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The Informed Parent

Help! My Kid Won’t Eat

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Apr. 15, 2000

Who pushes a parent’s buttons at mealtime more than anyone else? A picky eater. Whether parents cook or stop after work to buy carry out food, they have invested valuable time in getting a meal on the table. When children don’t eat, turn up their noses, and make unkind comments about the meal, parents have a difficult time remaining calm and civil.

A major concern parents have about their finicky eater is whether the child is getting all the nutrients needed for optimal health. Most of us know about the food pyramid and minimal daily food requirements. Most of us also have the mistaken belief that these needs must be met each and every day.

To ease your concerns and create a mealtime environment conducive to harmony in the home, a few mealtime tips can be useful.

  1. Think long-range. Nutritional needs can be met by looking at the bigger picture. When offered an array of foods each day, children’s nutritional requirements will more than likely be met by the end of the week. Provide fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meat, and low or nonfat dairy products. Keep high fat and high sugar foods to a minimum. Many pediatricians recommend using a daily vitamin supplement. Check with your child’s pediatrician about the use of supplements and correct child dosage.
  2. Consider development. Most children go through stages where they do not like certain foods. Some children stop eating foods that they have previously enjoyed. Other children go on eating jags where they only want to eat one or two foods or they want to skip meals unless their favorite food is on the plate. These behaviors are normal and usually occur between the ages of two and five.

    Instead of setting up a power struggle over eating, at each meal provide at least one food your child enjoys. Offer a small-to-moderate portion of that food and, in a sincere and kind way, indicate that there will be no second helpings.

    In addition, serve a very small portion, perhaps one teaspoon full, of other foods the family is eating. Ask the child to take a tiny taste of these foods. This means just that. A taste. If the entire teaspoon full is not eaten, don’t make an issue of it. It’s okay if the child just puts her tongue on it. The purpose is to work toward expanding flavors and textures that the child will willingly eat.

  3. Don’t worry about starvation. If children skip a meal or eat only a small amount, they won’t starve. Sometimes when children refuse to eat, parents unwittingly play into the behavior. They provide extra snacks or offer a meal at a later time. When this is done, children know that they can eat when they want and what they want.

    You can best assist your finicky eater by offering a meal only once. If the child chooses not to eat, say with sadness, "I’m sorry that you are choosing not to eat with us. Our next meal will be breakfast (or whatever the next meal is)." Then stick to it. If the child whines or cries about being hungry, say, "We will be eating breakfast at 7:00. We’ll be glad to have you join us." If your child eats breakfast at school, indicate what time breakfast is served.

    When you give your message straightforwardly and sincerely, the whining will escalate. The child is testing you. Be calm and know that you are parenting the situation effectively. When you hold firm, the whining will stop. It will continue, however, if your words or body language indicate that you feel guilty about not providing food.

  4. Accept family input. Whoever does the cooking in your home undoubtedly makes most of the food choices. Since all of us have meals we particularly enjoy, each week ask family members to choose one food they would like during the week. If you do this, as long as the choices are reasonable, follow through in providing them. Children like to offer suggestions. When they feel they have some say in what they eat, they eat more heartily.
  5. Have meals at the same time each day. Busy families have a difficult time getting everyone together for meals. Nonetheless, when meals are served at essentially the same time each day, the body prepares itself to eat. Children begin to feel hungry just before mealtime. If the meal isn’t ready, they snack and aren’t hungry for dinner.

    If a meal is going to be late, let the family know. Offer a light snack earlier enough that it doesn’t interfere with mealtime hunger.

    In some families where members are home at different times, the standard becomes that whoever is home at mealtime eats together. This may not be an ideal solution, but it does lend to mealtime consistency.

  6. Make food child-friendly. Keep portions small. Large portions of food look unmanageable to children. Get a colorful plate for your child. Inexpensive plastic plates or plates with pictures can make a meal more fun. Be creative. Make an open face peanut butter sandwich with a happy face made from raisins or nuts. Cut apples across the middle instead of from stem down and see the star in the middle. Use colored macaroni or spaghetti. Serve food in an interesting pattern on the plate. These tricks take a little extra time. They also increase the chances of capturing the eating interest of a picky eater.
  7. Create a pleasant environment. People enjoy meals more when the environment is peaceful and attractive. Turn off the TV, pager, and cell phone. Turn on the answering machine and let it take dinnertime calls. Play soft music. Sit at the table. Serve beverages in cups or glasses instead of in bottles or cans. Practice manners. Talk about the day. Problem solve or have family meetings at times other than mealtime.

While children usually respond well to positive mealtime changes, sometimes they purposefully act out just to see what will happen. Stay calm and offer them the choice of participating appropriately or leaving the table. This is not punishment. It is being clear that mealtime in your family is a pleasant time.

Picky eaters cause parents concern. Too often their behavior results in power struggles over food. Too much emphasis on food during early childhood can result in eating disorders during adolescence and early adulthood. Taking a straightforward, low-key, and consistent approach to the problem generally brings positive results

Using the offered suggestions won’t make a finicky eater a gourmet. They will give you confidence in your ability to handle the situation, and sometimes this alone begins to break the picky eating cycle.

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