Gosh you must be run ragged with all that spoon feeding and no time for anything else!
Feeding a little baby is obviously an absolute necessity, without a carer feeding a baby they fail to thrive and starve, so feeding is an act of care and love and there are strong bonds of love which form at baby feeding times. It is not surprising that some parents enjoy this time together so much that they continue beyond the time it is necessary or practical.
The way I see it, you initially chose to continue that special bonding time with your LO1 long beyond the time it was needed, it was your choice, and then LO2 came along and they both had that special bonding time of you feeding them, again for the baby it was necessity but for the older LO it was an act of love; Mummy feeds baby, Mummy feeds me, Mummy loves us both. And now you've decided to stop feeding LO1. You and I and everyone here know this doesn't mean you love her any less but look at this from HER perspective. You continue feeding LO2 but not LO1. You go into the other room with LO2 to play games but leave LO1 at the table alone. I suspect from LO1s point of view there appears to be a withdrawal of love and care by this act of service being removed. We know you love her but perhaps she feels the loss of you. IMO this is not about *food* this is about Mummy's love.
With the rewards offered for self feeding you are putting the responsibility of changing habits onto HER when this tricky situation was caused by YOU. This is not a dig at you for continuing to hand feed LO1, nor is it a dig for giving it a go with rewards, I'm just saying as my opinion you caused it now you need to fix it rather than put the responsibility onto her. Like I said, I don't consider this to be about food, she *can* self feed with a spoon and fork because you say she does so for lunch, so here's what I think is happening...
When you offer the reward in her mind she can choose between Mummy's love or a reward. Whilst chocolate or a toy or watching TV or whatever the reward is might be very appealing a few times across the month ultimately she is never going to choose sweets over Mummy's love - who would?
She said I'll try again tomorrow.
To me this kind of sounds like "I'll try to live without your love tomorrow" - it's impossible for her. she has the ability and skill to use a fork and spoon to self feed, we know that, but she does not have the ability to give up Mummy. She loves you and she loves that time you give her.
So here's what I'd suggest:
- stop feeding your 18 month old, this would instantly remove the possible jealousy of one child being fed and the other not. LO2 does not need to be spoon fed. 6 month olds can self feed, even LOs who are initially spoon fed are generally encouraged or expected to self feed at 12 months. You do not need to continue, an 18 month old is perfectly capable of using a spoon/fork (pre-load it if necessary) or using fingers to self feed. Your 18 month old could well be more up for this than your 3.5yo and could well turn out to be your best role model. When LO1 sees LO2 self feed and sees your amazement there is a chance she will want to get in on some of that praise - I wouldn't over egg the praise but it's nice to show you are impressed. "You do it" is a helpful phrase with toddlers.
- build in pre-meal Mummy time. Do a special activity, say reading a book together all cuddled up on the sofa together before you eat. Fill the Mummy love cup before meal time. Build in an after-meal activity (leave the dishes they can wait) which you do all together directly after eating. It really doesn't matter what it is, a 10 min kids programme on TV cuddled up together again would do but it needs to be all three and with cuddles and snuggles and total attention on the kids, they need and want your attention. Tell them what's going to happen after the meal so you all look forward to it.
- Expand on who can feed who. So have a meal where you ask your 18 month old to feed you and your 3.5yo to feed your 18 month old and then you give one mouth full to each child then the 3.5yo feeds you...all giving each other the attention and love of acts of service. This gets them picking up food for one another, then pick up some food and say "who will I feed this time? Oh, I'm feeding me!" and pop it in your mouth and then it is LO1 or LO2's turn, ask them who will they feed? I'm not suggesting this for every meal, it would be possibly more time consuming but I think you get the idea and really at this point it is about making meal times enjoyable again as you are now dreading them.
- have some one-off alternate meals, picnic on the living room floor for instance to break away from the usual habit. My DS always loved pulling a blanket out to spread across the floor for indoor picnics. Another example is pudding before mains, it's unlikely they will refuse to self feed when there's a slab of cake in front of them and it just mixes things up a bit. Another is to have some blind taste testing (only use foods they like) take turns to use a blind fold and give them a small piece of something in their hand and they are to guess what it is. Have a dolly tea party and all feed the dolls and yourselves.
- Accept that they will not starve. They are big enough now and they have enough self preservation to eat eventually. If one or two meals are not very big don't stress over it. 25th centile is no problem at all, it is an absolutely normal size (same as my DS)
- Make sure you fully engage with meal times, they need your attention, conversation and perhaps some touching through the meal, perhaps some pre-loading of the fork without them asking or moaning for it but then leave the fork on their plate for self feeding.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful for you.
Don't beat yourself up about this, I am confident you can change it without tears and get back to that lovely enjoyment of meal times together. I am a big fan of family meals together and clearly you and your LOs once enjoyed these times too, you can get back there! x