Because I Said So: Dinnertime Dilemma Solved

Parenting advice for moms of picky eaters.

Dear Susan,
My five-year old son is a very picky eater.  He refuses to eat what I make for dinner, even if it's something he's liked before.  When I force him to eat, he gags and spits it out.  I've tried everything, even sending him to bed without supper.  Nothing works!  The worst part is, I feel guilty and awful that my son is not getting enough nutrition.  Can you help?
-- Frustrated in Decatur

Dear Frustrated,
Some children are picky eaters.  Some aren't.  That's just the way it's always been. But when I think about the times I didn't like something as a child, I cannot recall my mother running around in circles trying to make something I'd eat. In fact, she made no big deal of my pickiness at all. I was expected to try everything on my plate and try I did.

Today, many parents, especially mothers, worry in excess about this "problem." If you Google "picky eater," you'll be astounded by the tips, tricks and methods to try to solve this problem. But I have a solution for you (taken straight from John Rosemond) THAT WORKS!

First, relax. If you offer a variety of foods and limit the bad stuff (you know, the stuff you hide way up high in the cabinets to snack on after the kids are in bed), your son will probably get enough nutrition. But if your child is REFUSING to eat certain foods, then you don't have a nutritional struggle on your hands, you have a power struggle.  Here's a simple and fool-proof way to handle it.

Let's assume that tonight's dinner is Chicken, rice and peas. Let's also assume your son does not like vegetables but enjoys chicken and rice. Tonight at dinner, fix your child's plate with a morsel of each item you've prepared (one pea, one tiny bite of chicken, a small dollop of rice). Tell your child that in order to get more of ANYTHING on his plate, he must first eat EVERYTHING on it.

Your child may receive seconds of yummy chicken but unless he has eaten everything on his plate (including that one tiny pea), do not give him more. Once he has cleaned his plate of every morsel, ask him if he would like more of anything. Give him normal sized portions for his 2nd plate. Don't worry about the peas. They will be taken care of all in due time. Keep this up for a week or two.

Gradually increase the vegetable (or offending food item) portion while keeping the favored food portions very small. After a month or thereabouts, your child will be eating a normal child-sized portion of veggies in order to receive a normal sized portion of the food he likes.

Remember - it's all about ATTITUDE. If you act like you know what you're doing and keep a calm, relaxed attitude during dinner, your child will relax and your family will look forward to nightly dinners.  

Bon Appetit!


Do you have a question for Susan that you would like included in this column? If so, send her an email with your question to susan@parentcoachatlanta.com.

Lori Rader-Jacobs May 05, 2011 at 02:04 PM
Very wise and practical advice! It's great that you reflect an attitude of confident and leadership in your household.
Dana Lisa Young July 11, 2011 at 03:23 PM
This is great advice for the average picky eater (the one who is engaged in power struggles or just doesn't like green stuff on their plate) but it may not work so well if your child has Sensory Processing Disorder. The sensory issues they enounter with taste, texture and smell of foods are not preferences or dislikes typical of an average child. Overcoming a serious SPD-linked aversion to foods can take years. It can improve with OT and with age as their neurological systems integrate more fully. The motto in our house is you have to try it once, but we don't require our kids (at least one of whom was diagnosed with SPD, while the other one displays SPD tendencies) to finish something on their plate that they really cannot tolerate. That said, I generally do cook things I know they are likely to eat and if it's foods I know they normally like but are just being picky because they're bored of it, they are still required to eat some of it. I had to learn some things the hard way!
tracy July 17, 2011 at 05:51 PM
I figure that if the kids don't eat everything and they go to bed hungry, they will survive and eventually get hungry enough to eat more. I use to be a "short order cook" now i am happier and less stressed with one meal for all and the kids are starting to eat more varieties of food and it is working itself out. but i love the one morsel tactic too!
Susan Eppley August 03, 2011 at 11:29 AM
Dana, I appreciate your comment because it's important to keep in mind the developmental readiness of our children when applying leadership principles. It would not be appropriate to expect the same behavior from a 2 year old and a 5 year old. A child with SPD or another exceptional issues must receive proper consideration as well. I leave those recommendations to the experts (like you). However, as your comment indicates, a child with a disorder does NOT get a pass! It sounds to me you have a good solution for your child's specific needs without ignoring her nutritional needs and I'll bet she doesn't get a pass on manners, etc. either. Flexibility is key. I like the "try it once" motto. It works with children without SPD who are mildly picky and not defiant as well. And, I too, make foods that I know are generally liked by most people (including kids). I certainly am not going to attempt to adjust my children's palate by making foods that are spicy or generally of "adult taste." Keep it Simple is a good motto, too.
Susan Eppley August 03, 2011 at 11:33 AM
Tracy, That is true for sure. I've sent my children to bed without supper. I agonized about it for a while but boy, did they eat a great breakfast in the morning! And, it only took three times for my most defiant and picky eater to get the message. I'm glad you found the solution that works for you. A happier and less stressed mom makes happier and less stressed children. And, now you know that when they are invited to dinner elsewhere, they'll be good guests!


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