You are on your way to the table, holding a plate packed full of healthy, nutritious ingredients. With some hesitation you place this plate in front of your child and wait for their response. Their sulky face tells you all you needed to know; you’re not going to have a nice, quiet family dinner tonight...again.
This scenario is very familiar in most households, where the parents use all methods known to mankind in order to entice their kids to eat a healthy and balanced meal. Their kids, meanwhile, use every trick they know to avoid doing so.
“Fussy eating or picky eating are terms commonly used for children, aged 18 months to three years old who refuse to eat what their parents make for dinner, insisting on eating more “kid-friendly” or familiar options,” says Disordered Eating expert Rachel Ozick. “For most children, picky eating is a temporary childhood phase which is outgrown by the time they turn six.”
“The parents are often worried that their child is not getting the nutrients he needs to keep healthy. They may also be concerned that an impressionable sibling, who is currently eating nicely, may learn this behavior of food refusal from their sibling.”
“Most parents give in to what their child wants to eat, or try to compromise with them,” says Rachel. “They may try haggling (“If you eat three more bites you can have dessert”) or try persuading them that eating this nutritious food will help them become big, strong, healthy etc.” These techniques may be effective at times, but they bring a lot of stress to the dinner table. Renegotiating dinner terms every night may be quite tiring for all parties involved.
So what are the DON’T DO’s for dealing with fussy eaters? Rachel has a few good ideas for parents who wish to stop the constant arguing around the dinner table:
1) Don’t fight with your child, yell at them, or otherwise take a negative stance with your child. Making it into ‘an issue’ will only heat the spirits and drive you further from resolving your conflict.
2) Set a personal example: Don’t be a picky eater yourself and then expect your child not to be. Be fair to them and their intelligence. They know you are avoiding certain foods, and they want to be just like you.
3) Don’t label your child a fussy eater. Children take labels very seriously and if you refer to them often as fussy eaters they will assume the role. When commenting on their eating habits, make it more about what is happening during this meal (“You still have some new things to try on your plate”) rather than their behavior towards food in general (“You never finish the food on your plate”).
4) Don’t bribe or try to coerce them to eat in other ways. Not only does it turn your dinner table into a negotiating table, but it also allows those children who use food as a way to assert control to do so. Force feeding the kids or obsessing over this issue can really turn the children off from eating in a healthy way and lead to much more severe eating disorders in their future.
This doesn’t mean that parents should turn the other cheek and avoid conflict over this matter at all cost.
If it is determined that the problem is normative and doesn’t require professional help, here are some constructive recommendations Rachel has for you:
1) Lead by example: Your children look up to you. They follow your actions and reactions, even when you’re not aware of it, and then they try to imitate them. Sit down and eat dinner with your children. Enjoy your food. Your children will soon try doing the same thing.
2) Be patient and calm: Children are very good at spotting when you’re worried, upset or annoyed at them. If they don’t sense a tense atmosphere, they are more likely to let their natural curiosity take over and try new foods.
3) Let your child help prepare dinner with you. It’s messier and definitely more time consuming, but getting children to help with cooking dinner has a positive effect on them. Cooking with you gives them ownership of the meal they helped create, which will later on encourage them to taste that food.
Rachel Ozick has a BA in psychology and an MSW from Haifa University. She wrote her Masters thesis on disordered eating in religious adolescent girls. She can be reached at Rachel@ozick.com
This column is brought to you as general information only and should not be a replacement for professional advice.
Shimrit Nothman has a Masters degree in Conflict Resolution and believes that like charity, conflict resolution begins at home. She recently published her first children's book teaching conflict resolution in the family on Amazon. If you have any questions for Shimrit, please use the comments section below or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.