He used to be a great eater. My step kids were fussy eaters. Now the roles have reversed. My son takes an hour or more to eat a small meal. The tension at mealtimes is palpable. I have had some major blow-ups out of sheer frustration. Yelling and pleading with him to eat. Trying to show him all of the fun things he misses out on while he's sitting at the table for hours on end. He doesn't care. He continues unabated. No amount of incentivizing, begging, pleading, discipline, etc has worked yet. My wife and I are going on 2 years with this problem.

The problem started when his mother (my ex-wife) began really over-indulging him. He figured out how to manipulate her. When she was picking him up he would tell her he didn't like his breakfast and she would take him to McDonalds or Starbucks. Since this started, he's figured out that he doesn't have to eat my food and all he has to do is tell his mom he doesn't like my food and she will make sure he gets whatever he wants. She definitely has signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, but that's another topic for another time.

What I need is some guidance on how to combat this issue. He's gone entire days without eating and he doesn't complain at all. He is the most stubborn child I have ever heard of. He's smart, and sweet, and caring. But he's really dug in on this one issue in particular. With the exception of eating, he basically does anything he's told. However, we do expect him to get himself dressed and make his bed in the morning. He often won't dress him self or make his bed unless he's told to do it.

I suspect he may be just feeding off the negative attention he gets for not meeting our expectations. I just don't know how to break the cycle while still modifying his behavior. I know many will say that in order to get him to stop seeking negative attention give him more positive attention. If I do that he would be stuck to my hip 24/7. He's very clingy and I love him to pieces. But I don't want him to become so dependent on myself or my wife. I want to make sure he has the chance to gain some independence.

Please help!

  • 1
    I guess I don't get why being slow is particularly frustrating.
    – user26011
    Nov 29, 2017 at 21:36
  • How long is he at your house? is it just a single day? whole weekends or 50%?
    – WendyG
    Apr 16, 2018 at 11:30

2 Answers 2


I want to make sure he has the chance to gain some independence

This is ultimately what he's trying to accomplish when refusing to eat: assert his independence. Food is one of the few things that young children have control over, and refusing to eat a provided snack or meal is a legitimate way to express that they're an individual with their own preferences and needs.

Yelling and pleading with him to eat. Trying to show him all of the fun things he misses out on while he's sitting at the table for hours on end... No amount of incentivizing, begging, pleading, discipline, etc has worked yet.

Try a meal without any pleading, commanding, or arguing at all. Put his plate in front of him (with foods that you're pretty confident he likes the taste of), and then everyone else eats their own meals without focusing on whether he's putting it in his mouth.

He is likely to try to draw attention the fact that he's not eating. "I'm not going to eat this" or "I don't like this" or "This is gross." The hard part is not getting drawn into negotiation or argument: simply say, "If you're hungry, you can eat that food. If not, you don't have to." And go on with your own meal.

When everybody is finished (and possibly with a reasonable additional margin, if he's shown any interest at all in the food), the table is cleared and his food is taken away, and he's free to go on with whatever he was doing. If he complains about how hungry he is, that plate of food is still available and he can take it to the table and finish it then.

This is not an easy process or a fool-proof solution. But turning mealtimes and food choices into a battle of wills has poor outcomes for everybody, and can turn into a lifetime of bad eating habits. As long as he is not actually starving himself (and the vast majority of four year olds aren't that stubborn), let him have control over how much food he puts into his body. You can still choose what food that is, since you're serving it, but he has the right to choose whether to eat it.

  • This is what worked in our house, every meal became a long negotiation. So I started saying simply you eat everything on your plate or no pudding. and no discussions were had, how much he had eaten was not mentioned. he pretty soon got bored and just started eating.
    – WendyG
    Apr 16, 2018 at 11:30

Our 4 year old has been doing something similar for the last year and is gradually getting better. Some suggestions that we have tried that seem to work:

  1. Have him help making the dinner. This works 99% of the time with us, if our little boy makes the dinner he will usually eat it. Especially if he's chosen some of the things he's cooking.

  2. A star chart, if he finishes the meal within the given time (or has eaten what seems a reasonable amount) he gets a star, when he gets 10 stars he get's to choose his favourite meal for the next time. We just make his favourite meal, but this could be a McDonalds or similar.

  3. Set a timer, do not allow him to sit there messing around with his food for an hour. Set it for half an hour, once the timer goes off the food is removed. He then gets nothing else until the next meal, no dessert or snacks or anything. Don't shout or argue about eating it, just take his plate away. This sets boundaries and stops him getting the negative attention he's craving.

These are assuming he won't go too long without eating and actually starve him self. Our little boy would eat eventually if he got really hungry.

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