Fussy Eaters

This easy-to-swallow mealtime strategy will help turn finicky kids around.

What Not to Do

Don't play games; just set clear mealtime rules.

Got a kid refuses to eat his dinner if the veggies touch the meat? Or one who has a tantrum if her sandwich isn't cut the right way?

Whether you've already got a picky eater, or don't want your child to become one, there is something you can do. But, first, you have to abandon these wornout mealtime strategies:

  • Don't talk about what a great experience it is to taste a particular food as you fork it into your mouth. It's true that children learn by example, but in this case, your child will simply learn not to believe anything you say.
  • Don't make up horror stories about malnutrition, rickets, and other dire consequences of not eating a certain food. Your child will not only continue refusing to eat the food, but may also start having nightmares, thus waking you up at night.
  • Don't force your child to sit at the table until his or her plate is clean. This only creates a power struggle you can't win. Getting into power struggles with kids indicates you really are not confident of your power. A child who senses this will never give up.
  • Don't moralize about children starving in other parts of the world. Preteen children simply cannot grasp the meaning of such statements. They're likely to conclude, as I did when I was a child, that the logical thing to do is box up uneaten food and send it to the disadvantaged kids.

The "First Plate" Solution

Instead, consider making this rule: The same foods will be on everyone's plate. No one in the family will eat from a special menu. Then tell your child she doesn't ever have to eat the thing she doesn't like -- maybe it's green foods, for example. As mentioned above, make no attempt to persuade, force, or frighten her with stories of children who, because they wouldn't eat green food, turned yellow and lost their hair.

Simply say this: "You must eat everything on the first plate we give you before we'll give you a second helping of anything."

From then on, put only small portions on her plate -- including something green (or whatever it is your child refuses to eat. This virtually guarantees that after your child finishes eating those foods she likes the best she'll still be a bit hungry. At that point, she has a choice: Does she want to go hungry, or does she want to eat her green food and receive a second helping of the foods she does like?

At first, your child may refuse to eat the hated foods, in any form. Let her leave the table whenever she chooses, but cover any food remaining on her plate with plastic wrap. (And you may want to refrigerate it as well.) If, later that evening, she says she's hungry and wants something to eat, point to her covered dinner plate and said, "We'll be glad to warm the rest of your dinner for you. When you've eaten the rest of what's on your plate, you may have a snack."

Sound harsh? The point here isn't to starve your child; feed her breakfast and lunch as usual the next day, and start over again with a fresh dinner menu. But you've established the limits of behavior you will and will not tolerate. It may take several weeks, but eventually that food will disappear, and so will at least some of your little diner's pickiness.


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