QUESTION: What should I do about a 7-year-old who is an impossibly picky eater? All he wants to eat is mac ’n’ cheese, fries and occasionally a chicken tender. What a horrible diet! I feel like I’m being a terrible mom for giving in and letting him eat these things, but he makes such a scene if I try to give him something healthy. Help!
BBB: You are in good company when it comes to having a picky eater…here in the U.S. anyway. Experts say that probably half of all 2-year-olds fall into this category. And for many kids, it continues through adolescence.
Researchers in nutrition remind us that 10,000 years ago, 4- and 5-year-olds were out foraging on their own. Picky eating is likely a carryover from when a preference for bland food and avoiding distinctive or potent-tasting food prevented them from ingesting toxic substances.
From a developmental perspective, being picky about his food is just another of the ways that the young child can express his emerging tastes, opinions and power. As the child grows, it is a way that he asserts himself and shows his independence.
The biggest mistake that parents of picky eaters make is indulging the picky eating. That is done in many ways, not the least of which is just talking about it.
The parent guarantees the child that the food is delicious. There is the cajoling, the begging, the bargaining with the child just to “take a bite” of something green. And there is the promise of dessert to come.
Too much talk. You are giving the picky eater way too much attention.
Nor should a parent become a special meal chef, making a different meal for each child and then one for the adults. Doing so only affirms the picky eating. It’s amusing that parents prepare only the food the child will eat, as if the child will starve otherwise. I feel pretty sure there aren’t too many cases of malnutrition here in the Palisades.
Take a look at Chapter 4, “How Many Bites Til I Can Get Dessert” in my book Just Tell Me What To Say, for a discussion about children’s eating habits and behaviors.
Until then, make your whole family the same meal and give your son a very small amount of everything (definitely not letting anything touch – a child’s worst nightmare!)
In your menu, be sure to include something he will eat – some bread, pasta or fruit, for example. Sit down and talk about the Dodgers. Not one word about the meal or who is eating what.
When your son says he hates his dinner, you can reply, “Then don’t eat it.” When he complains that he is still hungry, remind him that breakfast is only 12 hours away.
Of course your child will complain or “make a scene” if he doesn’t get the food he expects. What else is new? He wants what he wants. (And since when are we afraid of a scene?)
Be sure to purge your house of his go-to junky snack foods. Fill your cupboards with healthy snack choices.
While picky eaters drive most parents crazy, please rest assured that the child is not at risk for overall nutritional deficiencies.
Although they do take in fewer nutrients than more adventurous eaters, except in extreme cases, their nutritional needs do get met.
Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. She has taught in both public and private schools, has been a school director, and was the founding director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Early Childhood Center in Los Angeles. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals. She is the award winning author of the best selling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show, Good Morning, America, America Now, Dr. Phil, The Rachael Ray Show, Fox and Friends. She has been a guest on NPR and regularly contributes to KNX News Radio, and radio stations nationwide. Betsy’s expertise has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, and in numerous city specific newspapers and family magazines. Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have three grandchildren, so far.