I Have an Eating Disorder and I Don't Know How to Feed My Toddler

By Halina Newberry Grant 05/13/15

A toddler is a lot like someone with an eating disorder, changing their diet on a whim.

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Hi, I’m Halina. I have an eating disorder and I don’t know how to feed my toddler. 

Between the ages of one and three, toddlers go through a lot of phases with eating, sometimes daily. There aren’t adequate words to describe my dread when it is lunchtime. Yesterday,  I placed something she loved in front of her and I was met with an expression of boredom, amusement and resentment. I just simply don’t understand. She knows it and I know it. 

A toddler is a lot like someone with an eating disorder, changing their diet on a whim. While the eating disordered restrict their foods because of an emotional, psychological, spiritual and/or mental imbalance, toddlers are just “picky.”

My toddler wouldn’t look at meat. Then one day she was eating ham slices with turkey chasers. The next day was fruit-only. She’ll only eat something green on a Wednesday, and is only interested in cheese if the day has an “e.” Vegetables are only consumed if she’s at daycare, but she’ll drink them in a smoothie at home if there’s a banana. 

For a period of about a week, she loved homemade bagel pizzas. Then, one day she didn’t. For a few weeks, she would only eat eggs and blueberries, staining her nails and teeth purple, giving her the distinct appearance of a zombie. 

Then I couldn’t make pasta fast enough, sweating, wondering if she would want tomato sauce, or butter and cheese. Would her majesty notice olive oil if I’m out of butter? Would she be able to tell if I used the vegan butter spread? Some days the house is littered with the plastic wrappers from string cheese. The next day she’ll chew the cheese, then spit it out, leaving globs of waxy, white, masticated nastiness everywhere from her snack table to the kitchen floor. 

I like the idea of helping her to try new things, and hate giving her the same foods every day just because she’ll eat them. For a long time, I was against things like macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and peanut butter and jelly because they seemed like cop-out, hack, advertising and marketing-driven suggestions for the “picky toddler.” It turns out, these are the things she’s most interested in eating. 

All of this behavior is completely normal for toddlers. The problem is that it’s triggering for me. Most days, especially as a mother, self-care is a challenge—whether it’s turning off the TV, going grocery shopping, calling a fellow mom, or meditating—it doesn’t always come easy. Some days, the biggest challenge I have is making myself healthy, abstinent meals and snacks. 

The day I became a mother, my struggle for self-care became as basic as survival, especially while nursing. I had to consume foods in quantities and constancy that felt like my old binges. It was crazy-making. But then when my daughter started eating solid foods and eventually weaned, I was suddenly responsible for someone else’s food, when my own was always enough of a struggle. 

Early in my recovery, my husband and I were making dinner plans with friends. Somehow, it fell on me to pick the restaurant. My hands went clammy. My neck itched. My back was sweaty. My brain was whining this high-pitched sound like a dog whistle. 

In the bad old days of my eating disorder, there was nothing I loved more than calling myself a “foodie” and making reservations at some hot new joint, drooling over the menu in advance, dreaming about eating all the bread with all the butter, all the appetizers, the entrees and all the desserts and not breathing in between bites. My heart would race at the thought of getting down with all that food. I don’t remember a single conversation from nights out with friends, but I remember what everyone ordered. I remember all the food. 

But in recovery, the responsibility of feeding someone else or making food decisions for others makes my head spin. In order to get through the first three steps, I had to come to realize that I had no answers, and everything I thought I knew about eating and food needed to be replaced with an actual expert’s opinion, so I sought help from a naturopathic practitioner who helped me develop a food plan. And that food plan has been my sanity, my serenity and has helped me keep my abstinence for over five years. 

But toddlers have no food plan. There is no sanity to their whims, moods or impulses around food, and any structure I try to apply to my daughter’s eating either backfires or leaves me bewildered. 

Should I give her sugar? Will that turn her into an addict and give her diabetes? Will not giving her sugar make her insane about it, therefore driving her to binge on it like I did? If addiction is hereditary, is she doomed anyway? Will my food behaviors rub off on her?  Should I eat more vegetables in front of her? Should she have candy? Should I bake for her? Will she be able to regulate sugar in a way that I never could? What if she has a chubby phase; is it because of me? Is it genetic? Or will she have secret food behaviors? How will I talk to her about her body? What will I say if she tells me she’s fat or that she hates her body? Should I give her the foods she asks for, or is that too permissive? 

This way of thinking is very similar to how my brain functioned around my own food choices before my recovery. And because I’m a mom and responsible for her welfare, I want so desperately to do it right and perfectly from the beginning. 

When I was driving to the doctor’s office for an ultrasound to discover the sex of my baby, I called my sponsor and shared my deepest, darkest thought and fear that I hadn’t given voice to because I was ashamed of the thought and terrified that I was right: What if God doesn’t want me to have a daughter because I have an eating disorder and I will mess her up?

Of course this was absurd, and lacked logic, reason and rationale. But our thoughts and fears are like that, and are beyond our control. A lot like toddlers and children, in general. 

Ultimately, I have to apply a general rule to this insanity that I apply to everything I am powerless over: I work on myself. I go to meetings. I share with others. I reach out to my sponsor. I make sure the insanity that feels like tire wheels in sand is given traction through using the tools. It’s the only way I can move forward. 

And when it comes to helping to shape my daughter’s attitudes about food and eating, I guess I’ll default to the pediatrician’s advice and normies in my life, and ask what they do. And just maybe, I’ll find some serenity, and that will rub off on her, too.  

Halina Newberry Grant is a writer with a kid, a dog and a husband, in no particular order. She broke up with NYC after 15 years, and now lives in LA and tries not to complain. She last wrote about 10 misconceptions about eating disorders.

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