Ask Dr. Z
Dear Dr “Z”,
I have a 4-year-old son, Jake, and he can be a very picky eater. He eats only a hand full of items, like chicken nuggets, waffles, and French fries. Jake doesn’t eat any green vegetables and will eat carrots on occasion, only if they are raw and he can dunk them in dressing. Jake just doesn’t seem that interested in food and we are constantly battling and making deals like, “If you take two more bites, you can have dessert.” He does like his dessert so that usually works. I also bribe him that he can watch TV while he eats but that I will turn the TV off if he is not eating. That also seems to help. I am just not sure if I am doing the right thing and I am getting sick of the battle and of making him a separate meal every night. I am also getting concerned because my 2 ½ year old, who used to love his food, is starting to copy Jake and is now refusing to eat some of the things that he used to eat. What should I do?
I am sure many Moms can relate to the “picky eater” and the “food battle.” There are a number of changes that you might consider making to shift the energy around meal time and the power struggle that you have gotten yourself into with your son. Before you consider making any changes you need to make sure that Jake has had a physical and that he is growing and gaining weight as expected. If this is the case, you can start to feel more comfortable that he is getting enough nutrition.
To begin to change the meal time dramas, keep in mind the first rule of thumb, which is that YOU provide the routine and the structure for his eating. YOU set the times for the 3 meals and the 2 to 3 snacks that he will eat each day. Try to stick to this routine so that Jack knows he will not be “grazing and snacking” all day long but that he will be eating every two to three hours during the hours he is awake.
YOU also get to choose what is on the menu. Present a range of foods more than once, even if Jack sometimes refuses to eat anything on the plate. When appropriate, give Jack controlled choices, such as “Do you want waffles or cereal for breakfast.” Just use caution with this because you do not want to become a short-order cook. If chicken, broccoli, and mashed potatoes are on the menu for dinner, then don’t make him a completely different meal. A controlled choice in this instance is “Do you want butter or cheese on your broccoli or would you like it plain.”
When presented with the food, JACK then gets to decide whether to eat it or not to eat. Try to avoid arguing or being critical about what he eats so you don’t battle over food. If he chooses not to eat, remind him that he will not get any more food until his next scheduled “snack” or “meal” and stick to it! When he refuses to eat a meal, feel comfortable in knowing that skipping one meal will not harm healthy kids. Studies have shown that a child may eat very little or nothing at all during a meal, but he will make up the nutrition later that day or later in the week. Again, I want to reiterate this advice is only for children or have been determined to be healthy according to their pediatrician.
Sometimes, we fill a child’s plate and feel as if they have not eaten enough at the end of the meal when in actuality, they have eaten the right amount for them. When thinking about portion size, a good guideline to go by is approximately 1 tablespoon of each type of food per year of a child. Typically, children know when they are hungry and full and use these cues to properly control food intake. When we encourage them to ignore these cues, with statements such as “Eat three more pieces of chicken and then you can be done”, they may learn to override this internal message. Similarly, when we allow them to watch TV while they eat, they are distracted and often do not cue in to their internal messages of satiety.
Lastly, on the topic of dessert, know that dessert does not need to be offered at every meal or every day. In addition, dessert doesn’t only have to be cookies or cakes, it can also be fruit. Some ideas to consider are:
· It is not always advisable to make your child finish all of their dinner before dessert because they may be full and will eat dessert anyway (ignoring their own satiety).
· Withholding dessert if your child doesn’t eat may not always be the answer because your child will come to value dessert above all other nutritious choices which can impact eating patterns for life.
· If a child rushes through meal time to get to dessert, try offering dessert with the meal.
Remember, change can be hard at first and you can expect Jack to resist. But, if you are consistent, he will eventually come to accept his new normal and you may even find that his palate broadens. Good luck and best wishes for more stress free meals in your future!
Laura Zipris holds a doctorate in Psychology and is licensed to practice psychotherapy in New York, as well as in Florida. Laura is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy, a transformational approach that has been used successfully with couples around the world to help them to strengthen their partnerships, deepen their connection and reignite their passion for one another. Laura sees individuals of all ages and sexual orientations, couples, families, and groups in her offices located in Wellington and Delray Beach. In addition to her psychotherapy practice, Dr. Zipris works part time as a licensed school psychologist for the Palm Beach County School District.
For more information about Laura, please visit her website at www.drlaurazipris.com or to set up an appointment, contact Laura directly at (561) 558-7815.
Questions for this column should be sent to Dr. “Z” at Drlaurazip@gmail.com