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Solving Battles at Mealtime

Mealtimes with young, finicky eaters can be difficult. Pediatricians and children’s diet experts say there are easy and effective ways to get your kids to eat well other than playing the food enforcer at every meal. 

Your attitudes about food and your child’s food choices can guide your child toward good eating habits. Try to avoid the bickering and control games that can make meals tense and unappetizing for everyone.

So what are control games?

  • A child's obstinate refusal to eat what is prepared.

  • A parent's threats to a child who refuses to eat: “You can’t have dessert unless you eat your peas.” Or, “We won’t take you to the toy store unless you eat.”

  • Bribes to make the child eat.

These games often end when the parent gives in and makes a separate meal for the child, or lets him have what he wants.

Hunger vs. behavior

There is never a reason to force, bribe, or cajole a child to eat. Disagreement, obstinacy, and refusal to eat come when the food supplied does not match the choice of the child, not because the child is not hungry. 

Unfortunately, the child’s food choice is frequently determined by past experience. If a child's diet is frequently filled with sweets or high-fat fast food, he may not be interested in a tossed salad, slice of roast beef, baked potato, and peas.   

So how does a parent handle the problem? Here are some suggestions that will help:

  • When your child is still an infant or toddler, avoid introducing high-sugar foods and juices. Studies have shown that children respond strongly to sugar, and parents frequently use sweets as a reward or bribe.

  • As your child grows, avoid introducing fast foods. Fast foods have been intentionally designed to appeal to taste, to feel good in the mouth, and to bring people back for more. In many respects, fast foods are addicting.

  • Allow your child to make suggestions for meals, but set limits. Give him choices, but limit the choices to two.  “Do you want peas or carrots for the vegetable tonight?"

  • Consider involving your child in meal preparation. Children may be more motivated to eat meals that they help to prepare. 

  • Be realistic about what you serve. Young children do not like strong flavors or excessive or hot spices. Most of them prefer relatively bland food; that's why peanut butter and jelly, and macaroni and cheese are so popular. Broccoli and cabbage may taste unpleasant or bitter to a child; avoid these unless your child likes them.

  • Make sure that the meals you serve are nutritious and provide proper proportions of fruits, vegetables, protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

  • Sit down to eat as a family. Studies show that in households where the members eat as a family, the meals are usually more nutritious and contain less fat.

  • If the child refuses to eat, remain calm. When the meal is finished, cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Later, when the child complains of hunger, warm the plate in the microwave. If the child still refuses to eat, he should wait until the next meal. Eventually the child will eat, and because he is eating the nutritious meals you provide, you are assured that he is eating properly.

  • Once it is firmly established that the meals are what’s available to eat, you should have much less difficulty.

One last note: Be fair. If you make a special meal for your spouse that you’re sure the child is not going to like, make something else nutritious to offer the child.