What can I do about my picky eater?

Picky eaters are children who are growing and developing well, but who refuse most foods and refuse to try new foods.Does the following example sound like your house?

Devon is a 4 year old who refuses most fruits and vegetables even though his mother has tried offering a variety. After picking at his meat and bread, Devon refuses to eat the corn and peas on his plate. His mother, concerned about his nutrition, urges and cajoles him to try the vegetables. The rest of the family finish eating long before Devon, who sits stubbornly in his chair. Devon and his mother are both in tears at the end of dinner, which spoils the rest of the evening for everyone.

This rule should be your guideline in dealing with your picky eater:

Rule: The child chooses how much to eat, and the parent chooses what the child may eat.

Here are some examples where not following this rule causes trouble: Devon's mother tries picking up his spoon and tries feeding him like a baby, but Devon keeps his lips zipped tight. Devon's father, angry at the way Devon is behaving, pinches Devon's nose and pries his jaws open. Devon's mom scoops the food into his mouth.

What's wrong here?

Devon isn't determining how much he's going to eat (the first half of the rule.) In fact, his parents are force-feeding him, even though Devon is probably not even hungry. Never trick children into eating, spoon-feed children who are old enough to feed themselves, or force-feed them. Not only are you giving them attention for bad behavior, you're making mealtime into battletime.

Devon's mother gives up and excuses Devon from the table. She cleans up the kitchen and puts the food away. An hour later, Devon starts crying and says he is hungry. His mother, not wanting him to have to wait till breakfast, gives him some cookies and a glass of milk.

This violates the second part of the rule - that the parent should choose what to feed the child. On the surface, it looks like Devon's mother chose to give cookies and milk to Devon. Unfortunately, the message this sends to Devon is: "If I can hold out for an hour after dinner, I won't have to eat vegetables, and I can have cookies instead!" Devon's mother chose a well-balanced meal for Devon, but within an hour, Devon manipulated her into unmaking her choice.

Devon's mother puts the food away after informing Devon, "That's it until breakfast." An hour later, Devon's grandmother, who thinks Devon's mother is too strict with him, secretly gives Devon some crackers, to "tide him over" until breakfast.

This also violates the second half of the rule, and is a classic problem in disciplining children - a parent's choices and authority are undermined by another parent, a grandparent, a babysitter, a neighbor, etc. This tells Devon that if he doesn't like what his mother says, he can always go to Grandma. This usually causes arguments between Mom and Grandma without anyone realizing that the child is manipulating them both. Decide early in your child's life who has the authority to make or change rules for your child. Both parents must agree to support each other's decisions with regard to the child.

Devon won't eat corn and peas, but he will eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches and canned peaches. Since some fruit is better than none, Devon's mother prepares special lunches and dinners for Devon that are always different from what the rest of the family is eating.

This, again, violates the second half of the rule: the child is allowed to choose what he wants to eat, rather than being expected to eat what the rest of the family is eating. This is called "short order cook syndrome." Often the household's food preparer ends up making separate meals for dad (who likes his steak and potatoes), mom (who's on a diet), and each child (who will only eat a limited number of items.) While preparing a special meal for a child is fine if the child is sick, has a food allergy, or for a special occasion like a birthday, it should be the exception rather than the rule.

Instead, here's a better way:

Devon's mother removes his plate with only the comment, "The kitchen is closed. This is all you can have until breakfast." Devon comes back in an hour and complains he's hungry. Devon's mother gets his plate out of the refrigerator, puts it on the table with a spoon, and leaves the kitchen. Devon picks at his food, then wanders into the living room where the rest of the family is sitting. He asks his grandmother for a sandwich. Grandma replies (without getting up), ''The kitchen is closed." Devon goes back to the kitchen and picks at his food for another ten minutes, pouting. His mother comes in after he leaves and puts his plate back in the refrigerator. At breakfast the next morning, he is served cereal and juice like the rest of the family. No mention is made of the events of last night.

So, to sum up:

  • Avoid short-order cook syndrome. Your house is not a restaurant!
  • Don't beg and plead with your young child to eat a food. This demeans your authority as a parent - parents do not beg favors from their preschoolers!
  • Set rules and stick to them consistently. For example, if you say "three bites of everything to get dessert," don't arbitrarily change the rule to "clean your entire plate to get dessert."
  • Young children do not starve themselves. Missing a meal occasionally does not harm children. Only small infants need to be fed on demand!
  • Don't force feed a child.
  • Don't "baby feed" a child (picking up the spoon and feeding the child yourself.)
  • Don't let your child manipulate you into letting him or her pick what he or she wants to eat.

If you are concerned about your child's weight, growth, or nutrition, ask us.Good luck -- and stick to your guns!