Have mealtimes become food fights?
Identify what is holding you hostage and develop a better strategy.
It may surprise you to find out that most parents don’t know what motivates their kids to eat the way they do. We think it boils down to taste, but it doesn’t. In fact, most kids don’t really know what they like. If you have ever had a kid stop liking something mid-meal, you know what I’m talking about.

Now it is true that children do have some genuine likes and dislike, but they don’t have as many as they report. Indeed, when a child refuses to eat something, it’s rarely about the food.  More often than not it reflects some feelings your child is having. Is she scared something is going to be yucky, is he cautious about new things in general, or does she want to engage you in a power struggle.

Instead of defining your child’s refusal to eat as a scuffle over what is on the plate, try considering your children’s habits — the what, why, when and how much of eating — and their motivations for adopting these behaviors.  You will more easily see why they approach food the way they do and then you can develop an effective strategy for change.

Here are some things to consider:   
  • Is your child vying for control?  If so, redirect her energies by giving her appropriate control.  Ask: "Which of these two foods would you like to have?",  "Choose 2 from the 3 bowls on the table."  "Would you like to eat now or in 10 minutes?"  The key is for you to set the overall structure.  Then, the more ways you can give away control over small details the more successful you’ll be.
  • Is your child naturally adventurous?  If not, then find ways to make new food experiences less foreign.  Tell your child before the meal that a new food is coming.  Describe what it will taste, smell, and even feel like.  Compare it to something your child already eats.  And remember, always give your child permission to spit it out; he should never have to swallow.
  • Does your child say, “I don’t like it” a lot? Start teaching her other ways to express her objection — “I don’t feel like trying something new right now,” “It looks yucky,” “I don’t like squishy foods,” — that way “I don’t like it,” won’t be the only trick in town.  And instead of saying, “Just try it.  If you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” say this instead: “Try a little bit and tell me what it tastes like.”
If your child has acquired a handful of challenging habits, then chances are, you probably have a couple hanging around in your closet too.  And I’m not talking about your eating habits; I’m talking about your parenting habits.  With a little reflection and honesty, it is easy to see that most of us use food to cope with at least some of the situations we encounter every day.  Who doesn’t?  Truthfully, there are times when most of us would do anything we can think of to get our kids to do what we need them to do and food is such a powerful elixir that it has the power to transform chaos into order.  Sometimes sweets really are our saving grace.

If you want your children to develop healthy eating habits, though, you will have to modify some of your feeding habits.  Unfortunately, that is easier said than done because none of us sabotages things intentionally.  We do it because one issue or another is holding us hostage.  Ask yourself these questions.

•    Are you are afraid your child will be hungry?
•    Will you do almost anything to avoid conflict?
•    Do you believe giving your children cakes and cookies shows them your love?
•    Do you feel guilty about the way you eat and think it would be hypocritical to make them eat differently?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably being held hostage by that issue.  So what does it mean?  Well, for instance, if you are afraid your child will be hungry you probably do one of the following things when you cook a meal and your child refuses it: 1) You immediately offer your child a substitute that you know she’ll eat.  2) You beg, plead, cajole and threaten your child and then offer your child a substitute that you know she’ll eat.  3) You never encounter this situation because you automatically provide your child a meal that you know she will eat.  Sound familiar?   And what do these interactions teach?  That holding out works! 

Not only that.  These interactions also prevent you from teaching your child some truly valuable lessons about hunger.  Kids need to know that hunger is a natural consequence of not eating.  They also need to learn that moderate hunger isn’t to be feared because they’ll definitely survive until the next meal.

Here’s another approach:  Give your child permission not to eat!  It diffuses the control situation, reduces the tension and makes your child decide whether or not she wants to eat.  And if you can’t cope with the idea of making her wait until the next meal before eating, give her something like a glass of milk — it’s healthy but boring — about an hour later.

Read more:
Step 1: Develop a successful mentality
Step 2: Think Big! Decide what habits you want your children to have when they grow up and teach these habits now
Step 3: Identify what your child is getting out of acting and eating this way and provide alternatives
Step 5: Develop a plan for change

Dina R. Rose, PhD, is an American sociologist who specialises in children and food. She continued her research while in South Africa with her family for a sabbatical year.

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