Teaching a child to eat

More a request for help than an actual idea.

Katherine refuses to eat supper. Most nights it ends with her half-finished plate getting dumped in the trash and her saying she’s hungry 15 minutes later. It’s infuriating, and I have no clue what to try next. The thing that frustrates me the most is that we’ve proven it is the time, not the food that she argues with. We could serve her favorite meal, and if it is for supper, she won’t eat it. And it’s been this way for almost two years now.

Here’s what we’ve tried so far:

  • Force–We tried this at first for her “own good,” but how good can it be to instill such an unhealthy relationship with food? Plus, I don’t believe that force is the correct answer in 99% of situations with kids. The idea of cleaning your plate is ingrained in our society, but it creates an idea where “full” is determined more by plate size and the quantity of food thereon rather than any actual physical triggers within your body. No… forcing her to eat her food or clear her plate isn’t the answer if only for the unhealthy attitudes it teaches her.
  • Smaller portions–We were sure this would work, but it doesn’t. We figured that maybe she really is full, so why not serve less food in an effort to get her to at least eat that. Nope. Tonight’s episode involved me making a minuscule burrito (a food she likes). She took two bites and declared herself done. Sigh…. We’ve even let her prepare her own food (tonight, again, being a good example). The first burrito she made, she didn’t even take a bite. She made it and declared herself done. A second chance (and a second burrito) resulted in the two bites.
  • No snacks–Surely this should work. We’ve stopped giving her snacks for the two or three hours before supper thinking that we could help drive an appetite. Apparently not.
  • No food after supper unless she eats her food–Let me be absolutely clear on this one; I hate this technique. I feel like I’m abusing her. I feel like a bad parent when I do it. But I will, and do, do it. This rule came about because she would declare herself done with her meal, get down, and promptly announce that she was hungry 15 minutes later (or later on that evening). We quickly realized that she was thinking that she could get out of supper without going hungry. Not on my watch. I expect tonight to be particularly painful for all of us. She’ll certainly be hungry by the time bedtime rolls around, and you can be sure she’ll go to bed hungry. As much as I hate it and as much as it truly hurts me to see her hungry, she will go to bed hungry.
  • Making her sit at the table while everyone else eats–When she started getting down before everyone else, we found that she often just wanted to play with toys. Simple solution: make her sit at the table. But it still hasn’t helped her return her attention to the idea of eating food. More often than not, she just sulks at the table.
  • Make her favorite foods–Again, we do. Occasionally, we serve something she doesn’t like, but she enjoys 95% of what we serve. And again, if we serve the same meal for lunch, she eats it with gusto. It’s only supper time…. And it doesn’t matter where, either. We were at Nosurfgirl’s house this Sunday for supper, and Katherine ate maybe three bites of her baked potato, a food that she truly enjoys.
  • Make her sit at the table until she eats it–Now this one works with partial success, but I kid you not when I tell you she’s sat there for upwards of 3 to 4 hours. Dead serious. I can’t deal with that emotionally because it frustrates me so much. After 4 hours of hearing her whine and cry at the table, I’m usually near-raving. More often than not, these nights end with daddy breathing down her neck like a vulture as she eats her food between sobs.
    This method might have more success if I could disassociate myself from the experience, but I have a very hard time with that. Simply put, I care too much. That and it is such a disruption in our small home to have her sitting in the kitchen whining and crying.
  • Force-feed her–Ah… back to the force issue. You know my initial concerns with forcing her, but I also strongly dislike the idea that I have to feed a four-year-old.

Right now, we’re using a combination of just about all of these, but I can’t tell you how much this frustrates me. She’s been doing this for almost two years, and I can honestly say that we’ve rarely, if ever, encouraged the wrong behavior in her. We’ve stuck the line from day one in the hopes that she’d quickly learn and change. Uh, no.

It seems her will power is equal to my own (HELP! WE’RE DOOMED!!!). This child will surely be the death of me.

Good thing I adore her.

I just wish I knew what to do.

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7 Responses to Teaching a child to eat

  1. Sarah L. says:

    Have you read “Parenting With Love and Logic”? It talks about these exact scenarios.

    Don’t force her. Tell her, “There are two ways to go to bed – hungry or not hungry. In (x amount of minutes) your plate is going in the sink and there won’t be anymore food tonight.”

    When she complains she is hungry 15 minutes later, just sympathetically tell her, “I bet you do feel hungry, but we will make you a nice big breakfast in the morning.” It sucks, but the consequence of being truly hungry might make her think twice the next time. Also, my kids all went through phases where they ate like birds and you wondered how they even survived. 15 minutes later she might be eating out of boredom. Our kids are grazers, which is really annoying because after you clean up, they just want to mess up the table again in no time.

    Good luck! I know, it’s frustrating. And remember, a child is not going to let themselves starve to death. If she’s hungry enough, she’ll eat. What time do you eat dinner? How long is it after her lunch time?

  2. daveloveless says:

    Thanks Sarah. I’m pretty sure that is one of the books that Courtney has read. She’s been literally devouring parenting books the last 6 months or so, and is becoming quite the expert. I’ll ask her.

    Anyway, that is exactly our current approach, and it just doesn’t seem to sink in, almost like she forgets what hungry felt like the previous night. Katherine is definitely a grazer, and we’re trying to not discourage that but rather focus that. One of Courtney’s other favorite books is called “Intuitive Eating,” and it tells with some of the psychology behind food and eating in general. That book theorizes on the health of childhood eating patterns, namely that they are typically natural and consistent with a healthy lifestyle. The problems, in the author’s opinion, come about when parents start forcing certain eating habits on the child, such as clearing your plate.

    I won’t admit 100% agreement with the book, but it does make a lot of sense.

    Your last question… We are an early-bird family, so breakfast is normally 7:00-ish, lunch is 11:30-ish, and supper is 4:30 or 5:00. We’ve made sure to stick to that routine as much as possible to encourage her to eat better for supper, but I’ve wondered if her body just isn’t ready for food at that time. Maybe we should try pushing supper back closer to 6:00. The only reason we currently eat at 4:30 is because that’s when I walk through the door and, generally, when people start feeling hungry.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and yes, you are definitely right that she won’t starve. She might get a good solid beating, but she won’t starve…. 😉

  3. Sarah L. says:

    Put something delicious smelling in the crockpot and make her smell it all day. Maybe she’ll beg for dinner. 😀

    Grazing is actually healthy. It’s just not convenient. Maybe an appetizer at your normal dinner time would help, then dinner 15 minutes later? Would love to hear about your progress. It is nice to get dinner over with earlier because then you have time to go for walk or something before bed.

  4. Sarah Bailey says:

    Hmm. I guess I grew up in a very permissive family. We had access to food whenever we wanted and if we truly didn’t like the meal Mom prepared we were welcome to quietly make our own PB&J sandwich (starting at age 4).

    Yes, we were expected to be at the table for a family dinner, but we weren’t required to eat some of everything, clean our plate, etc. Oh, yeah, no complaining/sulking though. Eat what you can/want, make a sandwich and that’s it.

    That doesn’t help you though since you and Courtney are trying to be “good” (authoritative) parents.

  5. JeffreyD says:

    We had that problem with our oldest, and are seeing signs of it with our other kids.

    My wife finally found a tactic that worked. She cleared out one crisper drawer in the fridge and placed a few foods inside it, once a week or so. It was only a modest amount of food; a mixture of healthy and unhealthy snacks. She then told our oldest that the drawer was hers and she could eat the food at will—but it would only be refilled periodically.

    I doubted this would work and I was especially bothered by the unhealthy food it contained. But my wife stated that food was a control issue, not a nutrition/hunger issue, and she wanted to try this first.

    It worked, gradually, over a few months. Once our child realized that we meant it, the control struggle was gone and real eating habits could form.

    We are watchful for these control struggles to this day.

    Hopefully this helps!

  6. daveloveless says:

    Thanks for the idea Jeff. We kind of do the same thing, but the food is scattered randomly throughout the kitchen. Having a drawer makes a stronger point, and we still have her ask us when she wants something….

    With your wife’s background in eating disorders and treatment, I’m inclined to think she’s got something here. We’ll give it a try.

  7. Bob says:

    I know I’m late to the bandwagon on this one, but as one of our doctors pointed out when we asked about this problem, it’s okay to let your child go to bed without dinner if she refuses to eat. She won’t starve, because breakfast is just around the corner. She needs to become integrated into the regular family schedule, which means she needs to eat dinner. I think letting her skip a meal is the best way to go in some circumstances.

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