Many of us hark back to a distant memory. It may be of our family, it may be of someone else’s family, it may be of a mythical and entirely unreal Television Family.

It is of a family sitting around the meal table: everyone cheerful, co-operative children – hands washed, faces clean, hair tied back – who have, no doubt, taken part in meal preparation and setting the table, positive talk only with everyone taking turns and listening respectfully, appreciation expressed for the delightful food, a heartwarming atmosphere of closeness, family unity and willing helpers to clean up.

And let’s not forget the most important part. Everyone is eating and enjoying the food that is put in front of them.

There is an appropriate teenage response to this mirage, to be uttered with scornful sarcasm. “Yeah, right.”

Real life

In real life, many of us are struggling with mealtime mayhem. Some of us have children who live on air and some of us have children who overeat. Some of our children eat well at breakfast and nibble at dinnertime and some of us have children who decline breakfast and are ravenous at afternoon tea time. Some children eat their school lunches, some children eat only their favourite bits and some children are far too busy socialising to care about their nutritional needs at all.

When your child is a good eater, (but not too good!) you feel like a successful parent. Your baby nurse, your doctor and the grandparents can see you are doing a good job.

But what if your child is naturally slight? What if your child has little interest in food? What if they never stop asking for snacks? Under these circumstances, the pressure on mothers is enormous. Everyone, it seems, feels free to offer advice, usually unasked for!

Some Children Are Not Overly Interested In Food

Our first two children, Robert and Tanya were both keen on food. Our third child, Deborah, was a revelation. Sometimes, when she was hungry, she would eat voraciously and demand more. Other times, she would have a few mouthfuls and then, that would be it. Not another speck of food would pass her lips. “Just one more spoon for Mummy” had no effect whatsoever.

How I Learned Not To Have Food Battles

One morning, when Deborah was about two, it was morning teatime. I had put in front of her a plate of mandarin segments, toast cubes and cheese cubes – all foods that Deborah enjoyed when she was hungry. She scoffed down the mandarin and some of the toast and cheese and then asked to get down from her highchair.

For some strange reason, I decided that she was not going to get another mouthful until that food had been eaten. I was not going to raise a picky child who wasted food. Water only – Yes – but nothing more until that was eaten.

If mother was made of stern stuff, Deborah was made of sterner stuff. She held out on water only. Robert (15) and Tanya (13) would come to me privately and say “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” I would go off and cry in the bedroom.

I couldn’t bear it that she would have to eat dried out old toast that was set like concrete and cheese that was so dry that it had caved sides and split; so, whenever she was asleep or not looking, I would replace them with fresh cubes.

Deborah held out for thirty-six hours on water only. Then she ate. I had won…but it was a very hollow victory. But I had learned a lesson. I resolved that I would never engage in a food battle again.

That episode also taught me that, when clients come to me about problems with the way their child is eating – or not! – the first question I am likely to ask is “Is she strong-willed?” If the answer is something like “You have no idea how strong willed!” then I know that the worst solution possible is to engage in a food battle.

So, What Do You Do With A Picky Eater?

Instead of worrying “How am I going to get them to eat?” learn the following mantra and mutter it to your self whenever you feel a food war looming.

It is a parent’s responsibility to offer our children access to reasonable quantities of healthy food that they sort-of like five times a day. What they do with this opportunity is their business.

Begin with very small quantities. Should they ask for more, you will find a way to cope.

Avoid foods touching each other. Particularly avoid an undesirable food touching a desirable food. Apparently the contamination renders all the good stuff uneatable. If I were dealing with a really fussy eater today, I would contemplate buying a Japanese bento box.

Juice and milk are liquid foods. If our children get a substantial proportion of their calories from liquid foods, we shouldn’t be surprised that they have little appetite for solid foods.

Don’t put up with appalling or even halfway bad behavior just so your children will eat. If you allow your children to loll out of their chairs, mix it all together to make food soup that they won’t eat anyway, walk around with food, or gaze at the TV while you spoon food into an absentminded mouth, then you are giving your children a way of holding you hostage to their eating.

The Plan

Begin at breakfast time. Put out a small quantity of the breakfast food you know your child likes or at least does not hate.

When she has had enough, no matter how much or how little (even if it is nothing!!), allow her to leave the table if she wishes. Cover the food. Keep it available. She may have it whenever she wishes – at the table. If she wishes to eat different food, she will need to wait till morning-tea time.

At morning-tea time, quietly and without comment, dispose of any remaining breakfast food.

Put out a small quantity of morning tea food. It is fine to include a couple of biscuits and, of course, your child will eat those first.

Remember that you are not trying to starve your child into eating food. You are merely offering a fresh opportunity, about every two hours, to choose healthy foods. This does not equate to torturing a child – even though your child may scream as if she has been.

When your child has lost interest in the food, she may leave the table, knowing that you will keep that food available till the next meal.

Repeat this pattern with each meal. An hour or two after dinnertime, the kitchen is closed.

Family Mealtimes

If you wish to add “whole family dining in harmony together” to the ways in which your family eats, here are some ideas that may help it work.

Don’t bring starving children to the meal table

If dinner is not at their “tummy hungry” time, give them a decent snack beforehand and regard anything eaten at the table as a bonus.

Split up the battlers

If children are inclined to fight with each other, place a large peace-loving adult between them. Avoid putting the fussy, squeamish child opposite the one who eats like a concrete mixer with his mouth wide open.

Don’t comment on what anyone has or hasn’t eaten

Forget about nutrition for this meal. Family harmony is much more important.

Don’t allow bad behavior

It is not important that the numbers at the table stay the same for the entire meal. You are better off to send a badly-behaved child to her room until she has changed her mind, rather than all endure the growling and threatening of reprimands.

Allow them to go and return

Some of our best and longest meals have been when we have allowed our children to leave as soon as they have had enough main course and return for dessert. After such a break, they have often returned, hooked into the adult conversation and stayed so polite, friendly and involved, that their parents never noticed how far beyond bed-time it was!!

If I had my time over again, I would love to try bringing a child up with, “Unless you eat your ice-cream, there is no spinach for you.”


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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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Stressed out mummy

Hi, I really need some help with my four year old boy… He has only eaten crackers, apple and cashew nuts every night for dinner for the last 2 years (I’m not kidding). He is currently going to the Kari Centre and has been assessed as highly intelligent (9 year old abilities) but suffering from anxiety. He attends play therapy but they haven’t given us any advice about how to deal with his rigid food selections. I would like to start introducing “normal” foods to his diet at dinner time, but last time we tried the “eat this or nothing… Read more »

Sally @ Kiwi Families

Hi Stressed out mummy – sounds like you’re having a tough time with your son. I posted some of your comment above to our Facebook friends for some ideas, and lots of people wanted to help. You can view their ideas here – https://www.facebook.com/kiwifamilies/posts/563191150406184. Take care and let us know if we can help further.

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