I'm really struggling with food issues with my 4-year-old. I don't want to make meal time a battle zone, but... Come dinner most nights, my 4-year-old, who is pretty picky, frequently won't eat. She usually doesn't like what is being served, even though I often make 2 versions of the same meal, one for adults and one that is more child-friendly (with similar ingredients, but not spiced, maybe fewer objectionable vegetables.) She's gotten into the habit of complaining of a tummy ache and I'm never sure when she's telling the truth or when she's just trying to get out of sitting at the table, being nagged to at least try something.
I have never forced her to eat anything, we simply want her to try each thing that we put on her plate. I also worry that she's already got a bit of a complex about her eating: she hears from our friends and neighbors about her comparatively picky eating, as well as from her big sister, who is a much better eater. I don't want her to go to bed hungry (though I realize it won't kill her), and I also don't want her deriving all of her calories from the breakfast cereals and other carbs that she favors. Plus, I feel uncomfortable with the wasted food. I guess I struggle with this because of my values and I don't want to create a food minefield with her either. Do you have any suggestions for books about getting your child to eat, without engaging in too much food subterfuge?
From: Rachel, Jamaica Plain
Another good one is, "Let Them Eat Cake, The Case against Over-controlling what Children Want to Eat," but it's older and can be hard to find. I just spent half an hour chatting with co-author Ronald Kleinman, a specialist in pediatric nutrition and head of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Just to make sure no one accuses me of under-answering a reader (OK, I also find this subject pretty interesting), here are some of his tips:
1. Don't make special food accommodations for her at meal time. Every time you do, you reinforce her poor eating habits. Make sure the meal includes at least one food that she usually likes. It takes a lot of repetition -- as much as 70 servings! -- for a child to stop thinking of a "new" food as new. It's also OK to have one alternative for her to eat (see #4 below).
2. Make dinner time a family event whenever possible. That makes it social and fun and it also provides positive role models for mealtime behavior, not just what to eat but also how to eat it.
3. Don't compare her eating to any one else, especially not to a sibling's. Children this age (well, all ages) love to exert their independence; as soon as you say, "Your sister likes this," you rob her of her independence, Kleinman says. "She's more likely to not want to eat as a way to exert her independence." At the same time, though, they want to be part of the group. The trick is for her to observe that everyone else eats this, that everyone enjoys dinner, and to want to be part of that.
4.Put the food on her plate, "Here's dinner!" If she refuses, you can have one alternative in the fridge: "Oh, there's a turkey sandwich, if you'd like that." When she says, "NO!" I want X, tell her, do not negotiate. "This is what we have tonight. What's on the table, or the sandwich." Don't insist that she eat ("It's your decision to eat or not.") but do insist that she stay at the table to keep company with the family.
5. When she's hungry a little later, offer her the same choices as at dinner: the plate of food she didn't eat or the sandwich. If she refuses? "You can look forward to breakfast."
If you are consistent about this and if you are able to set this limit matter-of-factly, it usually takes three days to a week for a child to eat what's offered. If she throws a tantrum ("But I'm hungry!"), deal with it matter-of-factly, the same way you would a tantrum over any other issue.
"If she's really hungry, she'll eat," Kleinman says. "Children have a pretty well developed sense of hungry and it works in their favor and in yours, meaning when they are really hungry, they will eat what’s available." The goal is for them to learn to respect their internal cues when it comes to food -- to eat when they are hungry and not eat when they are full.
Two other critical tips: (1) During the rest of the day, don't be rigid about when she eats. "Leave a bowl of healthy food on the table, available for whenever she's hungry," he says. (2) "Never use food as a reward, ever."
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