“Sit there until you
finish your peas.”
“If you don’t have room for salad, you don’t have room for dessert.”
“Just take three more bites.”
“If you don’t eat what’s on your plate, you won’t get anything for
the rest of the night.”
Parents say and do all sorts of things to get their children to eat.
Some threaten, others bargain, and some make their children sit at
the dinner table for hours after the rest of the family has left.
As most parents find out, coercion doesn’t “cure” a picky eater.
Parents need only think back to their own childhoods. They were
probably forced to try a food that was unappetizing or to finish
eating when they were already full. Some people never get over such
experiences; one father who was forced to have spinach as a child
still won’t eat it.
Picky eating is usually the result of stress and arguments about the
quantity and variety of food. Parents who pressure their child at
meal time may make her lose her appetite. A child who has no control
over what, when, and how much she eats feels powerless and
frustrated— as an adult in the same situation would. She may angrily
demand certain foods or react passively by picking at what’s on her
plate and taking tiny bites. In either case, she’s not consciously
trying to manipulate her parents, but rather acting out her sense of
Picky eaters may avoid tastes and textures they find unappealing. In
some stressful situations, a child may be psychologically unable to
eat certain foods. One girl found cooked vegetables so repulsive she
cried at the thought of eating them.
Picky eaters also may refuse to try new foods—perhaps they’ve been
pressured too often to taste something different. A child who has
faced frequent arguments about trying or finishing new foods finds
it safer to stick to the few dishes she likes.
Parents may inadvertently create a picky eater if they pressure
their child to eat large quantities of food or finish what’s on her
plate. A child with a small appetite can’t help but feel upset if
she’s urged to eat more, and more often, than she wants.
‘When parents try to coerce her into eating, the results usually are
negative. First, meals become unpleasant times of arguments and
power struggles. Also, children resort to sneakiness, either taking
the foods they want (usually sweets) or secretly disposing of foods
they won’t eat. Some children hide their unwanted food into their
napkin, and then throw the napkin away. One child managed to slide
her peas behind the refrigerator. Another put bits of food on her
father’s plate when he wasn’t looking. And there are always children
who feed their food to the family pet.
If your child is a picky eater, the first approach you should try is
removing mealtime pressure. Although your goal is to keep your child
well-nourished and healthy, you shouldn’t force her to eat. Children
who willingly eat well-balanced meals and try a variety of foods
usually have been fed with a low-stress approach. From an early age,
they’ve been allowed to pick and choose, without pressure, from an
assortment of foods that are acceptable to their parents. If you
create such an atmosphere in your home now, your child’s eating
habits likely will improve.
First, let her determine how much she wants to eat. Since her eating
patterns are well-established, you have a realistic idea of her
appetite. Don’t urge her to eat more than she usually does. She’ll
eat enough to keep from being hungry. If you believe she’s
underweight or exceptionally small, don’t force her to eat extra
food. Instead, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, who may
offer suggestions or otherwise reassure you.
When possible, prepare foods that you know your child will eat, and
don’t pressure her to try new foods. Once she feels she can accept
or reject something new without angering you, she may be more
willing to taste what you offer. You also can try giving her
choices—if she doesn’t eat carrots, offer her another vegetable or a
different healthy food.
Be careful not to humiliate or tease her about being a picky eater.
If you let her know you accept her eating habits, she’ll feel more
relaxed at mealtimes. You may be embarrassed if she acts picky when
eating at someone else’s house, but you can help ease the pressure
there, too. Usually, others will pay no attention to what she eats.
If your host asks ahead of time, let her know that your child has a
small appetite or eats only certain foods. Most people are
understanding of children’s needs.
If you eliminate mealtime stress and your child is still excessively
picky, look further for reasons. She may feel overly controlled in
other areas of her life and may try to exert some power by rejecting
food. It’s also possible that she will remain a picky eater no
matter what you do. Some people, including adults, are just very
particular about food.
It takes patience to deal with a picky eater, but the rewards can be
great. Once your child believes she has some control over what she
eats, both she and you will feel calmer. Then, instead of focusing
on what and how much she’s eating, your family can concentrate on
enjoying mealtimes together.