In the last two weeks, we’ve looked at some difficult picky eaters and what to do to help them to have a healthier reaction to foods that they don’t like.
With the first type of picky eater, The Kid Who Doesn’t Like the Food, we learned that kids—like adults—sometimes don’t like certain kinds of food and that’s ok. There are plenty of easy tips to use with these kids to help them to learn age-appropriate ways of expressing that they don’t like the food to avoid some picky eater temper tantrums.
With the second type of picky eater, The Kid With a Sensory Aversion, we learned that some kids will avoid certain foods because of a biological disorder that affects the way their bodies react to the different sensory experiences involved with eating the food. This type of picky eater is more difficult to deal with as the approaches to treat the picky eating have to help the child’s body respond differently than they are accustomed to. Punishment and consequences won’t work with this kind picky eating, just like they don’t prevent kids who are sick from experiencing the symptoms of their sickness.
Today, we are going to talk about the third kind of picky eater, The Kid Who Uses Food for Power and Control. Unlike the first two types of picky eater, this one is an actual behavior that the child is choosing to show, not one that he comes from his biology.
The Kid Who Uses Food For Power and Control
The third type of picky eater is the one that most of you are concerned about.
This picky eater is the one who has developed picky eating habits as a way to exert control over the person who is feeding him. This picky eater is avoiding foods to show opposition to adults, not simply because he doesn’t like the food or he has a sensory aversion to it.
Now the child might think that he doesn’t like the food, but the truth with this kind of picky eater is that he has decided that he doesn’t like the food (regardless of his previous experience with the food), has decided that he’s never going to like that food, and that he will use any force necessary to let you (the adult) know that he will never eat that food. Ever!
What happens in households with this type of picky eater is that a food is placed in front of the child and he may scream that the food is on his plate, threaten to throw the food on the floor if that food isn’t taken away from his plate, throw a temper tantrum over what has been served, refuse to eat anything or my favorite, use the food as a weapon against you!
With this type of picky eater, the picky-ness is a behavior and it’s important that you start right now to fix it.
Here are a few things that you can do:
First, just like I mentioned before, make sure that you’re serving a variety of things—some that he likes, and some that he doesn’t like or hasn’t tried yet. Serve a main dish and fruit that he likes with a new vegetable, for example.
And, once again, make sure that you are giving him at least some say in what you make for meals or packing for his lunch. Ask him to help you pick out what sides you will serve with your meal for tonight and be willing to accept if he wants peas instead of broccoli. Remember that the goal of introducing new foods is to help him to recognize what he likes and doesn’t like, not to force him to eat things that everyone knows he hates.
Once you’ve identified the things that he likes and have been willing to include them in some level in his meals, then it’s time to prepare to introduce some new foods or re-introduce some foods he hasn’t tried in a while. Now, for most kids who use food to control, when you put any unwanted food on his plate, a meltdown of some sort will occur.
It’s important that you be prepared for this so that you don’t cave in the second that he starts to throw a fit. Because he will.
As you present the meal to him—a meal that includes some things that he likes and some things that he doesn’t like—place all of the elements of the meal on the same plate. No matter how he responds, stand firm on your expectation that the food be placed on the plate. If you allow your child to kick and scream so that the food will not be on the plate, then you’ve let the child know that kicking and screaming allows him to get out of things that his parents have established are necessary for him. You don’t want that at all.
If you’d like, you can buy one of those plates with separated sections and put different foods in different sections to ensure that the food isn’t touching each other. If your child wants to help to put the food on the plates, then more power to you. But no matter what, whether he wants to help or not, make sure that all of the food makes it onto the plate because he won’t be able to try the new food if it doesn’t make it onto the plate.
Next, set the rule that everyone must try at least one bite of the food being served. If you’d like, you can allow them to spit out the food if they don’t like it. But there’s nothing wrong with the rule to try one bite and swallow it. None of us are going to die over having to spend 5 seconds chewing a taste that we hate, and it’s something that’s bearable for those few seconds.
This rule should apply for everyone in the family or classroom, including the adults. Remember that children learn most of their behaviors from the adults in their life, and eating behaviors are just as important as other behaviors. Set a good example for kids by at least trying the food that’s put in front of you.
So now we need to talk about what to do if the kid refuses, because there are plenty of kids who will. First of all, I recommend that families do not get caught in the trap of forcing kids to eat all of their food in an attempt to get dessert. This just sets a really bad habit that one must overeat in order to get dessert, instead of eating until satisfied and ending the satisfying meal with a little bit of sweet.
Instead of doing this, I suggest that parents place a small amount of food on a child’s plate: a few bites of the main dish, fruit, vegetable, and even dessert. By serving the meal in this way, you are providing the child with a small amount of food that he likes, which he’ll probably eat all of, and a small, manageable amount of food that the child doesn’t like. Then, you can let the child know that he can ask for seconds on the foods that he likes, but only after trying the foods that he doesn’t like. If he tries it and doesn’t like it, then he can get more of the foods that he does like, and if he refuses to try the new food, then he can’t have more.
Some kids are great at holding out on this. They refuse to try the new foods and therefore leave the meal still feeling hungry. In this case, continue with your same plan. Let the child know that if he becomes hungry later, he can try the new food first and then will have access to all of the foods that he liked from the meal. If he still refuses, then there aren’t any more food options for him.
Once a new meal has started, forget about the last meal. If you try to keep track of all of the food he still “owes” you to try, then you’ll get overwhelmed quickly. Treat each new meal as a new opportunity to introduce him to foods and forget about his past infractions in the food arena.
Handling this type of picky eater is a very delicate situation. When dealing with the kid who uses food to control, here’s what you DON’T want to do:
- Don’t get into a battle with your child. You have your rules and you’ve established them. There’s no reason to yell, cry or otherwise get the child worked up. He’s already going to be upset that you’re taking some control away from him, there’s no need to escalate the situation.
- Don’t force your child to eat a bowl full of something that he hates. How would you feel if you were told that you couldn’t eat anything else until you ate a bowl full of whatever your least favorite food is? It wouldn’t feel great for you, so it doesn’t feel great for a kid. Recognize that there are going to be foods that he hates and respect that.
- Don’t drag out meal time. If you’ve set your expectations and he hasn’t met them, then give him a time limit warning of when the meal will be ending. When time is up, then remove the food and go on with your day. Again, he’ll probably have a meltdown, which you can respond to as much as you like, but not by giving the food back. If you do this enough times, he’ll make sure to eat when the food is in front of him (which he’ll need to learn how to do when he goes to school, so you’re really just helping to prepare him for that!)
When dealing with this type of picky eater, here’s what you DO want to do:
- Do respect your child’s tastes and allow him to state his dislike for a new food once he tries it.
- Do provide other foods that he likes during the meal so that he isn’t forced to eat only foods that he hates for his entire meal
- Do let your child give his opinion on what to make or serve when appropriate
- Do recognize that when a child refuses a food, it doesn’t mean that the child hates the food, it just means that the child believes that he hates the food and he may need a reminder (trying it) to recognize if he truly hates it or if he just believes that he hates it.
If you’ve tried the techniques suggested for any of the three types of picky eating but the picky eating still continues, it may be best to seek out some counseling in Sioux Falls to help tailor your approach to your unique child.