It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Picky eaters

743955_a_tad_angry_Today’s post is inspired by a commenter, who asked, “Do you ever get kids in who are such picky eaters that they won’t eat a lot of your cooking?” My answer to that is, “Yes, at first.”

Generally, the younger children will eat pretty near anything you plonk on that high chair tray, or poke into their mouths with a spoon. (Occasionally, yes, something comes blasting back out of that 7-month-old mouth, but not nearly as often/commonly as with older children.) Just let them get a little older, let them start feeling their “I’m autonomous!” two-year-old oats, and suddenly you have someone refusing this, refusing that, refusing anything that isn’t white, that isn’t sweet, that isn’t macaroni…


So yes, I see my fair share of tots who turn their sweet little button noses up at my delectable offerings. I work with toddlers, of course I see that!

But as I say, it doesn’t last. Why?

The key is knowing who controls what. Who’s in charge of your child’s intake?

Hint: not you.

YOU control what is served, when it’s served, and where. Your child chooses whether to eat, and how much they’ll eat (though you can certainly put a cap on it, you can’t really enforce a minimum).

YOU provide a range of healthy foods at set intervals.
YOUR CHILD decides whether to eat it.

So far, any of you with picky eaters are shouting at me. “I KNOW that! That’s exactly the problem, isn’t it??”

Sort of. But not really.

It’s only a problem if you try to take on the child’s role of intake, and let the child take on your role of “what”.

Are you following me?

You provide a healthy meal. Your little darling says, “No broccoli. I want macaroni.”

Well, no. YOU decide what is served, not them. And THEY decide whether they’ll ingest it.

“I know you like macaroni, but tonight we’re having broccoli.” YOU decide what. Your child decides whether. It may well be that they will decide not to eat the broccoli. That is their right.

Of course, that’s not how the child sees it. They don’t want to be hungry. They want what they want. And you’re saying “No macaroni, but you can eat BROCCOLI”????

So of course they throw a fit.

I know. It’s awful. And don’t you just want peaceful mealtimes? Don’t worry. You’ll get them… only not just yet. Fits are almost inevitable when you’re teaching new patterns, so let’s take a look at your reacton to a fit. If you change his meal because he’s throwing a fit, you are being bullied. You are being bullied into doing something less-than-healthy for your child. Your child may not intend to bully you — they just know they don’t want that damned broccoli — but in the end, you are teaching your child you can be bullied.

And once you start that, it never ends. So, if you cave in to a fit, are you buying peace, or guaranteeing ongoing strife?

“I know you prefer macaroni. But tonight we’re having broccoli.”

[The fit commences.]

“Oh, dear. I guess you’re not hungry. Away you go and play, then.” (Or, if the fit is too loud and ugly to ignore, you calmly — think robot — take them and deposit them in their room.) “When you’re ready to be calm and quiet, you can come back.”

But why would I go through that, you ask? So what if she wants nothing but macaroni and bananas? It’s better than nothing, right?


You have ONE thing going for you — in a big way — in this food struggle. (You have more than one, really: you have the fact that you are the parent, you are the chef, you buy the food. But for many parents, that isn’t enough.)

The ONE thing you have that’s really, REALLY on your side and will inevitably tip the scales in the favour of healthy eating?

Your child’s hunger.

“AHHH! She’s telling me to starve my child!!!” There you go again, taking on your child’s role in the feeding dynamic. YOU are not “starving” your child; YOUR CHILD is refusing perfectly good food. There is a world of difference here.

I find myself hauling out the same things that were said to me, many years ago… because certain parenting techniques just never, ever wear out.

“But mummy, I’m HUNGRY!”
“No, you’re not. If you were hungry enough, you’d eat your sausage.”

And of course, she was right. And when I GOT hungry enough, I did eat that sausage… because I knew there was nothing else forthcoming. It’s entirely possible (because I was a stubborn little thing) that there were some nights I went to bed without supper.

My mother knew that choice was my right and was willing to let me make it. I’m better for it, because now I enjoy a wide range of foods. There are fewer than half-a-dozen things I truly don’t like. (Liver and lima beans top that list.)

“Starving”? North American children have no idea, none at all, what it’s like to “starve”. This is a good thing! But let us be clear here: Starving children will eat dirt to ward off the hunger pangs. They would never in a million years turn their noses up at broccoli.

So no, you’re not starving your child. And be assured that your child won’t “starve” themselves, either. (Yes, there is a rare medical condition whereby a child actually will do that… but it’s rare.)

If you’re hungry, it’s the most natural thing in the world to expect you to eat. (And it IS!)

This is a process. It may take a few days (for stubborn children, even a couple of weeks) before they realize you are dead serious. What they see is what they get. No options. And you can’t waffle on this, not even once. As soon as you do, all that suffering has been in vain.

Don’t cave!

For particularly recalcitrant kids (I recall doing this with one of my own, I forget which one), I’ve been known to pull out the rejected lunch at snack time. And then again at dinner. (Told you I was stubborn. Push me too hard and I get downright ornery.)

But stubborn (and maybe even a bit of ornery) is necessary when we’re talking creating healthy habits for a lifetime.

Really what it is, is consistent. Stick to your guns, and your child will eventually learn to eat. You don’t coax, you don’t argue, you don’t indulge in long drawn-out negotiations at the table. You can go easy, and only put one or two bites of a new/problematic food on their plates. And then they can eat it.

Or not.

If you can face the “or not”, you will produce healthy, varied eaters.

November 10, 2009 Posted by | food, power struggle | , , , | 30 Comments