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Punish & Reward Your Child for Eating

If you want to make a picky eater worse, by all means punish your child when he refuses to eat and reward him when he does. This is a one-way ticket to mealtime stress for everyone. Food should never be used for reward or punishment. Many studies show that kids who connect eating with punishment or rewards are at risk for stress, inability to self-regulate, food insecurities and possibly more harmful habits like sneaking food, under-eating or overeating. If my son doesn’t eat, fine, but I’m not going to punish him for it. Food isn’t a discipline issue. Making food an excuse for discipline will only encourage your child to see food as the enemy. On the flip side, when my son does eat or choose a healthy food, I don’t heap on the rewards either. I never tell him, “What a good boy – you ate!” or give him treats. My son is not a pet dog and you should never reward healthy eating with treat food. Everyone at my house gets dessert if they want it, regardless of if they ate dinner, which works fine since we mostly serve healthy desserts like fruit and veggie popsicles. Eating should be considered a normal everyday activity, not some big huge accomplishment that needs to be rewarded. Do not make food a bigger deal than it is.

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Serve Junk Food so Your Kid Won’t Starve

Of all the tactics I’ve seen parents of picky eaters try, this one makes me the most crazed. A vast majority of picky eaters and overweight kids I’ve met have parents who give up very early on, and instead of trying helpful tactics, gave their kids junk food and fast food because, “Otherwise they’d starve.” No they won’t. I 100% promise you, there is not one child on the planet who will literally starve to death if you don’t serve fast food or junk. I get it, because when you’re dealing with a picky eater, it really feels like your child could starve to death at any moment. When that happens, it’s easy to think, maybe it’s okay to give in and buy that Happy Meal, processed nuggets or white bread. What happens next, no surprise, is your kid knows he can score a Happy Meal if he doesn’t eat because his parents are so terrified he’ll starve. I’ve met many teens who flat out refuse to eat anything but junk. If you talk to their parents, you’ll learn that it all goes back to when these kids were toddlers and refused healthy food choices so their parents bought them fast food or chips. My kid is one of the pickiest eaters I’ve met; even so, I never just gave up and bought him junk food. When my son gets to the starvation point, you know what he does? He eats what’s available at the house, which includes a large selection of healthy foods. I’ve seen him eat some really odd meals, like a whole red bell pepper and a handful of whole grain crackers, but the point is he eats. No fast food required. Your kids will eat too, because even the most picky kids on the planet will eat healthy food before starving to death.

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Be a Sneaky Chef

There are HUGE debates about whether or not you should hide healthy foods in other foods to get a picky child (or any child) to eat. Some say hiding healthy food in “less healthy” food is no big deal. Other researchers, and myself, feel that hiding food only reinforces picky eating and encourages extremely poor food choices later in life. Consider this – your child won’t eat veggies, so you puree them and add them to brownies or a smoothie, thus ensuring he might eat them. Say it works. Now your kid loves those brownies and smoothies, and may be getting some extra nutrition to boot, but you haven’t really done anything to help your child like whole veggies have you? As an adult, maybe your child will only reach for brownies or sweet sugary smoothies, only they won’t be made with veggies. Adding veggies and fruit to food is smart. In fact, I add veggies to sauces and ice pops and use applesauce in place of oil in cakes, but my son knows it. If he says, “What’s in these ice pops?” I tell him straight up there’s spinach in them. There’s no way your child will ever know if he likes carrots, beets, peppers or peas if you hide them from him. Make food healthier, but be honest with your child about it and serve whole foods once in a while too so your child knows how different foods taste.

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Cater to Your Child

Catering to a picky eater is a HUGE mistake. I’ve seen parents cater to picky eaters by making adults one meal and kids another or who will cook an entirely new second meal if their child won’t eat the first one. Another way parents cater to kids is by giving fast food as noted above. Catering like this is more work for you, and it teaches kids that their needs come before others at all times and that it’s okay not to eat because someone will always give them more food. On top of this, kids learn their eating habits from their parents. If you’re eating one thing and your kid’s eating another, you can’t expect him to learn to eat properly. So how do you handle this? Instead of making a second meal, design an age-appropriate snack drawer. This was a tactic I came up with when my son was three years old or so and we still use it today. Here’s how it works.

  • Buy two simple BPA-free plastic bins with easy to remove lids.
  • Once a week, stock one bin with dry healthy snacks and the other with cold snacks.
  • Place the dry bin on a low shelf your child can reach in the pantry and the cold bin in the fridge, on the lowest shelf.
  • If your child refuses a meal you make, and later starts whining that he’s hungry, tell him, “Go get something from one of your snack drawers.”
  • The end. Do not cook another meal for your kid. Just send him to get his own food.

The snack drawer works in a few different ways. It teaches your child that he’s in charge of his food choices, lets him know that you won’t be catering to him, and teaches him to manage his hunger himself. If you fill the drawers with healthy foods, it also teaches your child about smart food choices. At first the drawers were a fun novelty for my son – he loved getting to pick his very own food out. By the time the fun factor wore off, the drawers had become habit for him and like it or not, he knew how to use them. Nowadays, my son is old enough to get fridge food himself, but he still has a dry snack drawer in the pantry. Personal snack drawers are hands down the best picky eater trick I ever used in my house. If you need ideas about what to put in your snack drawers, here’s what I do. I fill the “dry” bin with crackers, fruit leather, granola bars, bananas, little easy open food containers of dry cereal, raisins and other snacks, plus I stick a few treats in, like some squares of organic chocolate or a couple of cookies. I fill the “cold” bin up with stuff like baby carrots, squares of cheese, organic yogurt and every other day, I add fresh apple slices, grapes and other produce options to it.

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Beg, Plead and Get Super Upset When Your Child Won’t Eat

Don’t take picky eating personally. I know it’s tough, especially when you try so hard to create lovely, fresh organic meals for your child, but trust me, it’s not about you. I’m a picky eater too, so I know for a fact when my kid doesn’t eat, it’s not about me. It’s about the food. When you freak out because you have hurt feelings, your child learns that not eating gains him attention – not good attention, but kids aren’t picky about the kind of attention they get. Consider this, over the years, your kid will do tons of stuff you don’t like. On a grand scale, not eating that squash is pretty minimal. If your child doesn’t eat, don’t beg, cry or plead because all you’re doing is making food a much bigger deal than it actually is. Ask your child to eat ONCE. If he refuses, take a deep breath and accept that your child isn’t going to eat. If hungry whining starts, send said kid to the amazing snack drawer (see above).

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Allow Your Picky Kid to Control Mealtime

Hands down, the hardest part about living with a picky eater is that they often turn every mealtime into a nightmare. I don’t know why they do it, but picky eaters often end up making everyone so miserable that each and every mealtime is stressful for everyone involved. Younger picky eaters often whine, cry, freak out, throw their head onto the table and more. Older picky eaters often whine, roll their eyes, ask to leave, complain or act overly hyper. Don’t let this happen at your house. If you want to diffuse bad behavior and stress, plus encourage good mealtime habits, the most important thing you can do is set rules and stick to them so that mealtimes can be pleasant, in spite of who is eating what. Below are mealtime rules at my house – and note there are rules for parents and kids, not just the kids.

Rules for everyone:

  • We all sit at the table for meals together.
  • We all stay seated until the meal is over – meaning until the last person is finished.
  • We are all served the same meal – a little of everything goes on everyone’s plate.
  • You don’t have to eat. Eating is a choice.
  • If you didn’t cook the food, it’s not fair to complain about it.

Rules for parents:

  • Don’t nag. Telling a picky kid over and over to eat is annoying for everyone and doesn’t work. Ask once, be okay with their answer and stop asking.
  • Stay calm. It’s really okay if someone doesn’t eat. Worse things have happened.
  • Don’t take picky eating personally and create martyr drama.
  • Make mealtime about being together, not about the food.
  • Talk about your day, start discussions and keep it chill. If mealtime is a fun time, it doesn’t ensure a picky eater will eat, but they will want to be at the table so it cuts down on whining considerably.
  • Be consistent. If you change the rules nightly such as pleading one night with your kid to eat and ignoring him the next, it confuses your child and creates stress for everyone.
  • Do not allow one child to ruin mealtime for everyone. If your child is freaking out, send your child to his room until everyone else is done eating. Allowing one person to create nightly mealtime stress for everyone is not okay.

Rules for kids: 

  • It’s fine if you don’t eat. You won’t be punished for that choice.
  • Just because you don’t want to eat, it doesn’t mean you can act nuts.
  • For older kids – If you roll your eyes or complain about the food, you can plan and cook dinner tomorrow night.
  • For younger kids – If you whine, cry, complain or freak out with regard to the food that’s served, you need to go hang out in your room, so that everyone else can enjoy a nice meal (and time) together.
  • If you’re hungry later because you decided not to eat, you need to deal with it because no one is going to cook a second meal for you.

If a meal ends, and my son has eaten nothing, and he’s hungry, he is in charge of feeding himself something easy and reasonable, like cereal, a bagel or soup with simple sides like cheese, apples, peas, carrots and so on. When he was nine years old, I had him write a list of easy meals he could make and hang it on the wall. If he whines after dinner or doesn’t want a snack I make him, I say, “I already made you food once. Go look at your list, pick a meal, and make it yourself.” At first he’d complain about having to make himself food, but now he just does it. Just make sure that from time to time, you work on cooking skills with your child, so he can learn to make new foods for himself. Younger kids obviously aren’t as good at making their own food. So, if a younger child doesn’t eat and is whining about being hungry, refer them to their snack drawer to find food, as I mentioned above.