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How to avoid a tug-of-war with your picky eater Add to ...

A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens

The problem

Your seven-year-old refuses to eat anything green.

“I’m not going to eat any of those, they make me want to throw up.”

“Please, just tonight, please just eat one string bean for me.”

Your frustration might go something like this: “Meals are a nightmare. Every meal is a battle to get him to eat anything, to get him to eat enough, to get him to eat healthy foods, to get him to eat anything new, to finish his meal in a reasonable amount of time.”

Picky eaters suck the joy out of mealtimes. There is hope, however.

What not to do

The big mistake is trying too hard to get picky eaters to change their behaviour. It does not work. There is a basic fact about eating: They have the ultimate control. You can’t make them eat if they don’t want to. You do not want to get into a battle of wills because you will lose.

Do not: cajole, threaten, punish or reward. Do not make them sit indefinitely until they eat. Basically, avoid anything that involves negotiation, coercion or conflict. Where eating is concerned, all of those are a mistake. All that does is make meals more emotional.

What to do

Present them with a meal that you think they will like and that is adequately nutritious. And that’s it. It’s now up to them. Set a limited time for mealtimes. Once it’s over, clear the table – whether they have eaten or not – and put what remains of their meal in the refrigerator. They are welcome to have their meal whenever they want. If you have a microwave, you can heat it up for them, or they can do it themselves. If you wish, at mealtime or later – your choice – you can have an alternate backup that requires no special preparation: a peanut butter sandwich, cereal.

The bottom line is that there are no uncertainties. There is a plan. All possibilities are known in advance: what’s for dinner, what are the acceptable alternatives, how long the meal will be. The only question is which of the options will they choose. Their choice. You are not involved in that decision. This is the best way. Miraculously they do seem to end up eating.

If you worry that your child is not getting enough to eat, or is lacking in proper nutrition, consult your kid’s doctor. But in my experience the great majority of picky eaters do check out healthy. And over time – despite themselves – almost all do expand their repertoire.

“This is interesting. You say it’s called a hamburger? Maybe I’ll try it.”

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

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