Transforming A Picky Eater

I’m starting to feel like a short order cook. We want our kids to eat what we make for dinner, but there’s so much whining and complaining and negotiating, that it’s just less hassle to make them something else that they’ll eat. What’s the best way to get our kids to eat more kinds of foods?


Noël Janis-Norton:

This is a big problem in many families today. When children eat a very limited number of foods, it is frustrating and worrying for parents, and it also creates family tension at mealtimes.

Mealtimes are such an important party of family life and can be a relaxed and pleasurable experience, a time when the whole family gets together and catches up with family news, and a time for appreciation, laughter and sharing. It should be a special time that parents and children look forward to and enjoy.

But why can it sometimes be so hard to achieve this? The main reason is that feeding our children is a highly emotional, highly charged issue because food is so symbolic of love and nurturing. This leads parents to worry about almost every aspect of mealtimes and food: they worry that their child isn’t eating enough, or that he might be hungry in the middle of the night if he doesn’t eat the dinner that’s put in front of him, and they worry that their child will be upset if he isn’t served food that he knows he likes.

So when kids put up a fuss about food, we generally end up resorting to a variety of tactics. We plead, bribe and negotiate: “Just one more pea…” or “How do you know you don’t like it—you haven’t even tried it!” or “If you eat five bites of chicken, you can have dessert...” or “Ok, you don’t have to eat all the vegetables, just eat half of them and you can be done”. And then, because getting them to try food can be such a hassle, we give in and become short order cooks, making them separate meals that we know they will eat.

All this pleading, reminding and bribing can make mealtimes pretty unpleasant for both kids and parents. Parents don’t want to be a nag and most don’t want to be short order cooks either, but they often don’t know a better way. And if you don’t know a better way, the temptation is to keep doing what you’re used to doing even though it’s not really working to improve habits.

What happens in most families is that the parents didn’t realize that their children were gradually drifting into bad habits until the habits were firmly entrenched. One example of this is giving children a separate menu of foods that are considered to be children’s foods. Sadly, these foods are usually less nutritious than the foods the parents eat. Many modern parents, even those who understand about nutrition and who make an effort to eat healthfully themselves have fallen into this trap. This is the first generation in recorded history where parents are eating better than their children. Until recently, parents went without, if necessary, to make sure their children had the best nutrition possible.

The good news is that it is never too late to get your children into better eating habits, eating a wider range of healthy foods and becoming more adventurous about trying new foods. We need to remember that eating is a natural function. Children will eat when they are hungry. Our job as parents is to provide the best quality food and a positive atmosphere. I have a number of effective strategies that will help parents achieve these goals:

1. Don’t try to persuade or urge your child to eat more or to try a new food or to have just “one more bite”. Urging and reminding cause stress that often makes children become less and less interested in eating.

2. Don’t offer a treat for eating a certain amount.

3. Don’t allow children to snack all day long. To make sure that everyone is hungry for healthy meals, don’t allow snacks two full hours before a meal.

4. Do not prepare different food for different family members. Food preferences are largely a result of familiarity and habit. Your child will learn to tolerate and eventually enjoy whatever food is frequently presented to him, as long as he is hungry and as long as the parents don’t urge, nag, lecture or spoon-feed him (once he’s capable of feeding himself).

5. Start your meals with a “First Plate” that consists of six tiny bites of healthy foods. When your child finishes his “First Plate”, he can have a second plate, which is whatever the family is eating for dinner or lunch. The “First Plate Plan” never fails to get kids to try, tolerate and like new foods. Following this plan will completely take the battle out of mealtimes.

My experience from years of teaching the “First Plate Plan” and other mealtime strategies is that parents think they make so much sense but they also have a number of questions about how to implement them successfully. If you would like hear real stories from families who solved the short-order cook syndrome , I recommend listening to our newly released CD, “Calmer, Easier, Happier Mealtimes, How to Improve Mealtime Behavior and Get Your Kids to Eat What You Want Them to Eat”.

You may not believe that these strategies could transform mealtimes in your home. The good news is that you don’t have to believe it in order for these strategies to be effective. You just need to start putting them into practice and give them a fair trial. When you use these strategies, mealtimes and family life in general will become calmer, easier and happier.

For weekly parenting tips, follow Noel on Twitter @calmerparenting

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