Prize fighting with the picky eater

Dear Adele,

Our preschooler is the pickiest eater on earth, we swear! He is driving us bananas at mealtimes, rejecting this and that, and demanding stuff he tends to like. Sometimes when mealtime comes around we feel we must be prepared to go ten rounds with our little Mohammed Ali, to get one decent thing into him. We need help in the ring!

Parents prize fighting with a picky eater

Dear Parents prize fighting with a picky eater,

‘Life is not a spectator sport’ said Jackie Robinson, and you are definitely in the ring with a prize fighter at mealtimes!

According to registered dietitian Ellen Satter, creator of the Division of Responsibility In Feeding model, picky eating habits are normal in young children. Children can create a lot of havoc for families with this parenting challenge and often destroy the opportunity for happy, peaceful, harmonious experiences around the family dinner table.

Parents need to understand that the game is not really about food but about power and control. The dinner table is the battleground and food is the fodder for the battle between the parents and the child. Parents want to control the what, the when and the limits about food, while the child seeks control of what he ingests, and the way his parents respond to his efforts to control his intake.

This is commonly called a power struggle.

Wise parents withdraw from the power struggle around eating, and separate the food issue from the child’s behaviour emanating from his attempts to control. His behaviour as a preschooler might include for example, fussing, fuming, crying, screaming, tantruming, defying, rejecting, yelling, objecting, throwing and other such attention seeking behaviour designed to win a few rounds against the parents. The more reactive the parents, the more points and rounds the child wins.

When parents know better they do better. So here are a few training skills you can practice to improve your fighting moxie.Some of these ideas were garnered from a site called

  1. Create positivity around food. Use language that supports good nutrition and enjoyment.
  2. Model what to eat in a healthy diet.
  3. Do not pressure the child to eat.
  4. Avoid punishments for not eating.
  5. Do not resort to bribery.
  6. Vary the menu.
  7. Try to make foods child friendly, interesting and fun.
  8. Involve the child in planning meals.
  9. Involve the child in preparing and serving meals.
  10. Serve small portions.
  11. Pair a preferred food with a new or less preferred food.
  12. Avoid bans on food.
  13. Emphasize food management.
  14. Make no special meals for the child.
  15. Understand that picky eating rarely leads to neophobia and is not related to increased risk of obesity or being overweight according to Dr. Leo Gibson, of the Clinical and Health Psychology Research Centre in London.
  16. Place the family meal food on a small plate in front of the child making no comments before, during or after the allotted eating time. Provide no other food between meals.
  17. Try presenting new foods many, many times.
  18. Keep expectations for change low. Time can and most often does work wonders.

With regard to a parental response to behaviour that is unacceptably negative I am for less talk and more action. Rules should be established for everyone that harmonious socially accepted behaviour is expected. It should be made clear that the rules will be enforced or family members must go to their room until they can control their emotional outbursts and the noise making that disturbs others.

Always state your behaviour expectations calmly and simply, repeating them like a broken record if necessary.Avoid letting your preschooler suck you into a battle of words and verbal confrontation. Action speaks louder than words.

Keep cool and consistent and you will soon be standing centre ring, grand champions who defeated a wannabe mealtime prize fighter!

Sincerely, Adele

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Photo: Austin Pacheco, Unsplash