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Setting Food Boundaries

Miss Katie's tips for dealing with a picky eater

Question: How do I get my child to eat what I want her to eat, when I want her to eat it?

Let’s face it, parenting doesn’t come with a manual. When your child is sitting at the dinner table, adamantly refusing to eat a single bite of what’s on his/her plate, it can be both frustrating and confusing. After all, what’s the appropriate way to handle this situation? Most parents understand the importance of setting boundaries with their child, but many aren’t sure of how to do it. You want your little one to eat, but you don’t want to cave in and make an entirely separate meal of macaroni and cheese simply because they refuse to eat the chicken you prepared for the family. You also don’t want to angrily force them to eat their food, feeling as though you need to “bully” them into doing it.

Setting boundaries is important for kids in general, as it teaches them how to set limits for themselves when they get older (self-discipline). Doing so at the dinner table has the added benefit of expanding their food palate and making sure their growing bodies receive important nutrients. Setting boundaries with empathy is key. In other words, show your child that you understand how they feel while lovingly (but firmly) setting limits. Here is a list of ways to accomplish this at the dinner table:

  • Offer a Choice: Before preparing dinner, give them a choice of the kind of vegetable or protein they would like to eat. Say something like, “We have green beans and we have broccoli in the fridge. Which do you think we should have with dinner tonight?” The only choices should be the ones you give them. It is the same at school… If there are three activity centers out during Choice Play, a child must choose one of the activities being offered. He/she cannot take another toy out of the closet that is not currently being offered to the class. It is the same thing with food… Let them know which sides or mains they can choose from, but let them know that those are the only choices available and they must eat what they choose.
  • Brave Bites: If your child is sitting in front of his/her plate, staunchly refusing to take a bite of something, ask him/her to take a brave bite or even a brave lick. Children love feeling empowered, often dressing up like superheroes, fire fighters, and strong dinosaurs. Ask your child, “How do you know you won’t like it unless you try it? You are such a big boy/girl, and I know you are brave. If you take a brave bite of your food, even just one, I will be so happy. Do you think you’d be able to take a brave bite?” Your child’s desire to be a “brave, big kid” may end up with their not only taking a bite, but perhaps even a few to show you how brave they really are. If they take a “brave bite” and decide that they do not like the food, praise them for trying it and acknowledge that it’s okay to dislike something, so long as we try it first.
  • Make it Fun: In the 1983 movie, “A Christmas Story,” Mrs. Parker gets her son, Randy, to eat his mashed potatoes by asking him to, “show Mommy how the piggies eat.” She makes eating fun for Randy, and as a result, he finishes his dinner. If your little one will not eat his/her meal, regardless of any pleading/bargaining (I do not suggest either), try to liven up the activity. I often say to my students, “Oh, you’re not going to eat that food? Well then, I guess I’ll have to eat it. I can eat it, right?” They know I’m being silly with them, and step up to the game. “No, Miss Katie, it’s my food and you can’t have it! I’m going to eat it!” Before I know it, they’ve eaten their whole plate just to show me (teasingly) that I can’t eat their food for them.
  • Empathetically Tough Love: The big question remains… What if, after all of this, your child still refuses to eat or demands something else entirely? It is important to resist getting angry or resorting to bribery (If you take just one bite of your chicken, I’ll give you cookies!). It’s also important to have realistic expectations… Forcing your child to clean his/her plate is not only unrealistic, but teaches them to ignore their own hunger cues. Your child may be crying or stamping his/her feet by this time, but it is important to maintain a calm, loving, and firm demeanor. Getting frazzled and caving into a child’s demands because you do not want to upset them is understandable, but it will only result in poor behavioral patterns later on and the inability for a child to handle things when they don’t go his/her way. It will also teach them that in order to get a parent to do what he/she wants, he/she simply needs to throw a tantrum.

Child: “I do not want to eat my chicken! I want macaroni and cheese!”

Parent: “I understand your frustration, but this is what I have for you to eat. If you choose not to eat it, that’s okay, but if you don’t eat it you may be hungry later. Do you understand my words?”

Child: “I don’t want it! I’m not hungry!”

At this point, save their portion of the meal and set it aside. Do not make them something else to eat. Most children will not go to bed hungry, as it is uncomfortable. If a child is hungry, he/she will eat. If, later on, your child tells you he/she is hungry, re-heat their food and give it to them. Say, “If you are hungry, you may still choose to eat this. This is what we had for dinner tonight, and so it is what I have for you to eat. Would you like to eat your dinner now?” At this point, most children will eat the food. Praise them for doing so, and acknowledge that they may have macaroni and cheese another time, perhaps even for dinner.

Children are allowed to get upset… It is simply how parents/caregivers react to those emotions that matter. By staying calm and loving, while firmly setting a food boundary, you will find that eating gets much easier over time.

Quotes from real working parents about feeding their children:

“If my little girl wants to eat ice cream, I tell her, ‘Eat all of your green beans first and take three bites of your chicken. Then you can have dessert.’” ~Karen B, Tennessee

“I let my children eat off of my plate if they ask to taste something I’ve ordered at a restaurant. I find this is a good way to get them to try new foods.” ~Rebecca B, New York

“I let my kids help me decide about dinner. I ask them what they think we should make for a vegetable, or if they think we should have chicken or beef.” ~Linda L, Texas

Do you have a question for Katie, or something you’d like to share with the River School community on the blog? Feel free to email her at kidslearn@theriverschool.com

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