Let's Talk About Picky Eaters...

by Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

A friend of mine tells a story about her family when she was small. Her sister refused to eat green beans. Her father got very angry and said something like, "Think of the starving children in Armenia." Her sister, in a tiny scared voice, replied, "Letís send it to them, Daddy." Unfortunately, he didnít see the humor in it and sent her to bed without dinner. Forty years later, my friend and her sister are still dealing with guilt and anxiety around food.

How many of us have similar stories of well-meaning parents cajoling us to eat, to belong to the "clean plate club," to think of the starving children in Ö (you name the place. It seems to differ from family to family.). The result of all these good intentions is a generation of people out of touch with their bodiesí hunger signals, still cleaning their plates whether they need to or not, or constantly out of control of (or too involved in controlling) their food intake.

Ideally, the dinner table should be a comfortable family time, not a battleground about green beans. How do we teach our children to eat a variety of healthy foods, to try new things, and to be in touch with their own bodiesí needs without damaging their relationship to food for life?

Here are a few ideas that people in my parenting groups have found to be helpful:

  • Serve small portions. Let children ask for more rather than be confronted with what to them looks like a mountain of food.
  • One Mom serves "no thank you helpings" -- one spoonful of an unfamiliar food to "just taste." She has found that it takes several exposures to a new food before kids accept it as just part of the family routine.
  • Ask kids to think about how hungry they are and serve themselves. That way, they learn to correlate hunger with food amounts.
  • If you are going to serve something unfamiliar, make sure that you also have as part of the meal something that you already know the kids like. The idea is to expand their tastes, not to have them go hungry because they arenít ready for Hungarian goulash, or whatever.
  • Involve the children in meal preparation when you can. Kids are more likely to try something they have had a part in making. Make a game out of knowing and using the food pyramid.
  • Focus dinnertime on family time rather than on the food. Do things to make it a little special. Candles shouldnít only be reserved for company. If you have a dining room, use it. Introduce a word game for young kids. Talk about the news with your teens. Think as carefully about what you hope to talk about as you do about what you serve.

Tips about dessert:

  • Never, ever, make dessert an incentive for eating the meal. If you serve it, dessert is just part of supper. You donít want to ingrain the idea that eating sweet stuff is a reward for putting up with healthy food. This can backfire in a big way later.
  • Only serve dessert now and then so itís a special treat and you are not tempted to use it as a bribe. Help your children learn to enjoy the main dish.
  • One family I know has "upside down meals" every now and then. They serve dessert first as a way to be collectively naughty. Everyone giggles at being allowed to have chocolate cake before the casserole. Since they keep dessert portions small, the kids usually do manage to get their protein and veggies too.
  • Make a meal center around a special treat. Strawberry shortcake, for example, can be a great lunch as can fruit salad with a little cheese and bread.
  • Finally, donít let your ego get involved with whether the kids like what you serve. Itís inevitable that they will turn up their noses at something youíve taken all day to prepare if itís something they havenít seen before. Make unusual and fancy things because itís fun for you, not because itís a testament of your love for your family. Otherwise, if they donít like it, it will feel to them and to you like theyíve let you down. Confusion between loving the Mom and loving the food is not healthy and leads to adults who connect over-eating with love.

If you are worried that you have already blown it, please remember that itís never too late to start. With young children, all you have to do is make a change. With older kids, say age eight and up, talk about why you are going to do things differently and ask for their help in changing family eating patterns. Donít underestimate them. Kids often understand better than adults why they need to respect their bodies. And they havenít had as many years of bad eating habits as the rest of us.

In summary, to develop healthy eating habits:

  • Remember that the point of dinnertime is the time, not the dinner. This is an important time for family to be together and to enjoy each other.
  • Remember that the most important thing you can do for your children is to help them listen to their own bodiesí signals about hunger and fullness.
  • Donít connect favorite foods to love, praise, or approval. This leads to major problems later in life.
  • Do involve kids with food preparation from the time they are very young.
  • Do help your children be adventurous about foods.
Date published: 1/27/00 11:55:09 AM
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.