Drop in to any parenting website, chat room, or pick up a magazine aimed toward parents of young children, and I can almost guarantee that you will find at least one discussion – and probably many more than one – on the fussy eater. It’s almost an epidemic! Many young children between the ages of eighteen months and forty-eight months seem to survive on love alone. They don’t want to drink their milk, eat their cereal, finish their sandwich, taste their vegetables, or even look at their dinner. But when you’re in the checkout aisle at the grocery store they’re always hungry for that candy bar or sugary soda. To exacerbate the problem, the young child is often loud and vocal about their changing food preferences. Instead of a polite “no thank you” to the spaghetti or green beans you are about to serve, they may shout a resounding, “Yuck!”
The Finicky Eater
The worst meal of the day for families with young children is definitely dinner time. Moms and dads are tired. One or both of them just got home from work. They’re eager to get dinner over with, so they can get their screaming tots into the bath, then into bed, before they can finally take a break. And the worst, absolutely the worst thing either of them can do is engage in a power struggle with that child over what food passes between his lips. Once a parent demands that they clean up their plate, it is no longer an issue of health and nutrition. This is a battle of wills, and one the parent cannot win. If the child does eat, he’s not forming healthy, happy eating habits. If he doesn’t eat, the parent will either cave in, or be forced to discipline the child, which can lead to life-long eating disorders.
So end the meal time battle right now, and try a few of the following alternatives:
- Eliminate all refined sugar from your child’s diet. Sugar is not nutritious, but when your child eats even just a little sugar, it changes his palate, and he’ll crave sugary foods even more. He won’t want to eat anything that isn’t sweet. It takes a few weeks to break the sugar addiction, but once you do, you’ll really appreciate how much better all your other food tastes. Natural sugar found in fruit is fine – in moderation, of course.
- Establish specific meal times, and stick to the plan. Write down what time you eat breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. Serve them at the same time every day. Keep them about three hours apart, with NO SNACKING in between. Your child is more likely to eat if he comes to the dinner table hungry.
- Provide plenty of activity during your child’s day. See that he has time to run and play outside, dance, jump, ride a tricycle, throw a ball, climb, hop, crawl, and turn somersaults. Don’t raise a couch potato. If your child is burning calories, he’ll need to refuel at the dinner table.
- Serve more raw foods, more individual foods, and fewer casseroles. It is not uncommon for a little child to like to eat carrots, corn, green beans, and peas, but refuse to eat “veg-all” with all of those vegetables mixed in together. Remember when your young child was still an infant, you might have fed him a jar of peas and a jar of apricots for a meal, but you probably didn’t feed him a jar of lasagna.
- Set the table. Eat at the table. Don’t serve dinner in the car – ever – if possible! Use a tablecloth sometimes. Set out special plates. Use cloth napkins. Light the candles. Make dinner fun! Play Italian music when you serve pizza, or Mexican music when you have tacos.
- Go on a picnic. No matter what the season, you can take a picnic outdoors. My dad used to love winter picnics. I can remember him bringing a broom to wipe the snow off the picnic tables in the park. We’d have thermoses of hot soup and cocoa. You could build a fire in the fire pit or charcoal grill and toast marshmallows.
- Who said picnics have to be outside? Once in a while, take a picnic to the living room. Spread a vinyl tablecloth over the carpet, and serve your favorite picnic fare on the floor. Maybe the teddy bears could join you for this picnic?
- be realistic about what you expect your young child to eat. His stomach is only about the size of his fist. Make his servings MUCH smaller! Half of one slice of bread is a serving for the 2 – 5 year old child, yet if you make him a sandwich, he’s getting four times that amount! For many fruits, a serving size is only 2 Tablespoons – not the whole banana. It’s better to get him to eat two grapes, then ask for more,than to overwhelm him with a whole bunch.
- Plan mealtime conversations. Instead of talking about what he is or isn’t eating, or yelling at him to clean up his plate, engage him in conversation about his day. Ask what he did, what he enjoyed, what he learned. There are whole websites devoted to encouraging pleasant mealtime conversations for the family. (See a few listed at the end of this article).
- If your child still does not eat his supper, he can still sit at the table with the family until they are all finished. He is part of the family, and mealtimes is an important time to build relationships. After dinner, he will NOT be allowed any snacks. It won’t hurt him to go to bed hungry once in a while. In fact, no one should be eating after dinner. The after-dinner snack is a terrible habit to get in to, and if you or your child are not waking up hungry for breakfast it could be because too much food was consumed too close to bedtime the night before. Breakfast is supposed to be ‘breaking the fast” – not just throwing another log on the hot coals of a slow-burning metabolism.
What a big, beautiful smile! Wouldn’t you love to see this at your dinner table every night? Why can’t mealtimes be the highlight of the day? With a little planning, patience, and ingenuity, it can be!
Check out the book, Table Talk, Creating Meaningful Conversation with Family and Friends, now available in my store.
Table Talk websites:
Table Topics for Kids
Table Talk, How Mealtime Chatter Strengthens the Family
Feeding the Finicky Eater