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Dealing with the "Finicky Eater" Child

By Dr. Jennifer Sowle


Somebody has created a monster. Or maybe it's more accurate to say a generation of monsters. Why are our children such finicky eaters? And, more importantly, what can we do about it? I don't mean a child who has firm preferences for certain foods. I'm talking about the child who is choosing all of his meals and eating macaroni and cheese from a box three times a day every day.

We are in a food crisis, and it's beyond the scope of this article to talk about all the terrible things happening in our culture around food issues. But I will talk about what parents can do to help their children with eating issues. Parents can intervene while children are young and formulating their ideas about food and eating. Parents ask me, "What can we do about the fact that little Meagan will only eat Chicken Fingers? And what can we do when she throws a fit when she can't have them?" They don't want her to starve! Some parents even carry along of can (or container of) whatever little Johnnie will eat when they go out to a restaurant or are visiting with friends.

In the homes of these finicky eaters, every night at dinner time there is a gruesome scene where little ones cry, throw themselves around, spit out food, and in some way throw a tantrum when they can't have spaghetti-o's. As the dreaded dinner hour approaches, parents vow to "make" Jimmy eat his peas. But more often than not, parents become short-order cooks who are preparing three different meals for three different children. What parents want to know is "What do we do when Amy won't eat anything but Cocoa Puffs?"

First, let's look at the bigger picture. There are two opinions in child psychology that I believe have been misinterpreted by parents. The first one is the recommendation that children be given choices to help them develop their internal locus of control. This means that if you start to allow children to make age appropriate choices, they will be able to be more autonomous and independent as adults. This is excellent advice and comes from sound psychological research. While the concept is a good one, and is absolutely essential as children move toward puberty, parents have not understood that choices must be limited and must be congruent with the developmental age of the child.

To take a 4-year-old into a grocery store, place her in front of 250 kinds of breakfast cereal, and ask her what kind she wants, is to set a precedent that is both unreasonable and irresponsible. It would be appropriate for the parent to choose two cereals (hopefully not Cocoa Puffs) and ask the child which one he/she would like. It is this kind of choice which fosters independence, but does not give the child the false belief that he can run his world. Also, depending on the age of the child, he or she needs structure and can become confused and anxious with too many choices.

When the "choice concept" is applied to food, this is the beginning of the finicky eater phenomenon. Children are told or are made to believe that they have a choice about what they eat. But they soon realize that they've been lied to. They can't really decide to have ice cream for breakfast because parents freak out when they make these kinds of choices. They're kids. They really are not capable of making nutritional choices. That's why they have parents, to guide them in their formative years so that they can make good choices later, when they are developmentally able.

So it's this lie that originally creates the power struggle. Kids are told they can choose, and then parents cajole, argue, punish, get mad and upset, and try to get them to change their mind. Kids don't have much power, so they surely don't want to give it up when they get it. In their world, Mother told them they could choose, and they're going to make sure that she delivers!

The second misinterpretation of sound psychological advice is this: Don't make children eat what they don't want. Do not force feed your children. Now this is surely good advice. Again, children who are forced to "clean their plates" do not develop an internal point of reference for recognizing hungry and full. This creates problems later with overeating. Everybody remembers the scene from Mommy Dearest where the poor girl was forced to sit at the table late into the night in front of a cold piece of meat. Of course, parents do not want to get into that type of power struggle with their child. But I think the pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction where parents believe they must let the child make all his own decisions about food. Parents must give guidance by offering only certain choices. Back in the good old days, parents and children sat down to a family meal and they ate what mother prepared for dinner. If they didn't like something, they didn't eat it, but mother didn't jump up and start preparing them an omelete. It just wasn't expected.

Here are a few basic principles for parents worried about their children developing eating disorders:

  1. The less said about food the better.

  2. Don't project your own eating issues onto your kids by focusing too much on food.

  3. Don't make comments about your own diets, size, fat people, bad foods, healthy foods, and all the rest.

  4. Just stop focusing on food and eating!

For misguided parents who had no idea they were creating a food monster, it's not too late to get a handle on it. You may already have given your child the mistaken belief that she can choose what she wants to eat. And you already may be dealing with a "finicky eater". It's time to admit you've made a mistake and make these changes:

1. Depending on your child's age, have a talk with them about their finicky eating and their accompanying bad behavior about getting what they want. Tell them you made a mistake and you now know that you should be giving them guidance and you're going to start today. If your child is too young to understand this explanation, simply start with #2 below.

2. Hopefully, your child has some foods he will eat (other than candy and sweets). Most kids will eat bread and butter or maybe fruit. Pick out something you think your child might eat and include it in the dinner menu as a side dish. Not another entrée! For example, include bread (or rolls) and butter on the table with the other food if you think your child will eat it. Include a fruit or maybe pudding for desert. Now let's say you're having a Lasagna dinner and your child won't eat anything but hamburgers and potato chips. And you also know she will eat strawberries. In addition to the bread and butter, include strawberries for desert.

Put some Lasagna on their plate (or whatever the main entrée is for the evening meal). Then ask them what else from the table they care to have. Let's assume they're not going to eat the Lasagna....don't fuss about it! If, at some time during the meal, they want anything else that's on the table, allow them to have it. These are choices they can exercise. If they're hungry and want two rolls, let them have it. Pick out some side dishes like pickles, a vegetable plate with dip, something that might appear on a dinner table as a side dish with a main entree.

The idea is that you are providing some food choices for the child, but they are things already on the table. So, without him/her being aware of it, you are compromising, but keeping control over what she or he can eat. They will simply be aware that you are not giving in to their demands. Children will not starve if they do not eat the Lasagna nor will they starve if they don't have the hamburger and chips. Parents say, "He'll starve if he doesn't get what he wants to eat." No he won't. This has never happened.

3. Plan for the child to have snacks between meals. Children's systems are not developed to the point where they can go 4 or 5 hours between meals. Give them one snack between each meal and give them 2 or 3 acceptable choices (from things you approve of and know they would like) and let them choose their snack. Don't make a big deal about the snack....be matter of fact. This will give them some additional choices about food.

4. Stick to this plan 100% of the time until your child realizes that she is part of the family and will be eating what the family eats for dinner (give the choices mentioned above). Do not prepare another choice for your child. They will not starve. Some times hunger will motivate them to expand outside of their rigid patterns to include more types of food. Consistency is very important, so be sure you are prepared to follow through when you start the plan.

Intermittent reinforcement (where you let the child's bad behavior work some times) is the most reinforcing because the child soon learns that going on and on with a tantrum DID work once. And it might work again, so he will continue the bad behavior beyond all reasonable expectations.

5. Over time, you will extinguish the expectation in your child that he or she can have whatever he or she wants to eat no matter what is served for dinner. There will still be things they do not like. That's okay. Don't force them to eat what they don't like, but do encourage them to eat other things on the table that they do like. And make a point to have something they really like quite often.

6. Another thing that reinforces finicky eating is taking children to a Fast Food drive-through restaurant. When children are young, perhaps 3, they begin to see that they can say yes to a certain food and it magically appears. By the time they are 4, they have developed a few favorites on the menu and can just ask for that and they get it. It doesn't matter what others are ordering, because everybody can have something different, and everybody gets what they want! Don't take children to fast-food drive through. If you must, please limit it. If you are a busy parent, pick up the food on your way home and have the children eat it at the table on a plate if at all possible. I know it's easier and more convenient to just drive up, order, and eat it out of the bag, but it's not good for your child.

Most children do eventually grow out of finicky eating behavior, but in the meantime it's a miserable scene around dinner time until they do. More importantly, some children do not grow out of it and develop eating disorders later in life. As parents, we want to be sure our children have the best start so that they can lead healthy lives. Start early and pay attention to the messages you are giving your children about food.



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Jennifer J. Sowle, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is also an AASECT Certified Sex Educator and Sex Therapist. Dr. Sowle has a private psychological practice in Northern Michigan. Dr. Sowle's website, http://here-to-listen.com, is an informational site which explores psychological issues like: Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Eating Disorders.



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