he loved for lunch but now hates for dinner on the floor, Petersel recommends deep breathing. She says, “Take a deep inhale in for eight seconds, holding at the top for five seconds, and exhaling for 10 seconds, and then noting environmental features like any sounds, smells, or sites in your surroundings, is a very helpful grounding tool. Remind yourself that this stress is temporary, and you are strong enough to meet this challenge.” Even when that challenge is incredibly stubborn, 30 pounds, and just flung a spoonful of lovingly homemade beef stew all over the opposite wall.

Astancio adds that connecting with a friend can be enough to bring you back after a particularly depressing spaghetti and meatball experience. I know from personal experience that commiserating with other parents dealing with demoralizing mealtime experiences has been hugely helpful.

Petersel suggests, “Building a tool kit of mantras you can rehearse to yourself, particularly during moments of high stress when you might otherwise be doubting your worth, can be really transformational.” One that I love and lean on often is this too shall pass.

I’m going to try my best not to let my son’s refusal of everything from tacos to mashed potatoes to mac and cheese (seriously?) get me down. But if it does, I’ll remember I’m not alone, it’s normal to feel rejected, and it’s not really how my son feels about me.

Then, I’ll stress-eat the rest of his dinner myself. Whatever it takes, people.