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Dinner with my 5-year-old is an ordeal. I do not want to cook separate meals. How do I stop the fighting at dinner and get them to eat?

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up vote 21 down vote accepted

My five kids range from "ultra picky" to "eat only healthy foods" to "surprise, I've changed my likes and dislikes".

Keep healthy foods around, so their choices are all generally healthy. Keep reintroducing new foods that they wouldn't eat within a reasonably close timeframe. Sometimes it takes 7-8 tries. Try different ways of preparing the same foods. Try to make the food look inviting to a kid (make a smiley face out of the vegetables). Give much praise when they try something new. When your kid(s) are listening, tell other people how much your kids love trying new foods. Make trying new things an exciting experience. Try eating a bit of the food with them at the same time. Say, "Let's do this together! I'll have a bite with you!".

Sometimes, its futile, but they still need to know that you're in charge, so I'm definitely an advocate of forcing them to at least have a bite of each thing on their plate. If they don't, we use a standard timeout regime just like anything else: warning, ultimatum, timeout for one minute / year of age, apology, sit back down and eat what I told you to eat.

Side note: Don't praise multiple helpings, even if the food they're eating multiple helpings of is healthy. Just praise that they tried it. Praising a second or third helping encourages overeating.

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Great advice. I know today's society says that a parent needs to let their kids do what they want and parents to stay out of the way and let it happen, but we are still the parents, despite what Society thinks. (steps off soap box now) Great advice, finding a way to work with the child makes everything easier and more enjoyable, while still showing that they have to eat what you give them. We struggle with this with my son fairly often but he is getting a lot better at eating what he is given. –  MasterZ Mar 30 '11 at 8:13
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accepted answer because of: healthy foods being the primary focus, persistent encouragement to try new foods, and not praising multiple helpings –  nGinius May 2 '11 at 21:05
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I don't know that I'd go as far as ron M. below, but letting them actually get hungry does help. If you're not careful, you can fall into a vicious cycle of 'fussy at mealtime, hungry after, gets a snack, not hungry at mealtime'. –  Benjol May 25 '11 at 9:31
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I am a strong believer in not forcing a child to eat any food. Some kids are just picky, and others are responding to their body's warnings -- about allergies, chemical sensitivities, and other hazards.

I was a picky eater. We found out in my late teens that most of the foods I wouldn't eat as a child were things that could cause me serious health problems due to a chemical sensitivity. I had an instinct to avoid them. Lucky, my mom humored me, having grown up with a sister who had serious allergies.

Is having it your way worth risking your child's health? My son, at five, could warm up some chicken nuggets or get lunch meat and crackers if he didn't want to eat what the adults were having. It's no big deal. Also, once he realized that no food would be forced on him, (and I started letting him pick out new foods that we'd learn to prepare together) he slowly became a more adventurous eater.

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-1: I'd like to see you reference some scientific studies that show that children can look at food for a split second (the typical care/reasoning that goes in to deciding they don't want to eat something) and determine that they have a chemical sensitivity. I could be wrong, but the fact that a child (or human) can determine through their senses that they have an allergic or chemical sensitivity seems pretty far fetched. I have food allergies that developed as I got older, and my body never gave nor currently gives me any indication based on sight, taste, or smell. –  Javid Jamae Jul 3 '12 at 1:12
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We used to have big fights at home over food. We just let it go. Everyone is happy now.

Basically, sometimes my child eats only meat, sometimes only carbon hydrates, sometimes only fruit. I trust my child to know what is currently missing in their body. I certainly don't.

Obviously we don't serve candy and cakes instead of real food, but I'm more than willing to just boil some pasta or a sausage. It doesn't take that long.

Sometimes the child wants to taste our food, most of the time not. I believe eventually my child will grow up and enjoy a variety of food.

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Do you take this approach only on food-related stuff, or are you a general "live and let live" person? Does that work? –  Konerak Aug 7 '11 at 15:26
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I have three children, the eldest daughter is the picky one. We have always had a rule that you are not forced to eat anything, but you have to taste - we made this rule explicitly to "one spoonful per one year of age" - so now that she's turned five, she will taste 5 spoonfuls of each dish. Sometimes she even ends up liking what she was suspicious about at first.

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We cook one healthy meal at home and put an appropriate amount of food on everyone's plate. You are not forced to eat anything. However, that's what's for dinner, we aren't cooking seperate meals for everyone. If you don't eat everything on your plate you don't get dessert.

Also, I've found that getting the kids involved in planning and, especially, cooking the meals greatly decreases the fighting over eating them.

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+1 for getting the kids involved in planning. –  nGinius May 2 '11 at 21:01
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We also get them involved in the shopping. At the local international market there are lots of interesting things, they're allowed to pick things out to try - coconuts, dragon fruit, beetroot, fish. If you can get them to pick something out they are happy to try it/eat it. The other advantage of the market is they have very little junk food on the shelves. –  james May 25 '11 at 14:26
    
Great idea to get them involved in the planning, but not such a great idea to insist on an emptied plate. I still feel the impulse to finish everything on my plate as an adult when I know I'm not hungry and don't need it. Not a fan of the "clean plate club" –  balanced mama Jul 8 '12 at 1:09
    
@balancedmama That's a tricky one. I don't want to encourage overeating, but at the same time, I don't want them eating all of the mashed potatoes and none of the peas. We try to balance this out by not having really big first servings. Then they can have seconds of just the stuff they want. –  Kevin Jul 9 '12 at 14:21
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Most parents don't believe this, but kids will not starve themselves to death for the sake of being persistently stubborn.

The solution is simple. As long as they give you trouble:

  1. Don't have the foods "they like" around for them to snack on (e.g. not come hungry to the dinner table)
  2. What you want them to eat is "what we've got. We don't have anything else."
  3. Don't want to eat? Fine. Hit the bath/bed hungry.

You'll see results within a day or two. They will eat. They will not starve. NO more fights.

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+1 for it "is what we got. We don't have anything else". –  nGinius May 2 '11 at 21:01
    
While I agree in principal, it's not quite as easy (from own experience): a) 1-2 days might not be enough ... this can drag on and re-occur; b) While they won't starve to death it will lower their blood sugar levels and can make them extremely irritable and bad sleepers during that time. c) If there is actually a hidden "good reason" why the kid is refusing to eat your food (e.g. allergies, pathological sensitivities etc) this approach is not appropriate (and you won't necessarily know) –  user548 May 3 '11 at 3:00
    
@user548 hidden reason - but you will know soon enough, and then you know :-) How else would you ever find out such sensitivites if not by eating? Apart from specifically having it tested by a lab. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 3 '11 at 11:11
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I completely agree that this is the obvious, right approach. Now, if I could just convince my wife that it's not "cruel" to refuse to let our kids have an alternative dinner if they turn down the one we prepared. :) Picky eating is a problem unique to affluent cultures, and stems from kids being given too many choices. You eat what's for dinner, or you don't eat. (Although "what's for dinner" definitely needs to take into account known allergies, etc.) –  Bill Clark May 24 '11 at 17:28
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@Bill Because that "alternative dinner" doesn't usually mean "fish" over chicken. It's usually "Pasta/snacks/pizza" and whatever else kids prefer in their consequence free minds. If your wife thinks denying your kid his extra-cheese pizza is cruel -- she needs to see what 12 year olds do to an obese peer... now THAT'S cruel. –  ron M. May 24 '11 at 19:06
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If I'm introducing a new food, I try to not make it the whole meal - it'll overwhelm my son. Kiwi fruit, as an example; he wouldn't eat it sliced & plain. So I started slicing it finely and adding it to his yoghurt in the morning, and into a fruit salad for the evening dessert, slowly making the pieces bigger. Now he loves them and I just have to peel it and he'll eat it whole.

As I've previously mentioned, my son is currently in the 'I don't eat green vegetables' phase (he's 3.) So I make sure he gets carrots and cauliflower at dinnertime, and I give him carrot sticks and cucumbers as snacks. I also make sure I make a broccoli, leek and spinach soup once a week and give him a small bowl of it. He'll it soup if it's green.

Having him help with the dinner is also a good way to get him interested in it; he wants to sample the sauce or stir this and whisk that - but as it's also been mentioned, I cook one meal, and that's what he gets. If he won't eat what's on his plate, then once I'm done clearing the table and taking care of the other dishes, his plate is taken and tossed. If he gets hungry later he gets carrot sticks, an apple and some raisins, but nothing more.

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+1 for starting small –  nGinius May 25 '11 at 6:11
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I remember reading Touchpoints, where he says that at a certain age, children don't actually NEED to eat that much, and they are far more interested in exploring and moving than in eating, so he recommends just putting little bits of everything on their plates, and letting them come back to it.

Our experience with the oldest is that she would eat pretty much anything till around 15 months, then she spent 6 months being intensely fussy, pretty much eating only pasta or bread sticks. We just put extra vitamins in her milk and let it ride. Now (at nearing 5) there are still quite a few of the classic no-no veggies she doesn't like, but she eats lots of apples, carrots, and has a fairly balanced diet.

Children differ too, our younger daughter is far more inquisitive, she's up for tasting anything, even if she decides she doesn't like it, whereas her sister is much more conservative.

Overall, I would say the most important thing is to teach your toddler to ENJOY eating. We have a friend whose daughter is 6, and she just doesn't eat. Every single mealtime is a battle, every single mouthful is a battle. I strongly suspect it is at least partially because of her mother forcing her when she was younger.

Remember that food is an excellent weapon in the battle of the wills. This is one of the few areas where your child can exert his/her will and 'win', so you don't really want to go there. Our eldest daughter is far more 'fussy' when she is at home, and when both parents are present - because she can get more 'mileage' out of the conflict. Sometimes I suspect it's just a way to get attention.

Of course, we are also influenced by our own upbringing - "waste not, want not". My parents grew up in the post-war years, when being fussy was pretty much criminal. That doesn't mean that now we should be wasteful, of course, but we do perhaps need to rethink and justify our priorities, and what food and eating actually mean for us.

(Disclaimer: cross-posted from here)

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Picky eaters usually require a closer look to determine what is the root of their food habits. Causes for picky eating can be related to oral sensory responses, normal developmental patterns, taste/flavor preferences, and behavior ploys to name a few.

Does your child have a history of gagging/choking on a bottle or food as an infant? Some are born with hypersensitivities that cause eating to be a negative experience. Children who had adversive experiences early in life requiring intubation, feeding tubes, or placement in NICU are often problem feeders.

As children develop, the drive to explore their world is greater than their hunger for food at times. They may eat very little for several days or eat only one or two foods at a given meal. During these times, the quality of their diet would best be considered by an accumulation of the foods eaten over several days. A survey of several days is a better reflection of how well one's diet is meeting nutritional demands.

A child's stomach is the size of their fist. So they need far less food than we sometimes imagine. Be sure to monitor juice, soda, and milk consumption. These often fill small stomachs and reduce hunger with calories while limiting their desire for more nutritious choices. Presenting food in muffin tins or ice trays is a fun way to encourage a variety of foods in small amounts that match a little ones tummy size.

Children need to explore food in a variety of ways and have many repeated exposures to accept a new food. Research indicates 15 or more pleasant experiences is needed. Having children help with food purchasing, preparation and clean up is a helpful strategy for increasing pleasant contact with food. Children learn from imitation. Having children sit at the table for meals with the family increases positive contact with food and provides them with a good role model. Opportunities to play with fun foods will also be helpful in bring peace times to the table.

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What has worked well for us is:

A: Dole out small portions to begin with (and I might make a serving with less spice or something if I'm making a meal that is not so kid friendly). I regularly use salad plates as our dinner plates. Seconds are welcome when everything on the first plate was finished.

B: If she does not eat a proportionate amount of veggies, I save them and give them to her with Breakfast, Lunch and then again the next night at Dinner.

C: If her dinner was not proportionately eaten and she is hungry later, she can have left-overs of the food of which she did not eat enough. Otherwise, no dessert, no snacks, go to bed hungry.

I say proportionate because it really shouldn't be about finishing the plate. If I've given her a proportioned plate, but when she says she is full all she ate was her roll and two bites of fruit or chicken, she didn't eat a proportionate meal (and yes I use this word with her). If the portions on her plate are all smaller and she ate relatively proportionate amounts of all the foods on her plate then she can have what the rest of us have for breakfast.

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+1 for smaller plate and proportionate eating –  nGinius Jul 8 '12 at 1:03
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