Pressuring a child to eat doesn't work

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 13, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

We have a 7-year-old that is having a hard time eating. I don't want her to go to bed hungry. We'll make a meal, and even though the rest of the kids eat everything on their plate, if there is something on her plate that she doesn't like, she will refuse to eat everything. We don't know what to do. How do you get her to understand that not eating the healthy food on your plate will make things worse in life?

From: Catherine, Topeka, Kansas

Hi Catherine,

Let me introduce you to Ellyn Satter, one of the nation's leaders on feeding children, and my go-to person for questions like yours.

Ellyn is perhaps most famous for developing the theory of division of responsibility in feeding. It goes like this:

It's the parents' responsibility to decide what, when and where children eat. That means you prepare the food, put it on the table, determine what time meals are, and where and how they are served. (That last bit -- how they are served -- is important. Making meal time pleasant is as much a part of the eating experience as the food itself.)

It's the child's responsibility to decide how much -- including, if at all -- to eat.

Surprised? Satter's first question to you would be: Why are you putting food on her plate? That's not part of your job description!

So let's back up a bit. Children this age have a strong need to feel independent. It's age appropriate, a healthy and critical part of their development. Every time you freak out about what she isn't eating, you are taking away her sense of control. What's more, you are potentially creating eating issues. Here's what Satter's research shows: Without our pressure, children will respond to their body's need for food.

Stop talking to her about what she eats, about what is healthy or not. That translates to pressure, which translates to loss of self-control. Stick to your job, which is to provide healthy, well-balanced food. Tell her, "Honey, my job is to provide good food for you and for the whole family. It's your job to decide which of that food you want to eat. From now on, I'm going to stick to my job so you can stick to yours." If you put good food in front of her without pressure, over time -- weeks or months, not days -- she will begin to eat a greater variety of food and get the nutrition she needs.

Weeks? Months? This doesn't turn around quickly. She needs to see you really mean it. Steel your nerve, trust that it will work, and stick with it. Don't just take my word for it. Check out Satter's website, it has easy-to-follow guides.

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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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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