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How to Cure Finicky Eaters

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by Izzy Kalman (December 2001)

Is mealtime a headache for you? Are you being tormented by a child who’s driving you crazy with his picky eating? Here you are, working hard to prepare healthy, delicious meals for your family. But this kid thinks your food’s not fit for human consumption.

Everyone else loves your food, but this finicky eater just has to be different! He can’t stand this, he can’t stand that, your cooking’s no good, and he would rather starve before he puts your delicacies into his mouth. There are millions of starving children in the world who would be overjoyed to eat stale bread. Your child can’t appreciate the fresh, tasty, and abundant meals you make available to him every day. You lecture him, you scold him, you threaten him with no dessert, you beg him to eat, you bribe him with rewards, but all your efforts are to no avail. However, you’re a good parent and can’t let your child go hungry. So you have no choice but to become a short-order cook, making him hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, or one of the few other things he is willing to ingest.

Have you had enough of being a slave in the kitchen for your finicky eater? This is your lucky day. Your Emancipation Proclamation is here. Read on to learn how you can free yourself from these shackles forever, while making your child a better eater at the same time. And the great thing about it is that it will take little time and almost no effort.

The first step to solving your problem is to understand what is really causing it, because if you don’t know what is causing it, how are you going to solve it?

Most problems are caused by what I like to call “optical illusions.” No one wants problems, yet everyone has them, and we all have some that refuse to go away no matter how hard we try to solve them. The reason for this is that we don’t see what is really going on. We think we see what is happening, and we act based on what we think we are seeing. But what is really going on is something very different. We are being fooled by an optical illusion, and our actions are inevitably wrong because they are based on the illusion. So we end up with a problem.

What is the optical illusion in the case of a finicky eater? It goes like this: You see that your child refuses to eat, and you are the one who finally gets him to eat. The way you see it, your child causes the problem of not eating, and you are the one who solves the problem.

But this is only an illusion. The truth is just the reverse! What is really going on is that your child does not want to eat because you are trying to get him to eat. He would really love to eat your delicious, nutritious food, but without knowing it, you are preventing him from eating it! You have unwittingly been making him a finicky eater!

Don’t feel bad if this doesn’t make sense to you yet. After all, his refusal to eat obviously comes first; your attempts to make him eat come afterwards. So how, you might wonder, could you possibly be making him not want to eat?

But that’s precisely why you, and millions of other parents like you, have this same problem. You’re all victims of the same optical illusion; you just haven’t known it.

How does the illusion work? It goes like this: You see your child resisting food, so you think that he really doesn’t want to eat, and you go ahead and try to convince him to eat. But the truth is that every living creature needs to eat, wants to eat, and enjoys eating foods that are good for him. A creature that did not get pleasure from eating would quickly starve to death. Furthermore, our tongues have taste buds which give us pleasure in response to all kinds of good foods that we put in our mouths. This means that your child is biologically programmed to want to eat and to enjoy eating nutritious food.

But your child is also biologically programmed to do other things. One of the most important things he is programmed to do is to become independent. In Nature, a creature that doesn’t try to become independent will not survive for long. For human beings, independence is such a strong need that countless people have given their lives fighting for it. So your child has a powerful biological need to eat, but he also has a powerful biological need to be independent of you.

Now, when you push your child to eat, you are actually creating a dilemma for him. On the one hand, he wants to eat. But on the other hand, he needs to prove to you that you are not his boss. If he eats after you have pushed him, it will look like he lost his struggle with you. If he wants to win this battle for independence, his only real choice is not to eat. Therefore, by pushing him to eat, you are actually pushing him to not eat! The way he solves this problem is by being a finicky eater and turning you into his personal short-order cook. He will end up eating something he likes, but not before he has made you miserable. This way he is satisfying both his need to eat and his need for independence. He turns the tables on you; instead of you being the boss, he becomes the boss and you unwittingly become the slave.

So what can you do to change the situation? It’s really very simple. Follow these steps and your problem will soon begin disappearing.  

1) The first thing you must do is immediately change your attitude towards your child’s eating. Dispose of your belief that as a good parent, it is your responsibility to make sure that your children eat. Replace this with the new attitude that your job as a good parent is completed as soon as you make the food available to your children. The responsibility to eat it is theirs alone. Stop pushing or encouraging them to eat. They must come to realize that your kitchen is not a restaurant and that you are not a short-order cook. Cruel as this may sound, your picky eater must be allowed to feel that it’s perfectly OK with you if he chooses to starve. Remember: it is not you who has been cruel; the cruel one has been your child, for he has been treating you like a thankless slave. And you have not been doing him any real favor by catering to him, for all your efforts have unintentionally turned him into a poor eater.  

2) Be prepared for resistance from this child. He will complain that he can’t eat what you have cooked, and that if you want him to eat, you must make him something he likes. When you decline to cater to his individual tastes, he may try throwing tantrums. Permit him to throw his tantrums as long as he likes, and refuse to be upset by them. This is most important: Do not try to stop his tantrums. If you do, he will continue to throw the tantrums.

Expect your child to try hard to make you feel guilty for being a bad parent who does not feed him. If he accuses you of not loving him, calmly assure him that you do love him, but if he doesn’t want to eat, he doesn’t have to. If he’s truly hungry, he’s welcome to eat what everyone else is eating.

You must be calm and confident during the first few days of your new approach. If your child senses that you are feeling guilty and unsure of yourself, he will continue to pull at your heartstrings, trying to break you down by making you feel sorry for him. You must also be 100% consistent, or the situation will become even worse. If you are inconsistent, he will discover that you will sometimes give in and make him something else to eat. He doesn’t know exactly when, so he will have to try hard every time, in the hope that perhaps this time you will give him what he wants.  

3) Let your child choose what, and how much, he wants of the dishes you are serving. Tell him not to take any more than he plans to eat, because it is a sin to waste food. If he only wants dessert, do not tell him that he can have it only if he eats the other food. If he wants to live on dessert, that’s perfectly OK. But he gets only one portion, just like everyone else. It’s his loss alone if he passes up the main food.  

4) If your child wants different food from what you are serving, allow him to prepare it by himself. The condition is that he clean up after himself and not leave any mess for you.  

5) After two or three days, if you have followed these instructions faithfully, your child will stop trying to drive you crazy about food. He will know that his efforts will get him nowhere, upsetting only himself. You will also find him trying foods that he never used to touch, and he will discover that he actually likes many of them. But be patient. His tastes won’t change overnight. As the weeks and months pass by, the list of foods he is willing to eat should steadily grow.  

6) This last instruction is very important. When you see your child eating new foods, you may feel tempted to say things like, “See, I told you it was delicious,” or, “I knew you would like it if you only gave it a chance.” Resist this urge! He will resent you for implying that his eating is a victory for you, and that you are smarter than he is, knowing him even better than he knows himself. Nor should you compliment him for eating or tell him you’re glad about it. You don’t want to give him the message that his eating is important to you, or he may try to get to you again by not eating.

Good luck, and enjoy discovering that you can solve problems without really doing anything!

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