Mums, dads, parents of any kind, read on! Is your mealtime affected by that hard-to-deal-with phenomenon The Picky Eater? No fun, right? Debates, bribes, promises, anger…none of it works; in fact it makes things worse. You dread dinner time. So what to do? First of all, take a
deep breath. You’re not alone.
How it used to be
Today’s world and lifestyle leave us so busy that simple, old-fashioned routines like family meal time are rapidly vanishing from our social life. Being busy affects how we eat, what we eat, where we eat and how we deal with Picky Eaters. Our parents were strict, had a lot less money and far more time. They didn’t have to reply to emails 24/7 and there were no ads on TV or fast food chains to influence their brood. A classic line at the dinner table 30 odd years ago? “Eat up. There are children starving in Africa.” And so we did. End of story.
It’s not that easy anymore. We have no tools for this behaviour; we are the first generation of ‘democratic parents,’ allowing our kids to speak up and be opinionated but no manual was handed to us. So what can we do? Simple changes that work, that’s what we can do. It will require
some willpower on your end but the results will be so worth it, you’ll be glad you persevered.
Medical research shows that humans, including children can go without food for around 17 days before real serious things start to happen. Fluids is a different game; the human body doesn’t work well without liquids(1,2,3). Two or three days without a drink can be detrimental. Now this is where it gets tough…it’s within our human ‘nurturing’ instinct that we feel our kids should eat. Even if it’s only a bowl of cereal (instead of a proper dinner), we ‘need’ to know we’re not sending our offspring to bed feeling hungry. That’s where the Picky Eater is powerful, playing that emotion like a finely-tuned piano. Masterpieces of manipulation are the result. Picky Eaters can be found anywhere. Their reasons are numerous. Sometimes kids will refuse certain food groups (grains, dairy) due to an underlying, undetected intolerance (4). That’s possible, that’s instinct. But if your kid is fussy over all meals, let’s go for solutions. Put on your armour-plated parent suit, follow the steps and let the changes occur. If older children or other family members are around, explain your plan. This way, there’s no awkward questioning that will draw attention. This is a joint adventure, one that needs solid rules.
Serve a dinner that is well-liked by everyone, but nothing too special. Serve the PE (Picky Eater) a bird portion of what you would normally serve. A few cubes of potato the size of dice, ten peas, a slice of carrot and a tablespoon of meat, fish or chicken; whatever is the go. If Spag
Bol is a favourite, place a tiny spoon of pasta in the middle and use a teaspoon of sauce. Serve everyone. Watch your PE’s surprise as he/she looks at the plate. Don’t comment. Let them be. They may refuse this small amount initially. Remove the plate when everyone is done. Still in your armoured suit? Good. Hold on to your ‘No comments’ mantra. If your PE throws a tantrum over why there is so little on his plate be logical: “You don’t seem to like full plates, so I thought I’d give you less.” Leave it at that and move on.
Most likely, around 30 minutes later, your PE will announce he/she is hungry. They’ll ask for a bowl of cereal, their favourite, sugar-laden filler. Say NO. Joke, say “Sorry, kitchen closed” and distract them with a story or a game or a cuddle. No anger, no emotions apart from mindful love for your little one who has to learn a new habit. Your decisions must be supported by all family members; if one gives in, the whole plan falls apart.
Be consistent. Repeat step 1 and 2 for every meal that causes problems until change takes place. Don’t give in to requests for nibbles in between meal times. Fill lunch boxes with mini portions too, not with full-size school snacks. An apple quarter or one small biscuit instead of a whole apple and 3 biscuits is fine, you know what I mean, don’t you? Do give treats as per normal, but also in mini servings. This is not a punishment; this is a portion-adjusting time. Usually, within a few days your PE will attack their mini meal. You’ll find that after that, they’ll start asking for a second serve. How empowering is that for a PE? Dinner is no longer a hurdle but an achievement and a time that everyone can enjoy. And you’ve helped your child in developing a healthy approach to eating while building self-confidence. Well done!
1. Peel, M. Hunger strikes. BMJ. 1997 Oct 4;315(7112):829-30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2127586/pdf/9353494.pdf. Accessed March 12, 2016
2. Lieberson A. How long can a person survive without food? Scientific American. Published November 8. 2004. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-can-a-person-survive-without-food/ Accessed March 12, 2016
4. Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. Food Intolerances. ASCIA 2014. Updated January 2014. https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/food-other-adverse-reactions/food-intolerance. Accessed March 12, 2016.