The picky eater guide: Part 4. The jobs of parents and kids

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

There are things you can do, and things you can’t do. Among the fundamental things that parents cannot do are three things that drive us all crazy.

  • You can’t make ‘em sleep
  • You can’t make ‘em poop
  • You can’t make ‘em eat

It’s just true. If you’re looking for a power struggle, go ahead and try to fight one of those three fights. I’ll wait here.

Back so soon? Don’t be discouraged. Remember: the point of parenting isn’t to win, and it isn’t to dominate, and it isn’t actually to make your child do The Right Thing. The point is to raise a child—to help him or her become an adult, capable of making decisions (hopefully the right ones!) To make a decision, it has to be possible to make the wrong decision. Children need to learn to make even the wrong decisions on their own.

This series of posts started with Melissa’s simple question about what to do with her picky eater. In this part, we’ll focus on what the parents’ and kid’s jobs are at mealtimes. Remember: our goal is to reinforce good habits that will help Junior continue to make good eating choices for the rest of his life. The parent’s job is to offer healthful foods in a appropriate manner, following these steps:

1. Parents set the menu.

Choose a handful of different food items for the meal. Once your child is old enough (usually around nine months of age), he or she should be able to eat most of what mom and dad eat (it’s messy, but fun!) If one or more of the items is in the category of “foods Junior usually likes”, that’s fine. For instance, if your child really likes yogurt, it’s perfectly fine to make yogurt part of most—or even every—meal. Just put it on the table. Don’t make any of the foods belong to any of the people at the table—there should be no “Junior food” or “Mommy food.” If Junior wants some of mom’s anchovies, or mom wants a few of Junior’s chicken nuggets, that’s fine. All food comes out of shared serving dishes.

2. Parents sit and eat with their children.

You can’t expect your child to learn table manners and good eating habits if he’s eating alone at the breakfast nook. Mealtimes are together times.

3. Parents turn off the TV and talk with children during mealtimes.

Don’t talk about the food, unless it is to thank the preparer. Talk about other things.

4. Parents set a good example.

Put a variety of things on your plate, eat slowly, and drink water with your meals. Use a fork. Smile and enjoy yourself. Do the things you want your child to do—but remember, you’re teaching by example. Don’t nag your kids during meals.

Kids have it a little easier. They have only three jobs:

1. Children decide which food items to eat, and how much of which to eat.

As long as it’s on the table at the start of the meal, kids can choose to eat it: a lot of it, a little of it, or none of it. What children should not expect is to get things that are not on the table. Parents choose the items in the meal, then kids decide which of those and how much to eat.

2. When old enough, kids should help with the prep and clean up.

This can include shopping for foods, picking out menus, cooking, clearing the table,  cleaning the dishes, everything. Get them to help in the vegetable garden and take scraps out to the compost pile. It’s all work for the family to do.

3. Kids should say “thanks” afterwards. A kiss for the cook is nice, but not required.

There are other benefits to the “family meal.” In addition to reinforcing good meal habits, preventing obesity, and encouraging a variety of foods, family meals help kids be more successful in school and help prevent drug use and family violence. Don’t turn meals into a struggle over whether your child is getting enough rhubarb. Enjoy your meals together by not focusing on just how much is being eaten. You’ll have a better time—and you’ll end up with a healthier-eating child, too.

Next: tying up a few loose ends. And muffins!


The picky eater guide: The whole enchilada:

Part 1. What’s the problem?

Part 2. The “Don’ts”

Part 3. The Rule

Part 4. The jobs of parents and kids

Part 5. Special circumstances, vitamins, and a muffin bonus

Explore posts in the same categories: Nutrition

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7 Comments on “The picky eater guide: Part 4. The jobs of parents and kids”

  1. Sarann Says:

    For #1, what about hot peppers? Sometimes I like to eat a jalapeno, or pepperocini pepper on the side. I don’t think it would be prudent to share that with my three year old, does that mean I shouldn’t eat it as well?


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Sarann, why not let your child have a hot pepper? if you like it, she might like it too! Maybe try a not-so-super hot pepper first, or just a little bitty piece of a hot pepper to get started. But if as a family you guys like to eat it hot, you ought to let your kids try the hot food, too!


  3. Melissa Says:

    Thank you Dr. Roy for your very helpful posts on this topic! You’ve helped me to understand what I can control and what I can’t. I especially liked you spelling out the goal of mealtimes, not to have him “eat the broccoli” but to have a calm, pleasant meal as a family. This has helped all of us to relax!


  4. Jess Says:

    Well, the nanny and I have stopped encouraging eating during mealtimes. The girls are presented with their meals and eat as much or as little as they want.

    This has, so far, lead to demands for additional food as soon as a half hour after eating (largest problem being after dinner) and is particularly problematic on those couple of evenings a week we have activities/events outside the house after dinner. I try to keep the snack food reasonably healthy, but the snack is never “as good as” dinner especially when we are on the go — especially on the protein front.

    I’m not sure that this is working for us — I don’t feel I can deny them food, but I don’t like the trends I’m seeing.


  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    Jess, a few days of a new plan isn’t going to change habits that have developed over years.

    And: if minutes after meals the kids can successfully demand more food– special snack food!– then they’ll just load up on that between meals. And the next meal will be more of the same. It’s not reasonable to have “snack time” 30 minutes after a meal.

    If you’d like to move to this plan for mealtimes, you’re going to have to put up with whining, complaining kids who are upset that there’s a new sheriff in town, and that they can no longer dictate snacktimes. Keep your cool and say “no.” As soon as they realize you’re serious and you’re not backing down, mealtimes will be a pleasure for all of you. Best of luck!


  6. Lydia Says:

    My kids don’t want to try any new foods. I’d like them to taste everything on the table before deciding what they do or don’t want more of, but they decide they don’t like things without ever trying them. Is it ok to tell them they have to taste everything before they can have more of anything?


  7. Dr. Roy Says:

    Lydia, I don’t mind the idea of “taste everything”…. but in some households, that itself becomes a fight over how much exactly constitutes a taste! And, for some kids at least, a taste that they “have to taste” is an automatic “yechhhh!”. So, maybe try this policy out, but if it’s causing more headaches, drop it.


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