Do you have a picky eater? Does this sound familiar at your dinner table?
Your family is sitting around the dinner table. Your child takes a bite of his food.
Child: Yuck! This is gross!
Mother: Hey, knock it off! After the trouble I went through to cook for you. Kids in other countries are starving and you are being very ungrateful. If you complain again, you can’t have a treat after we eat.
What happens right away? Your child feels shamed, and associates that shame with food. Not. Good. Guess what? Research shows that your child is not actually a picky eater, rather, he just has strong food preferences, most likely due to the way he has been TRAINED to eat. More on that here.
Instead, try this:
Child: Yuck! This is gross!
Mom: I hear that you do not like the mean. I know what that’s like, there is a lot of foods I don’t care for either. And…what would really feel good to hear if you’re unhappy with your food is, “Mom, thanks for making dinner for me, but I don’t really like this meat.” Then I would like you and I to come up with a plan together for having more nutritious foods you do prefer.
There are three reasons why the second scenario is way better than the first, for you and your child.
It allows your child and you to be heard.
Kids are allowed to have preferences. Even if we think those preferences are picky, i.e. particular, knowing what’s going on for them is necessary for us to parent them well. We want our kids to feel comfortable sharing their true selves with us, otherwise, they’ll just say what they think we want to hear and eventually not open up to us at all.
Let your child know that it isn’t that they expressed a distaste for the food, rather, it’s how they expressed it. And resist the urge to label their preference as “picky,” which is really just a preference YOU have, namely, that your child eat the meal you prepared.
It teaches your child to express himself respectfully.
If we immediately shut our children down when they do something we don’t like, we lose the opportunity to teach them a better way. In this case, the mom in the second scenario shares her own feelings respectfully, and then teaches her child how to share his. Model respect, and eventually the behavior will catch on.
It teaches your child problem-solving.
The final way we benefit from scenario two is teaching our children to problem solve. Again, this moves beyond punishment to actually changing behavior with the child’s involvement. So, the problem-solving part of this scene might play out like this:
Mother: Okay, let’s talk about what we can do when you don’t like something I’ve made for you to eat. What ideas do you have? (At this point, write down all ideas. Hold back from saying this like, “Oh, that won’t work.” You can talk about each one when you’ve come up with your complete list.)
Child: Well, I could just not eat that food at dinner. Or, I could grab something from the snack drawer.
Mom: Okay, let me write those down. I was thinking you could make a list of the foods you like, and the ones you don’t like. I also think you might be able to try at least one bite of any food, and if you don’t like it you can tell me in a respectful way.
Child: Umm, what about if you do a menu before dinner and I can make myself a sandwich or something if I don’t like what you cook?
At this point, mom and child go through the list.
Mom: Well, I don’t think I can agree to you grabbing a snack for dinner.
Child: And sometimes I already know I don’t like a food, so I don’t really want to take a bite. But I could do the list.
Mom: Okay… how about this… I’ll try to avoid things on your don’t like list, but if Dad and Chris like those foods and I make them anyway, you can come in the kitchen before dinner and make something easy you do like that I agree with.
When we give our children a chance to work on a solution we’re preparing them to function in the real world. That’s positive without the punishment.
If your interested in reading about taste training as a way to help your picky eater, you can read that series here.