Question: Today my 4 year old was given his dinner and refused to eat it. He ate this meal (chicken, broccoli, and bread) last week. We don’t know what to do when this happens so we usually end up sending him to his room, but this doesn’t feel right. We also don’t want to get in the habit of making him another meal. What should we do?
Answer: All parents have dealt with picky eating at some point and it is always frustrating and confusing. It is hard to know exactly why this is happening so it is easy to react from habit. This is a very common problem. Parents need to consider their goals for meal time and if their behavior is congruent to meeting those goals. There are a number of feelings and behaviors that both parents and kids come to the table with. Here are 5 to consider:
(Before these considerations parents should always make sure their is nothing medical going on with the child like being nauseous or sick.)
1. Does your child like the food and/or is the child bored of the food or is your child even hungry? This is often overlooked in the busyness of life but it is important to consider. Children are allowed to have preferences, likes and dislikes, just like grown ups. They just don’t always know how to express those and parents don’t always, quite frankly, care because they are not willing to make another meal. Have you ever been exposed to a food that you normally like that you were just not in the mood for? Kids have days like that too, so if this is an infrequent occurrence, do not make it into a big deal. Many well-intentioned parents also serve milk with meals which kills their children’s’ appetites. While the protein is good for them, it fills them up before they have time to eat their actual meal. Also, obviously but worth noting, keep their snacking in check. It is so difficult to not feed them a full meal (calories-wise) when they are begging for food but you want them showing up to mealtime hungry, so make sure any snacking is light enough to leave them ready for mealtime.
2. Is your child really asking for some control? If you have a concern that you child is being manipulative or needing to have some power at the dinner table, we would suggest you listen to that intuition and give them some control. This can be hard because traditionally parents have a strong desire to be in control and be respected at all times but this is counterintuitive to a happy mealtime. For this specific example, we would give the child choice of a dipping sauce for the chicken (give him 2-3 options), a choice of how he would like the chicken cut (cubes with a fork or long strips he can pick up with his fingers-if that is acceptable at your house), a choice over how he would like the broccoli cut and possibly sauced (cheesy might be irresistible for a 4 year old), and whether he would like to eat the bread or not since it is not nutritionally dense. Sometimes parents get go caught up in the dinner wars that they do not even realize that they are demanding their kids eat something (like bread) that isn’t feeding the child’s health but rather the parent’s ego and need for control.
3. Is your child resistant to a certain specific food? If the child is resistant to a particular food, say broccoli, we would suggest you consider doing something called “chaining”. In this process, the child is presented with new foods that may be similar in taste, temperature, or texture to foods the child already likes with the goal of them eating a food in the form which it is normally served at your home. So for example, if you want your child to eat raw broccoli, offer a broccoli muffin to start (assuming they like muffins), then have them eat a blended broccoli soup, then finely diced broccoli in eggs, and so on and so forth until you have them dipping their raw broccoli in dip. Choose delicious ways to chain and your kid will eventually be eating a new food. We also suggest allowing kids to start the chaining process by just having the food on their plate. Period. Just that is a step in the direction of them “warming up” to the idea of eating a new food.
4. Most kids will not wither away and die if they do not eat a meal. We would make sure to keep this in mind if you child says they are not hungry. Forcing kids to eat when they are not hungry sends a message that they shouldn’t listen to and respect their bodies, but rather the exterior demands of the person who is in control. Not what parents actually want for their children in the long run. Mealtime should be focused on promoting prosocial behavior and facilitating re-connection after a long day and if your child is resistant to eating tread lightly and do not make too big of a deal of it especially when it interrupts the familial connection you are establishing, which is more important that caloric intake at one meal (unless it becomes a pattern, in which case, you should look below the surface level of behavior and try to figure out what is really going on).
5. Should you make him a new meal? In general, no. You do not want to send the message that they can simply refuse to eat and get something “better”. But if you know the child is truly hungry and in need of calories in his body but still not willing or able to eat the food offered, it is not problematic to offer a simple alternative as long as it does not become a regular habit. Do not cook something that takes much effort, but reheating desired leftovers or fixing him a bowl of cereal is fine. Being too rigid at meal time is just going to exacerbate power struggles and that is the opposite of what family meal time is about.
6. Sending a child away from the dinner table for refusing to eat is not desirable because it does not get them to eat, does not teach them appropriate way of asking for different food or how to politely refuse food, and facilitates disconnection which are all the opposite goals of meal time. Time-outs, during mealtime, or other times are a waste of an opportunity to teach valuable skills like how to regulate their emotions or how to get their needs met. (Click here for link to Rethinking Discipline.)
We hope this helps facilitate a broader understanding of appropriate ways to deal with stressful mealtimes and wish you sweet love and good eats.
We highly recommend checking out this resource for more mealtime and eating ideas: http://itsnotaboutnutrition.com/