Picky eaters: Q&A with Ellyn Satter

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 6, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,  My son is 3 and half, and it has always been a struggle to get him to eat. When he was an infant, the care giver started to feed him by putting on Barney and feeding him while he was distracted. Even while watching Barney he takes one hour to finish his food. He still eats in the same manner - for one hour with threats of switching off the program. At this age I feel that he has to eat by himself. I have tried everything, from shouting to threats of standing in the naughty corner, but he still doesn't eat.

Is there anyway I can make him eat on his own?

From: PC

 

Dear PC,

(1) Turn off the TV.

(2) Put a meal in front of him that includes a few foods that you know he will like, including bread.

(3) Eat together as a family. Make it a pleasant.

(4) Don't pester him, don't talk about what he is or isn't eating, don't label him a picky eater

(5) Set a reasonable amount of time for the meal. When it's over, excuse him from the table no matter what he has -- or hasn't -- eaten. Do this without commentary!

(6) If he asks for food anytime between then and snack, remind him, "We just had our meal. Snack time is in a little while. You'll be able to  have something to eat then."

Do this ONLY if you are ready to really do it. Idle threats or half-gestures will only make matters worse.

Ellyn Satter, with whom I frequently consult on questions like this, quickly keyed into one word in your email: "There is no way you can 'make' a child eat." In a phone conversation yesterday, she said, "What's happened in this situation is that feeding & eating have become one and the same in the parents' minds."

Satter pioneered the concept of division of responsibility in the feeding relationship:  The What, When, and Where of feeding is a parent's job;  How Much and Whether to eat is the child's job.

Here's more of our conversation:

BFM: Do parents create picky eaters?

ES: Yes and no. Some children have tendencies to be picky.

Q. Like how...?.

A. Some children are ill. Some have an over-developed gag reflex. Some are sensitive to taste and texture. Some are slow to warm up to new food, just like they can be slow to warm up to people.

Q. You once told me it can take 70 times of seeing a "new" food before it's no longer new.

A. I said that? That's a lot! Let's say, 20 plus. One mother counted. It took 35 times.

Q. But parents can make a child picky, even without those tendencies...?

A. The pickiness grows out of the parent-child dynamic. These tendencies that I mentioned, they scare a parent into pushing the food. The child becomes even more cautious and eats less well, not better, and the parents get even more anxious. Children who have these tendencies take longer [to like food], it takes more exposure [to food]. But even when there isn't a tendency, all it takes in some families is for a child to have an off day or two of not eating well, and the parents worry, and then the cycle begins because they start to push food....

Q. So the best way to end the cycle....?

A. Put food on the table, make the meal pleasant. In between meals, don't let him graze, except for water. It will take about three weeks of a child eating really poorly. Then he will come to trust that you will not force him to eat and his natural hunger and interest in food will kick in.

Q. Anything else?

A. I tell parents to adjust their expectation of what is "normal." Don't worry about what your child eats in a 24-hour period. Look at a week's worth of eating.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.



 

 

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3 comments so far...
  1. I would add a few more things...

    - do not make special meals for your child. If you're serving chicken with sauce, you can give him plain chicken with the sauce on the side, but don't make him chicken nuggets.

    - make it fun! cut up his food and give him a condiment to dip it in, give the food funny names ...

    - remember that a child that age has a stomach about the size of your fist. He doesn't need a lot of food.

    - get him involved in selecting foods for the family. Grow a garden or a container of tomatoes if you can, go to a farmer's market (they will be everywhere in a few short weeks) and let him choose a new fruit or veggie to try, take him to the store and have him help you pick the things on your list.

    Posted by akmom May 6, 10 07:04 AM
  1. why do people stress about eating. a child will not let himself starve to death. make dinner as appealling as possible and its his choice to eat it. punishing, bribing etc etc just turns it into a power struggle.

    Posted by blue May 6, 10 10:38 PM
  1. Ellyn, I am one of your students of Oct 2009 and my daughter Leah as well. I am opening up parent guidance service with Monica Smith, RD, MSU, and one of your students as well. Please send me your newsletter. Thank you. Say Hi to Clio

    Posted by Mary DeWys August 14, 10 12:44 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. I would add a few more things...

    - do not make special meals for your child. If you're serving chicken with sauce, you can give him plain chicken with the sauce on the side, but don't make him chicken nuggets.

    - make it fun! cut up his food and give him a condiment to dip it in, give the food funny names ...

    - remember that a child that age has a stomach about the size of your fist. He doesn't need a lot of food.

    - get him involved in selecting foods for the family. Grow a garden or a container of tomatoes if you can, go to a farmer's market (they will be everywhere in a few short weeks) and let him choose a new fruit or veggie to try, take him to the store and have him help you pick the things on your list.

    Posted by akmom May 6, 10 07:04 AM
  1. why do people stress about eating. a child will not let himself starve to death. make dinner as appealling as possible and its his choice to eat it. punishing, bribing etc etc just turns it into a power struggle.

    Posted by blue May 6, 10 10:38 PM
  1. Ellyn, I am one of your students of Oct 2009 and my daughter Leah as well. I am opening up parent guidance service with Monica Smith, RD, MSU, and one of your students as well. Please send me your newsletter. Thank you. Say Hi to Clio

    Posted by Mary DeWys August 14, 10 12:44 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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