This is the first of many posts where I’ll be answering readers’ questions about picky eating. If you have a query about how to help your fussy eater, get in touch via the Contact Me page and I’ll answer as many as possible in future posts.
Having read War & Peas, Tammy contacted me with the following questions about her six year old, Oscar. She wrote that at the moment, every meal with Oscar is “a nightmare” . A feeling that I’m sure many parents of a picky eater can relate to. Tammy has three questions for me.
- My son refuses to eat most meals at the first time of offering. How long should I give him the opportunity to change his mind? I generally make him sit until everyone else is finished, but we are pretty fast eaters.
Well Tammy, forget about the choices Oscar is making about what he eats for a minute and focus on what you want the meal-time rules to be in your household. It’s not fair to penalise Oscar by not giving him long enough to eat his meal because the rest of you eat quickly. Equally, you don’t want to be prisoners at the table for hours waiting for him to eat.
My five year old is a very slow eater and the rest of us wolf our food down (I’m interested in mindful eating at the moment so perhaps this will change?) I deal with this by letting the children know that after about 45 minutes, the main course is over, then there’s another 15 minutes for pudding. I give my daughter a gentle reminder that I’ll be taking her plate away soon so that she doesn’t feel that I’m unfairly or abruptly removing her opportunity to eat.
I feel that these timings offer a reasonable balance between making everyone else sit for hours after they’ve finished and giving my day-dreamer sufficient time to have her meal. I’m not saying these timings are ‘right’ , just that they work in my house. A mother I spoke to said that for her, 40 minutes is the maximum she’d allocate because that works for her family.
The important thing is not what timings you choose. It is that Oscar understands that after a certain amount of time has elapsed, the meal will be over. This should be something you explain calmly and kindly -you are not ending the meal to punish him, you are ending it because that’s the routine you’ve chosen. At six, Oscar is old enough to understand this kind of household rule. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of inadvertently giving him the impression that you are ending the meal in anger, because of him. Some parents find that using a timer helps.
Like many picky children, Oscar refuses to eat most meals at the first time of offering. If he refuses a meal, do two things.
- Make sure he understands the EAF rule ‘If you don’t have anything positive to say about your meal, don’t say anything. It is not acceptable to criticise your food‘
Explain without anger or impatience that when he doesn’t want to eat his meal, he’s welcome to leave it without fuss. He has to stay at the table until the meal has ended (see above!) Explain also that there won’t be anything to eat until the next scheduled meal, so he might be hungry later. This is not a threat, you’re just helping him understand the consequences of his decisions. Leave his plate in front of him, don’t focus AT ALL on his choice to leave his meal, just explain in a way that he can understand that he has to stay at the table because mealtimes are a social occasion.
It can feel very hard to send a child to bed hungry, but (assuming you have checked with a health professional that Oscar’s weight and growth is healthy) this won’t do him any harm.
2. What kind of stance do you suggest I take if he comes back an hour later and says “OK, I will eat it now”?
Very simply, you say “No“. Explain to Oscar that the only opportunity to eat his meal is at the table, with the rest of the family, at the appointed time. Otherwise he’s using his food refusal to exert some control over you, which is so often a contributing factor when a child is very fussy with food.
3. I accept that every child is different, but generally how quickly might I see some results?
Tammy – I wish I could answer this definitively but I can’t. As you say, every child is different. Unfortunately, you will find that progress with Oscar will be slower than with a younger child. There is a real ‘window of opportunity’ in terms of changing eating (and other) habits when a child is between the aged of about two and five. If Oscar has been picky for a few years, those habits will be hard to shift.
You will also probably find that when you start practising EAF, he will offer a lot of resistance at first. He will need to test whether you ‘mean it’ – whether this new way of being in relation to food is here to stay.
You need to be really tough and 100% consistent. If you can manage to do this for several weeks, you should start to see some change. There will be a measure of stepping forward only to step back again, but this is part of the process. If you can practice EAF for six months, I expect that Oscar will be a a different child at mealtimes. This is not a quick fix, but it does work.
In your email you said that you hoped War & Peas will have a positive impact on your lives, well I hope so too and I wish you and Oscar all the best. Keep me posted as to how things go, and thank you for letting me share your questions with others.