Do you have a picky eater? Are you worried your child will never get any nutrition and eat only white food for the rest of her life? Or is PB&J your son’s only staple?
Keeping our children healthy and well fed tops the list of any parent’s job description. Every trick in the book seems fair game when a worried parent attempts to get food down a resistant child’s throat. The problem is that with sleeping, toileting, and eating, children have ultimate control and they know it. It’s rare that a parent doesn’t have a struggle in one of these areas. We have to learn to respect that control yet encourage healthy habits.
Pay attention to your perception of the problem. When a child is not eating what we think they should, we tend to panic. But he’s got to eat vegetables or he won’t grow. She’s going to be hungry at bedtime. I’m not a short-order cook! He’s going to get sick or have no energy. It’s your thoughts about your child’s eating that provoke your panic and your reactions.
Your job is to trust. Trust that your child won’t starve herself. Trust that only a little of each food group is required and over a longer period of time than just one day. Trust that development plays a big part in both resistance and acceptance of certain foods. And trust that this stage will end.
Dinnertime is the hearth of the family. As often as possible, have a family meal. Coming together for dinner should be so much fun that there is never reason to force your child to come to the table. Happy family meals are a foundation that so many other experiences are based on. Children are far less likely to drift in the teen years when the dinner table is enjoyable.
Keep the following principles in mind and you will have children who can’t wait for dinnertime:
- Your job is deciding what food you buy and how you prepare it; your child’s job is to decide what goes down his throat. You can’t control that so don’t even try.
- Don’t worry about table manners. Manners are learned through modeling. Allow your young child to eat with fingers, whatever encourages her to put the food in her mouth.
- Never use discipline or consequences around eating. Never withhold dessert as a reward for eating. You are endowing dessert with more value.
- Baby foods can be a culprit. Mash up real food so your baby gets used to textured foods. Once solids are acceptable and your child shows interest in what you’re eating, let him pick from your plate.
- Never talk about food at the table unless it’s positive. Take your children food shopping, engage them in food preparation and use those times to teach about nutrition, ingredients and what builds healthy bodies. Do not tell them what they must eat at the table.
- Don’t present a plate of expectations to a picky eater. Put prepared food in bowls. Allow your children to serve themselves. More is likely to go on the plate, but don’t expect it all to go in his mouth.
- Prepare the meals you want to have. Always include something you know your picky eater will eat, even if it is just bread. Do not fix different meals for different people. You can focus on getting nutrition into smoothies, breakfast or lunch. Dinner should be fun. If your child says, “I hate that”, say simply, “That’s fine, you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to.”
- As soon as your children are old enough, offer toothpicks or chopsticks to eat with. Making the eating process a challenge will make it more fun.
- Once a month, have a meal with the rule: No hands allowed. Each person must keep their hands behind their back and eat however they can!
- Make a ritual of lighting a candle for each member of the family. As soon as your child is old enough to light a match with your supervision, have each person light a candle for another member of the family.
- Establish rituals like a thankful prayer or share the best and worst moments of the day.
- Tell jokes and play games like “I Spy” to keep interest and laughter at the table.
- Do not use this time for private conversation with your spouse. Conversation must be shared by all for the dinner table to be fun.
- Allow young active children to come and go. Do not expect quiet, mannered behavior. ADHD kids often do better on a large bouncy ball than a chair. There will be plenty of time ahead for manners and asking to be excused.
- If you are going to have dessert, make it healthy (yogurt with fruit, etc.) so you are not giving cake to a child who has eaten nothing else. Save sugary treats for special occasions, not for mealtime desserts. Reminder: Do not use dessert as a reward or punishment.
Once you have followed these principles, then your job is to trust. Allow your child to find his own way and over time you will see a healthy eater emerge. When there are no expectations, your child is more likely to try new things—especially if he wants to see how many peas he can get on a toothpick! But be patient. It may take awhile.
A good book: How to Get Your Kids to Eat, but Not Too Much, by Ellen Satter. If you have a failure-to-thrive child or one who literally eats nothing, follow your doctor’s recommendations.