Eating Power Struggles with Kids: Why they’re useless and how to end them

Jul 22, 2010 by

Eliminating bad behavior at the table will eliminate a lot of poor eating.

Marlena’s children weren’t good eaters; instead, they were screamers.

Marlena tried to control their eating. It didn’t work very well. At all. Instead, they controlled her and got their own way by screaming and refusing to eat.

Four-year-old Walker was surviving mainly on bean-and-cheese tacos. If he didn’t like what was for dinner (which was most of the time), he’d go to bed hungry and wake up in the night screaming for food. So his mom had started feeding him right before bed, a “second dinner,” of whatever food he wanted, to get him to stay asleep so they all could sleep.

When two-year-old Jennifer didn’t get her way, she screamed. Her parents would scramble to make her happy to end the screaming.

Marlena’s action plan was to micromanage, bribe, beg, threaten, punish, distract, and join the screaming herself, to get them to eat what she wanted them to eat, bite by bite. One night she let Walker play video games while she spooned chicken and rice into his mouth. If Jennifer wanted more tomatoes, her mother would tell her she had to eat a bite of fish first, then rice.

Desperate for change, Marlena invited me to play Super Dinner Nanny at her house.

The first surprise that night was that the kids’ screaming went unremarked upon, unchallenged. No one expressed the least objection to it. Marlena’s husband sometimes wore earplugs to the dinner table, she had told me earlier.

Marlena’s first mistake, as with so many parents, was in trying to make her kids eat. Eating is a personal bodily function, regulated and prompted from within, from birth. That mistake was compounded, as it generally is, by a misguided lack of control over children’s antisocial behavior, particularly at the table. Kids use food refusal to get to misbehave and lord over their parents. Parents let them misbehave out of desperation to get them to eat.

Unlike with eating, kids are born unequipped to do otherwise than behave rudely and annoyingly. Good behavior is unnatural and requires far more intervention than eating. Children are completely dependent on parents to train them to behave.

When you try to control a child’s eating, what is truly only up to him to control, things will go wrong. When you don’t try to control this behavior, things also go wrong.

We can try to force children to eat, and they might appear to go along with it at times, but their rebellion will come out somehow, sometimes in ways that are harmful to themselves.

I can’t say I blame them for rebelling. How would you like it if someone made you eat something you didn’t want?

Kids are going to eat, you only have to know how to channel their hunger. It’s one of the few things, which include sleeping and defecating, you don’t have to make them do. There’s a whole load of other things connected to those things you have to make them do, but not those things.

So I told Marlena to do the opposite of what she was doing.

  1. Quit controlling, or trying to control, what her kids put in their mouths. Their own eating needs to be entirely up to them. Provide only foods you are happy about them eating. Let them serve themselves, decide how much they want, and what they want. No pressure of any kind to eat anything, ever.
  2. Start controlling their behavior. That is your job. Do not allow screaming, ever. Screaming for what they want is a bad habit and we do them no favors in allowing it. No one will accept it from them and neither should their parents.
  3. Restrict negative eating, rather than pushing positive eating. Keep them from eating junk or whatever it is you don’t want them to eat. Keep them from eating dinner in front of the TV. Don’t make something different for them if they don’t like what’s served. Don’t let them eat at the table, or maybe eat at all, unless they follow your requirements and use age-appropriate manners, including no whining and complaining. This is the hard part. Kids who are used to getting their way may scream, get angry and even violent, at this point. But once they know you mean business, and feel the pain of hunger, they shape up.

“Temporary hunger will not hurt children, but it will teach them to take what is offered when it is offered,” writes Elaine M. Gibson in “Useless Power Struggles” on Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel. “We can’t make children eat, but we can make them wish they had.”

Marlena realized that if she wasn’t going to allow her children to scream at her, she would have to curtail her own screaming at them. Not a bad idea in itself.

Marlena’s path to change at the dinner table has not been a direct one, with a lot of coaching, along with false starts and reverses. When she was on the path, it worked.

She reported that her children loved filling their own plates and being left alone about what and how much they ate. The first time she tried it, Walker tested his limits with abominable behavior. He was sent to bed and cried himself to sleep.  She felt terrible about it.

But later, things improved.

“No screaming – just happy quiet eating,” she wrote me. ” Walker even served himself a tomato!!!!!  And ate it!!!!  We almost passed out!”

Related Posts:

Six sample consequences for children’s disagreeable dinner table behavior that will eliminate misbehavior as well as food refusal

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 22 July 2010 / All rights reserved

26 comments
jpcrane
jpcrane

I need a little more help.  The first bullet includes: "No pressure of any kind to eat anything, ever." The third point includes: "Don’t make something different for them if they don’t like what’s served."  That sounds like a lot of pressure. What do you do when they won't eat what you have prepared? I know they wan't starve, but my kids have and will skip meals because they don't like it. Thanks!

Elizabeth - Letters from a Small State
Elizabeth - Letters from a Small State

Anna, I agree with "serving themselves" but I know that my 6-year-old would eat only meat and bread if we did that! What do you think?? He eats the veggies if we put them on his plate though.

Betsy
Betsy

So far so good, the progress has plateaued a bit, but I am assuming that is to be expected. I am making the 2 things at dinner cold & unattractive, often right out of the tupperware, but I often used to serve it that way anyway - what with making individual dinners for everyone! My older (more picky) daughter definitely still goes for the 2 things that are her favorites and my younger one does to to a lesser degree, but when I serve something the older one "used to" like in the past, but hadn't been eating in the last few months, she seems to be eating those right up too. She has eaten some new foods, she now will eat a few more fruits than she used to. The combination foods are much harder for her, don't think she has tried one of those yet, even our younger daughter is more hesitant around those ones. But, we are already finding our younger (less picky) daughter following our lead now and, sometimes right away and sometimes after a few tries, she already has enjoyed several new foods. As for my older daughter, she has never been a "food lover". I clearly remember when we first started foods with her, it took a long time for her to show much interest at all. I heard of kids who would reach for what their parents were eating, as a sign of interest, but my daughter NEVER did that. She seems always very standoffish when it came to food. Yes, after lots of months of that, we did pressure - "eat a few more bites of this, of that, etc", so that didn't help things either. She can also be full after not all that much food too, so that is part of it. She has a perfect growth chart though, tall, lean and strong, so I don't worry too much about that. Back in Dec, I even had a long talk with my pediatrician about it and she felt good about my daughters overall health. I do think my daughter has a degree of an innate skepticism about food and has ALWAYS been leery of trying new foods. My daughter didn't even try birthday cake until she was at least 2.5. So, you can see it works in our favor too - to this day she has no interest in juice - only milk and water! One time, about 1.5 yrs ago, I cooked scrambled eggs for myself for breakfast for THREE weeks (on purpose), without one time pressuring her to eat or try them. At the end of 3 weeks, she finally asked to try them. She said she liked them but didn't eat them again until last week! All that said, I am still highly motivated to keep doing what we are doing to expand her interest in food. I view this as a phobia for her in some ways, and I love this approach because I don't want to push, but I DO want to help her. Yesterday, I reserved a few books at the library - cooking with kids books, that have pictures. I have cooked with her in the past and she still hasn't tried the food (even picked some of that food from our garden!), but she was still afraid to try it. Sometimes she gets excited to try something (mentally) but the second it becomes reality (actually putting it in her mouth) she clams up and gets visibly nervous and says "maybe another time". I am hoping that if we go through the cook books together, reading it and SHE finds/picks a few recipes SHE wants to try then maybe she will be more interested in trying the final result (rather than me picking the recipe, as we have done in the past). Even if we make something together, I still won't make her try it if she doesn't want to. I am realizing that this has to come from her, it is her "phobia", her deal. I can't fix it, but I can set up the right environment to help her get past it. It has been over 2.5 years since she has been on solid foods, and it isn't going to be just a few weeks to undo all that is going on in that pretty little head of hers regarding food. I am just taking it day by day and serving 1 meal at as many meals as I can! I am convinced that we are taking the right approach, thanks to YOU, and with time it will get progressively better! I still think we are on the upswing, but it is just slow going!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Betsy, so glad to hear that your husband is liking the results. It sounds like you are making real progress. It may be slow, but it seems pretty steady. I hope that full results may come all at once at a tipping point when your daughter finds it no longer worth her while to be fussy and that being unfussy is more fun. Stand strong! It could take some time for your girls to get used to the freedom and adapt their attitudes. Once they feel safe from any pressure, I'm sure they'll be interested in trying new foods. I encourage you to continue to look for ways to make being fussy unattractive and being unfussy attractive, exciting and fun. You can casually run out of things like PBJ makings if you want to break the habit. Make new foods beautiful and fragrant. Make their old favorites stale, dried up, cold, scant, squashed, poorly presented, whatever. I think having only a little bit left of their favorites and some really enticing new options when they're starving might be interesting to see. Don't reinforce fussiness with your attention or trying to make them happy. Keep on staying in charge with no random snacking and the rules on behavior (no whining and fussing) and not putting up with what you want to change in them. Keep me posted!

Betsy
Betsy

Things are going well, although I really haven't done the meal with hardly anything they will eat yet. They are adjusting to the changes in a positive way, and my most recent "win" was probably with my husband. On Sat dinner, he said "I really like how mealtimes are going now. This really makes a lot of sense, I am glad we are doing this". Whew! I had a feeling maybe he was skeptical, but he wasn't saying anything openly about it, so I kind of used the same approach as the food thing. I backed off, and didn't bug him about it. I just let he see what I was doing. Once he said he liked the changes, I told him it was a relief to hear him say that, because I wasn't sure what he was thinking and I was glad he was liking it. Felt nice to be on the same page without having to make a case - the result spokes more for themselves than I could have really talked about. As for new foods, it is kind of slow going. Interest is up, there is a new-found curiosity about food in the girls. But there is still resistance to try new food. They are sticking with the main 2 things I put on the table that they are used to, for the most part, but there HAVE been successes too. I tell myself that with my oldest, it has been 2.5 years in the making and it is going to take some time to un-do that. She never has been super duper into food, so I have to be ready for it to be gradual. As for the requests, I have catered to all these "silly" requests A LOT. So I have made this problem a bit. I catered to them all under the, let them make lots of little decisions that don't bother me, which works in a lot of other areas but I have to say really backfired in the food department. My daughter is a creature of habit and really likes things "certain ways". This is the kid, who, for a long time who delighted in just lining up all her playdoh containers rather than open them up and start squishing them around! Yikes! :-) I have started explaining to my daughter that it is getting too hard for mommy to make different things for everyone to eat, so now I am making one meal for everybody. Yesterday my daughter at morning snack, said "Mommy for lunch I want PBJ". I was thinking to myself that is NOT what I wanted to make (it is the same thing she has eaten for a long time). I can't remember what I said, but it was something like, "I am sorry honey, that is not what I have planned. But, I will make a lunch with lots of choices and you can decide what you will eat". She whined a bit, and I started up with the rule about politeness. She stopped because she does know that I will certainly give a time out for too much whining or rudeness. So, there are little wins, like at one lunch, seeing my daughter eat her crusts. No she isn't eating everything under the sun, but it has only been a week. I am just trying to stay motivated, and I think I still am! THANKS AGAIN!!!!!!! You have really been a savior to me in this. I really can't thank you enough. SO nice to have a helpful sounding board!!!! :-)

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi Betsy, I've been trying to figure out what questions I haven't answered yet! I don't think I've talked about the specific requests: "Mommy can I have my cereal without milk? Mommy, can I have cheddar cheese with my lunch? What about silly things like, will you cut my cheese in sticks? I often chalk these things up to 'picking your battles,' and usually comply, as long I am asked nicely and I try to give opportunities for my toddlers to feel in control on the little things I don’t feel strongly about." I like what you did about the peel on the nectarines with her. When it's work for her, instead of you, she no longer minds what was a problem. It's like my son, who was a mostly-vegetarian for several years living at home, and I catered to him, but when he went off to college, it became more his problem and he gave it up! I think she probably gets a charge out of being difficult and getting you to try to make her happy. It seems to me she wants to be in control by controlling YOU, not herself. You want that to NOT work for her; rather what she should find more worth her while is being agreeable and taking care of herself without drawing a lot of attention to herself or being difficult and demanding. If she wants to eat cereal without milk, I'd certainly let her do that. I would never make anyone put anything in their mouth that they didn't want. It's no trouble for you, either. Let her do what she wants but don't do for her what she wants you to do, I think would be a guideline here. I think I would try to be low key about all those little requests. You could answer things like, "I'm saving the cheddar cheese for something else," or "No, I don't feel like cutting up the cheese sticks. I'm tired and hungry and let's just eat." Or if you feel like doing it, go ahead. But she should know you are not her slave and if you don't want to, she can be OK with being told no. Kids do want to be in control, and being allowed to not eat or to fill their own plates are good ways to give that to them. Controlling what goes in her own mouth is the main thing kids need control over at the table. Very little else, really. Also giving her jobs in the meal preparation is great. Maybe you could give her a way to cut up her own cheese. If it's making you take extra trouble or you just don't want to, those are good things to get her used to accepting. Or if you think she's just trying to get you to do what she wants you to do, just say no. I would avoid reinforcing those behaviors. If you don't want her to be that way with other people (who won't have your patience with her), better react against it early and gently. It is a little surprising to me that she has all these little preferences and requests. I think she's trying to get you going to please her, get you fluttering around. I think continued nonchalance is probably a good strategy. If she is arguing and pulling you back into food struggles, I would try to make that a big No-No. You can tell her no to anything you want to, and if she fusses and argues or whines, give a punishment: she can't eat at the table with you, or has to go to her room, maybe. Let her know if you do not want to be asked about food at all. If you don't like what she's doing, don't accept it from her. It sounds tiresome to me. Maybe just let her know that you work hard to feed her well, and while she doesn't have to eat any of it at all ever again, you do not want to take her requests, at all. You can tell her it makes it hard for you, or you only want to hear gratitude and appreciation or a polite no thanks, nothing else. It's up to you what's on the table, and up to her what she eats of that. Keep it simple. If you think about the kind of person you want her to be with others, that might help guide you. If she starts in, maybe say, "Is that a request?" or "do I hear whining?" How are things going? I'm thrilled to hear about how your girls are responding to your changes. I hope it's going well.

Betsy
Betsy

oh! and have one quick question... (of course, whenever/if you have time to answer!!! I am sure you are super busy!!! You have been awesome and I don't want to take advantage of this forum!!) what to do if they request a certain food BEFORE the meal even starts? example: before snack time my daughter asked - "can i have granola bar for snack today?". legitimate question because we make these together pretty frequently and they are often in my fridge, THOUGH I was planning something different for snack. I went ahead with her request and coupled it with 2 other things (fruit and cashews). Though she didn't have any of the other two. this also happened at lunch time - about 15 minutes before lunch, she asked for a favorite first. at lunch i said "that isn't what I had planned for lunch, but you will have lots of choices to pick from". though it is starting to feel like i am trying to hide what i am up to, until it is presented on the table because I am trying to avoid the argument BEFORE the meal, or WHILE I am preparing it...

Betsy
Betsy

Thanks so much for the encouragement! I think we are on the same page and I am doing all those things. I am starting VERY slowly and offering 1-2 foods at the table that she is OK with. Some details: - Yesterday at lunch I served mac & cheese but of a different color and shape than her "brand" (it was actually a little LESS healthy than our normal one but we are going for variety here), she was hungry and gobbled it up - seconds, thirds! I have tried for a very long time to "entice" her to eat noodles of different shapes and colors with NO luck, so that was neat to see. - Last night at dinner we served spaghetti - which I have always wanted her to eat, but she never has. She looked at her options and asked eagerly to try it and she did. She said she didn't like it, but I just said that was fine. She even took a bite of the broccoli. In the end, she still defaulted to the two usual things she eats, but I thought that was a huge win. Oh and I made a point of having my husband take the girls bike riding for 20-30 min before dinner to help work up the appetite as well. - This morning for breakfast she was upset because I served eggs, toast, and nectarines. (She has tried eggs before, been a long time since she said she would have toast, and never tried nectarines). While I was cooking she repeatedly asked me to make her the usual - whole wheat english muffin. I kind of lied, I said I didn't have any. She asked for other b-fast favorites, and I said I am sorry, but I didn't make those for breakfast today. I mentioned that she didn't have to eat anything she didn't want to though. She fussed a bit, but I held tight to no whining/tantrums and being polite and she shaped up pretty fast. She ate a great portion of whole wheat toast and tried the nectarines. She wanted me to take off the peel, but I said if she wanted to do that she could eat around it. (Trying not to cater to requests that are "silly"). She ate around the peel on the first slice, but then ate the peel on the next two. Anyway, needless to say, we are making progress. I can't tell whether my husband thinks this is a great idea or if he just thinks it is just another piece of advice at this point (there is a lot of annoying advice out there, as we all know). But, I am going to keep doing what I am doing and hopefully the changes will be compelling enough on their own. Thanks again! Off to water the veggie garden (yes, the one I did this year to help get the kids "into" veggies and food! So far your blog has worked a lot better! HAHA)....

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

I love that you downplayed the chart. I think I'd continue to pretend it's not there. You could take everything off the fridge at some point and put it somewhere else and see if she notices. Keep it in case she does, maybe. Keep up the nonchalance! I like your ideas about focusing on breakfast. I think being flexible is great, seeing where your advantages lie, while continuing to look for ways to tighten the screws. Keep looking for ways to make being fussing NOT work for them and being not fussy WORK. As for being tolerant with trying new things, I would just avoid ever being intolerant about whether they try anything or not. If you do not care, they will be driven by hunger to try new foods. I believe they only won't try new foods because someone WANTS them to try new foods. My view is that fear of food comes only from being forced. I don't believe in anybody ever eating anything they don't want to eat. The more freedom, the more they will be willing to try foods. I think I might offer foods to your younger one, give her as much freedom and option to choose and serve herself as is possible for her age. You could try not serving or offering anything at all and she will ask for it. Let her see it and ask or reach in and get. As long as she is hungry, she'll be more than happy to get something to eat and you decide what it will be. I don't think you have to eat peas at all ever, if you don't like them. Again, nobody has to eat anything ever. It's OK not to like some things. The problem is not liking much of anything and refusing to eat a lot of things a lot of the time. You can be a good example to your kids by avoiding junk food and enjoying the healthy food you eat. I would not try to be an example of eating what you don't want. I would avoid expressing dislike of any healthy food, though, because kids will decide they don't like it either. Just serve them, eat other stuff, talk about other stuff, and let them eat them if they like. More later...

Betsy
Betsy

Awesome, I understand! Looking forward to more - I don't have much time at the moment either, but I am trying not to praise, I do understand that. Dad is still getting the hang of this, but is doing much better and trying. So, another thing, you know, I started the food chart BEFORE I got your post, and now I totally agree with you that it isn't the way to go. The thing is... it is right on our fridge at the moment. Since I got your post, I have not brought it up AT ALL, but it is still there. Didn't want to take it down, since she was excited about it when we started it and I didn't want her to feel like she was in trouble. Today she tried something new (on her own) and later on asked if she could have a sticker. Not sure what to do, I was NON-CHALANT and said "sure" and we filled it out and put the sticker on. Downplayed it immensely. Let me know your thoughts on this. It is tricky...

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Betsy, Now here we have plenty to chew on! First of all, I'm thrilled that you are finding things here you can use and are working. I am going to just respond a little at a time: more later! Mainly I want to just say, keep it up! It will work! You are really making tons of good moves. I'm excited to support you in it. Having specific snack and meal times is SO important. That's the best way to arrange for kids to be hungry for what you want them to eat. If that was ALL you changed I'm sure it would help quite a bit. As you have seen, their appetites are better. Their appetite is the key thing to leverage. Shamelessly take advantage of their hunger to move them in the right direction. Food is always more appealing if you're hungry! Your expectations for mealtimes seem perfect and I am sure will be very valuable. Stick to it. Your children may challenge you, but things will continue to improve if you tough it out, while continuing to back off where you need to. I love how you got your daughter involved in the kitchen. The results of your dinner the other day must be very encouraging. Quality time, less stress, only one meal to make, a child involved in meal preparation! I encourage you to do more of the same! Get her cooking and she's bound to want to eat it! I will get back to answering more of these questions soon, but I will just give one caution: avoid praising or acting excited or affirming your girls for eating better. That's a big mistake a lot of people make. It could set you back. No need to affirm them for doing something they are doing for enjoyment. You don't want them to feel manipulated or pushed or controlled. You want them to take their own satisfaction in their eating. You could say things like, "I'm glad you enjoyed that" or "I guess you are hungry and you liked that." Let them do it for themselves, not for you. Or share your own feelings a little: "I feel good when I make something people like to eat." Or "I had fun getting dinner ready with you." I'm dying to answer more questions, but I have to go get our own dinner moving!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Betsy, Thanks for joining in! I'm happy to get your question! If you want your children to begin eating normally (enjoying a variety of healthy foods, unafraid of food, unfussy) I would NOT make a separate meal for them or continue to cater to their fussiness. That is NOT necessary or conducive to normal relationships with eating. Eating the same few foods, even if they are pretty acceptable, is not OK. It's not healthy or normal, physically or psychologically. I would definitely NOT EVER offer any rewards for trying food. Working harder is not better here. Those solutions are counter-productive. Looking at your situation, I think the three main principles to focus on are: 1. Not pushing, encouraging, begging, forcing, rewarding or otherwise trying to get your daughters to eat. Anything. Ever. At all. My bet is that if your child is afraid to eat things, it's because she's been pushed before. If kids are never pushed to eat, they will eat on their own. They are naturally open to food, if that openness isn't tampered with. The more they are pressured to eat, the more they become resistant. How would you feel if someone were trying to make you eat? 2. Instead of pressuring them to eat, leverage the appetite. All the external motivators to eat (including you) have to be taken out of action and their own appetite put back in charge. You have an enormous asset here: kids have to eat. They want to eat. If you set up the situation properly so that they are hungry at the right time, they will end up eating what you give them. IF you don't ever push them to actually eat. Structure everything else: the time, the food, the place, the behavior, the atmosphere. Then get out of their way. 3. Instead of pushing any food, pull away the food. Restrict their access to food. No snacking between meals, which spoils their appetite. No bailing them out after meals when they didn't eat when it was time. Even pretending you don't want them to eat something can work very well. Tell them there's not really enough for them. You will find that when your approach changes, their attitude will change. Maybe not overnight, but eventually. Hunger is a quick teacher. OK, there's one more key principle: nonchalance. You must quit being emotional about food with them. You have to pretend not to care what or how much they eat. That caring has to cease. It needs to be their problem, not yours. Pretend to be up to nothing, but know what you are doing. Don't announce a Big Change. Just start sharing the food with the kids, talk about other things, and keep out of their eating. Slow change is probably a good idea here. You could go fast, but the risk would be caving in to their tantrums and losing any progress you might make. I would quit catering to them, but make each meal with one thing they are known to like but alongside a couple of things you want to eat and want them to learn to eat. Say they will eat mashed potatoes, but not salad or chicken. Serve that meal. You can accelerate the process by starting with their least favorite of the foods they will eat. Maybe serve it repeatedly, maybe, and rather unappealing than appealing. Serve it a little cold, or in a cardboard container. Serve a couple of other dishes that are among the likelier foods they might consider eating. Server them beautifully, fragrantly, enticingly. You want to set up eating at your house to serve and suit the unfussy, not the fussy. Make being unfussy more fun and interesting and satisfying than being fussy, in every way. This is a more effective way to reward better eating. They won't get resistant if they don't know what you're up to. Just very subtly, gradually turn up the pressure to move in your direction. You can start slower by having two things at the table they will eat and only one they won't. Baby steps could be only having a little of one of their foods, gradually phasing out their foods. You don't want to punish yourself with the process, or them, unnecessarily. Keep them alive, but don't continue to encourage their fussiness by making it work for them. You can do this as gradually or as aggressively as you are ready for and as seems to be productive. The idea is to move them away from their narrow range of accepted foods and toward a wider range and toward new foods. Keep pressing forward, however slowly. They will get used to whatever you keep doing and they will adapt. Their hunger will drive them. DO not ask them to try anything at all. Pay no attention to what or how much they eat, other than insisting everybody can have some of each dish if they want. Don't let them hog all of the one thing they will eat, for example, if you parents want some. Tell them, "We all want some of that." Do you see how this approach is so different and values the food and encourages wanting to eat it more than saying, "You have to eat that"? Do not take notice if they do try something new. If you make an issue of it, they will not want to do it. They lose face by trying something new if this has been a battle. Quit fighting them and they won't have anything to resist. If left free to eat or not eat as they like, they are bound to eventually feel safe enough to eat other things. They are going to be hungry (make sure of that), things are going to look and smell good (also make sure of that). You can gradually increase the change as they seem to be ready for it and how much hunger and crying you are ready to deal with. You can doing things like casually have short supplies of their favorites but some very appealing other options. If they're hungry and you DO NOT urge them to eat, they are certainly going to be tempted. We want them to feel tempted, not pressured. Just keep setting up a situation to move them in the direction you want them to go. I can't say how long it might take; it all depends on them and on you. But the important thing is to keep moving in that direction, very casually, very unemotionally, and with NO pressure whatsoever to eat anything. Let them be hungry if that's what they choose to do. It's like gradually weaning them off the breast to a bottle. Don't make it about denying them what they want, but just use tactics like casually being out of things while they are really hungry and offering better options. Stay casual all the time about what and how much they choose to eat. Basically, while being really nice, gentle, sweet and subtle about it, you want to move them toward not being able to stay alive unless they start eating more normally. Their health depends on it, actually. I have many posts that going into more detail on these subjects and I encourage you to browse through the titles. Maybe start with the category "Masterly Inactivity." I am going to write a post about food tantrums coming up. Also I'd love for you to consider me your own personal feeding coach. Keep me posted and ask me all the questions you want. I will help you through the process. Don't hesitate to ask. I love doing it!

Betsy
Betsy

I just found this site for the first time and I am loving this dialogue. I have a 3.5 and 1.5 year old. My older daughter has always been hesitant, even visibly scared to try new foods. It is not a matter of trying things and not liking them, it is a matter of not trying at all. My younger daughter has a healthy interest in food, although is beginning to pick up 'rut' from her sister. My husband and I are not 'bleeding heart' type of parents, but this food thing has haunted us for a long time. We make a separate dinner for our daughters, because we have always heard not to make food a battle. In our home, making them eat what we eat wouldn't be a battle, it would be WAR, and a long siege at that. I have considered making a sticker chart to encourage/reward her for trying 3? bites of a new food. Perhaps if we got through that, then she (and I!!) could feel more comfortable that only serving a family dinner would not (or at least should not) cause our very own d-day. I should note that, at this juncture, our mealtimes are tolerable (behavior-wise) and both our girls do eat a reasonably healthy, balanced meal at each meal (albeit it is the same darn food everyday). So it is not the worst situation in the world, but I do wish that when we had to have a meal at a restaurant or at a friends house that i would have to take along special food for them. I am wide open to detailed suggestions and encouragement about how to implement this. And, if i do need to do the tough love part of this, how exactly does a parent deal with a crying hungry child? And how long would you expect it to take before seeing some results? THANK YOU IN ADVANCE SOOOOOOOO VERY MUCH for any tips/encouragement.

Nikki
Nikki

Hi Anna, Just wanted to let you know how meal times are going. Firstly let me also tell you besides a 5 year old daughter we have a 3 year old son. He was also starting to behave in a difficult manner at the table-but he is way more challenging! :-) We haven't been unhealthy eaters and we usually have a routine we follow for meals and snacks (at week-ends it may be a little different). Anyway, now you know a little more about us I'll tell you what was happening. My daughter is a slow, picky eater-especially if it's something she didn't like. My son generally ate most foods and healthy servings until he heard his sister refuse/saw her not eating! This started him off for wanting to leave the table. For now we have implemented: Serve yourself, are you sure that'll fill you up? /That will be a waste. This has resulted in 1/2 hungry nights for my daughter-who for the past few meals has dished more up and eaten more. And 1 hungry boy at bed time-with LOTS of tears sent to bed hungry. Unfortunately he still asks for milk at night-yes I know this is a habit that should be broken, but for now we're taking small steps) Although both are not consistent (I realise this takes time) I do think they're learning! My husband is also reading your posts, which is helping a lot! Part of our problem was we just didn't know what tactics to use! The next step I think we need to take is tackling the fussy eating: What do you suggest we do if our children don't like to eat what I cook? I stopped cooking separate meals LONG ago! I feel they need to learn to eat a variety of foods. But if you know your child doesn't like something and dad does/sibling does how do you handle that? Sorry for long message, Thanks Nikki

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Nikki, I love your question. My first goal would be to disengage myself from how much and what your daughter eats at the table in order to get her engaged with her own eating and taking care of her own appetite for herself. Until a child is well established in the good habit of eating all she needs to eat at the right times (meals and set snack times), it's important to not allow any random snacking or to let her fill up after dinner when she didn't eat enough at the table . Her being hungry after the meal and having to live with that till the next meal is harmless and is the best way to train her to take meals very seriously. No need to push her to eat at the right times, you need only keep her from eating at the wrong times and she will naturally want to eat at the right times. She'll also be more interested in eating what you want her to eat once she gets used to eating at regular meals and at no other time. To my kids I always said things like, "Are you sure you want all that?" if they were taking what seemed like too much food, or "Only take what you will eat." It tunes them into their appetites. If they didn't finish something, I would comment about wasting it. They almost never do leave anything unfinished. On the other hand, if they seemed distracted from eating, I might say, "This is dinner. There won't be anything later." Once dinner is over, it's over. If kids find out they go hungry if they don't eat when it's time, they quickly start making sure they eat when they're supposed to. If you think she's not eating enough, you might ask her if she's not hungry, the first time or two, but work on letting her hunger be her OWN problem to solve. Children need to learn to gauge their own appetites and be eating in response to their inner cues, instead of all kind of various external cues (including parents' pushing). The more you worry about whether she's eating enough, the less she will take charge. I have a lot of posts that might be helpful to you, but here is one: http://sacredappetite.wordpress.com/2009/07/17/eating-mindfully-how-to-keep-your-kids-from-getting-fat/ I would love to hear how it goes!! Thanks and good luck, Anna

Nikki
Nikki

Hi Anna, I really like the advice you have given. We used to battle with my daughter a lot to get her to eat, but since we decided that it was way too stressful to fight and decided to let go of needing to get her to eat, things have been a lot less stressful at dinner! We haven't quite perfected the letting go stage but we're getting there :-). I have a few questions: I understand your point about allowing them to dish up for themselves-we have tried this. What happens if they dish up a little/or don't finish and later they are hungry and ask for other food-do you think we should offer what was for supper/or let them choose from other appropriate food? Thanks, Nikki

Lindsey Dietz
Lindsey Dietz

Anna, I haven't been ignoring your last comment, and I think you would make a great speaker/coach in the area of childhood eating habits and behaviors. Yes, your advice did help us...while we used it. We were doing really well, and mealtimes were becoming very enjoyable. Then we moved, and it seems we started back at square one. Just this afternoon, we were fighting with our kids because my husband and I were completely finished eating and they both still had platefuls of food left. Of course, we reverted back to our own bad habits and threatened, raised our voices, and gave "dirty looks". Honestly, our move and subsequent remodel has thrown everything in our home off...school, habits, schedules, everything. We are finally getting back into a "normal" routine, but it's taking a lot of work. I do thank you for your advice. This particular post was just what I needed to read after a stressful, Sunday afternoon lunch. Thanks again!

Melodie
Melodie

Oh right, I have a Vegetarian Foodie Fridays carnival I invite you to link to. My site is mainly a breastfeeding and natural parenting site all the rest of the week except Fridays when I get to live out my passion for real food veggie style. I love Fridays. :) Anyway, i think you might get some extra readers for this since it's up my alley and my readers too.

Melodie
Melodie

This is timely for me. Our problem is that we like to have ice cream (our junk food of choice) in the summertime after dinner and if our kids don't eat their supper they can't have ice cream. Well, it makes them eat their dinner sometimes and sometimes it doesn't, and of course when they don't get ice cream they have tantrums. I get what you are saying and want to play that way, but I want my ice cream too. Arg!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi Betsy, how are things going? I hope you're still making progress. Let me know if I can help!

Betsy
Betsy

Oh my goodness - thanks SO MUCH for your detailed feedback and lending a hand on this!!! Your feedback has been the most tangible and helpful I have ever gotten on this subject and is really helping me to muster up the courage to tackle this. I am also so thankful that you felt it was appropriate to go slowly on this, hearing this helps because now I don’t feel like I am being wimpy when I choose to do so. To give you an update, in the last 2-3 days, I have implemented just a few things. The first thing I did immediately, was implement specific snack TIMES (snacking seemed constant, all day, for us). We now have 3 meals and 2 snack times at mid-day and mid-morning. I have been ending each meal/snack with saying something to the effect of, “Your next snack/meal will not be until about 2.5 more hours, do you feel full enough to make it that long?” I thought I would get a lot of whining and crying when snacks didn’t magically appear the moment they demanded them, but so far (we are on our third day) it has gone pretty smoothly and has helped the appetite considerably. Next, after reading your suggestions, I wrote down my revised expectations at mealtimes, so I have a clear goal in mind. - Mom & Dad are responsible for WHAT foods are served. - Each person is in charge of how much he/she wants eat. No pushing! - No tantrums or whining allowed. - No rude behavior (“no thank you”, ask for things nicely, not say things like “yucky”, etc). - Stay at the table; at the end of the meal, ask to be excused from table. I also have started brainstorming some menu ideas, so I wouldn’t feel behind the 8-ball without ingredients, and would have on hand new items to try, etc. (This is actually way harder than I thought it would be!) Through that process, I realized I was just focused on making changes at DINNER. Dinner is when everyone is most tired, harried, and frustrated. Dinner is also where our picky one LEAST agrees on the menu (for now!). As a result, I plan on actually doing a little more experimentation at breakfast time, as that is when she tends to be at her most refreshed and already likes a variety of foods, so we have a better start there. I will still implement changes at all meals, but I am not going to overlook breakfast! That said, I suppose I should also consider that some meals are conducive to people eating different food items. For instance, at breakfast, it is easy to make one person toast and pour another person cereal or serve yogurt. Or, at lunch, making a different sandwich for different people. What are your thoughts on this? Where do I draw the line at family meal vs. individual preferences? Hmmmm, anyway… Additionally, for dinner tonight, I did serve a “family meal”, but I suppose I cheated a bit and did serve the one thing we both like to have for dinner (cheese pizza, my husband was out of town, so I went an easy route). But I did things at dinner much differently… I asked my older/picky one she wanted to have some big girl jobs to help me. Oh yes, she said she did and was excited. I had her pick where we would all sit, set each place setting, decide if she wanted a kid plate or a plate like mommy’s, if she wanted a big fork or a kid fork, etc. I had her help me carry the food to the table, including the broccoli – I even had her help me wash the dishes afterward. She really enjoyed doing these things. While she didn’t try the broccoli, she did ask about it. I said we didn’t have much left, but if she wanted a little bit I guess she could have just a tiny bit. She happily said, “maybe another day!”. At least it was polite and at least it wasn’t “no”. Baby steps! Coincidentally, my youngest/less picky one – who has refused broccoli in the past – pointed to it, said “some, some”, and gobbled it right up and asked for more – and chose not to eat any pizza. Funny, how these things work! So far, my favorite part of this was not that a new food was or wasn’t tried, it was that getting dinner on the table was way less stressful because I only had one meal to cook, and that allowed me to spend quality time with my daughter and give her tasks she felt proud of and get her more involved! Thanks SO MUCH for your help! Oh and you said for me to ask questions…. Well, here you go!!! 1. I literally am not sure what’s the BEST thing I should do when either a) there is a tantrum not wanting what I am serving, or b) simply asks for something else, or c) whining “but, mommy, why can’t I just have peanut butter & jelly for lunch?. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are LOTS of things I can do, I am just not sure what is the most constructive and helps me most maintain the “nonchalance”. Time-out if whining turns into tantrum? Attempt to diffuse by calm explanation? Lay down the law? Lie and say we don’t have any? Our routines are so ingrained that it is possible that even a small change could be noticed and objected to. 2. What happens when there is actually healthy food that they eat, that we don’t care for or wouldn’t make as full side dish for our dinner (peas come to mind). I would love for them to keep eating these, but I am wondering if I need to eat them too!. (Of course, I am ok with eating these things for a dinner or two just to help with a transition, but plan on making them part of my regular repertoire). 3. Should I exercise more tolerance for trying new foods with my 1.5 year old or treat her exactly the same way as my 3.5 year old? She would have a harder time telling me what foods she wants. Should I go ahead and put the food on her tray and then have her just decide how much she wants, or is putting it on her tray already sort of pushing vs. pulling? She’s pretty verbal for her age, but there are still communication barriers. She eats much of what we put on her tray now, but certain has had of objections as well. 4. What about specific requests? Mommy can I have my cereal without milk? Mommy, can I have cheddar cheese with my lunch? What about silly things like, will you cut my cheese in sticks? I often chalk these things up to “picking your battles”, and usually comply, as long I am asked nicely and I try to give opportunities for my toddlers to feel in control on the little things I don’t feel strongly about. 5. What about times where there is junk food present, or unhealthy food? Like chips, etc. I am thinking of parties or times when we serve something that is less than ideal (fries, juice, etc). I'd like to think that in those circumstances that it is ok to limit this and control "how much". My guess is that the main thing is not to ever leverage it as a reward for eating other foods, etc. (Like the article on dessert).

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Nikki, I'm tickled pink to get your long message! There's nothing I'd rather talk about! It sounds like you are making progress. I think the most important thing you can do all the time is avoid any kind of pushing kids to eat. Never insist they try anything or eat anything. If they feel free to eat and try things without anyone paying attention or making an issue of whether they do or not, they won't have any reason to be picky. They'll start feeling the hunger and worry about being hungry after meals. If no one's pushing them to eat, there's nothing to push against. I would continue to serve meals with about three components, and make sure your kids are hungry for the meal. Among the three components, let them fill up on whatever they want. It make bug you if they eat only the rice, for example, or fill up on tomatoes, but other than, "Hey, leave some for the rest of us!" I would be careful to pay no attention whatsoever. My mom used to talk about things "sticking to our ribs." That might be an idea you could bring up. Talk about how the tomatoes fill you up for now but meat will keep you from being hungry before bed. They might be interested in topics like that. Hunger and being left free to eat or not will gradually make more foods seem appealing. The main attitude to cultivate is complete indifference to whether and they eat or not, ever, and then keep strict limits to when and how food is available. Fence them in, like sheep, to restrict them from negative eating and behaviors, but let them completely alone for the eating part, like you would a sheep. If you've pressured them to eat in the past, I'm pretty sure that's where the resistance comes from. Once they get used to being free to take care of their own eating, they'll relax and expand what they're willing to eat. The less you seem to care, the better. They'll be able to wonder what they might be missing and not worry about losing face if they try something they always refused before. Care about what you serve and how you serve it, and care about whether they're rude at the table, or whether they throw a fit, and don't allow it. But let all the caring for their hunger and what and how much they eat be up to them, and they will come around. Stick to your guns right now while they are testing you and resisting change, and it should get a lot easier quickly. Keep me posted. I would LOVE to help anytime.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Lindsey, So glad to hear you got good results. I hope you'll be able to get back on track soon with all your routines. Moving is a major drag, a huge stressor. Thanks for writing!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Melodie, I really appreciate your comment. The question of desserts and using them to get kids to eat the meal, or or just making kids eat the meal to get the dessert, is something I've been wanting to write about for quite a while. I have talked to numerous moms who say they have dessert every night, as leverage to get the kids to eat dinner. Some have said it is the only way they know to get kids to eat dinner. You situation seems a little different, in that you also want to eat dessert every night. I am going to work on a thorough reply to the question and post it as soon as possible.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Melodie, I just wrote the first in a series on dessert. It's posted now on my blog. I haven't actually given much of an answer yet, but will be giving several. Thanks so much for your comment/question!