How can I get my 4 year old to eat his meals?
April 13, 2005 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I have a four year old son who simply refuses to eat his meals in a timely fashion. This has been an ongoing problem since he was two years old and we've been trying various approaches, but have mainly been hoping that he grows out of it. But it's at the point that every single meal has become unpleasant because of his refusal to eat.

Basically he will sit there and eat, but extremely slowly. When forced to speed up he'll just keep the food in his mouth until told to chew. Then he'll chew for ten minutes before swallowing. By the time everyone else has finished their meals, he has consumed maybe two to three spoonfuls of his meal. According to the doctor, he's fine, maybe a bit skinny, but also tall for his age. The doctor assures us he'll grow out of it, but it's a struggle to make sure he's eating enough to fend off anemia.

We've tried everything we could think of. Even asking him what he wants prior to his meal and then preparing that specifically for him has no effect. Forcing him to sit at the table until he finishes has no effect either as he will stay there for hours.

My other son (who is eight years old) is (and always has been) just the opposite. He'll eat his food and the plate it was served on.

I've read that this is usually a control issue for children, as they feel so little control in other aspects of their lives, they feel the need to control whatever they can - even if that means regulating food intake. This is the only real issue we have with him (developmentally-wise).

If anyone has experienced this before and/or has insight or suggestions as to games, techniques, whatever to get him to eat, we would be enormously grateful to hear them.
posted by Lactoso to Human Relations (55 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you tried giving him a certain amount of time to eat? I'd sit him down, tell him that from now on he gets x minutes to eat his food at each meal, just like the rest of the family. When those minutes are done, take away the plate, and ignore any fussing that transpires. I imagine a few days of that, and he'll come around.

Or you could just go on SuperNanny.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:24 PM on April 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

At 4, they're pretty good about understanding consequences. Have you tried simply saying "Look, you're going to sit there until you eat most of your meal. We will be finished, we will get up and leave, and you can't leave the chair til you're done. No playing, no talking until it's gone. We'll be in the living room having fun." Is there a reason you couldn't leave him alone at the table? And then really do it - actually leave. Threats are nothing without folllow though.
posted by tristeza at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2005

I second ThePinkSuperhero. Worked for the 3.5 year old that I was a nanny for. The parents were not thrilled with it initially, but when he started eating in a normal fashion they never questioned one of my ideas again.

He eats with the family or he doesn't eat. Period.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2005

Do not make him sit there after you finish. It will accomplish nothing. ThePinkSuperhero is right. Hunger is a powerful motivator and if there is nothing medically wrong he will eat what his body requires, eventually.
posted by caddis at 2:34 PM on April 13, 2005

I'm not a parent, not a super-nanny, and generally not a very credible source for parenting questions. But hey, why let that stop me from throwing in my two cents?

Don't four year olds often dilly-dally, stall, and do just about everything slowly? Could it just be that? I would just go with it and let him eat slowly. What's the big deal? Let him keep eating while you clean up and move on with your evening. Don't take the plate away unless there's somewhere he actually has to go (school etc.).

I would not do too much of the "well what do *you* want to eat" thing...I say this as someone who always got to pick what she wanted to eat as a kid, and now as an adult is an extremely picky eater to the point where it does interfere with my life.

I would be wary of anything that involves any sort of show-down since that might inspire real control issues around food.

And give him a multi-vitamin or maybe some pediasure to drink if your worried about nutrition.
posted by duck at 2:34 PM on April 13, 2005

Oh dear. I wasn't quite that slow at that age, but I was close. I don't recall it being a control issue -- I just recall being bored with food. It all tasted really bland to me. As it turned out, I had really bad adenoids and near-constant tonsil infections -- when the tonsils came out around age 7, my appetite revved up somewhat.

I was still usually the last one to finish eating, but the hour-long torment for my parents (and me!) got a lot better after that. Basically, my parents figured I'd almost never clean my plate, so as long as I'd given it a good try within the time everyone else had eaten, fine. If I was still hungry and wanted to eat beyond the time everyone else was ready to leave the table, I could stay and finish; if I didn't want to, I could leave. And if I was hungry later because I didn't eat enough, well... I wasn't an idiot. I did the math. (Or made a peanut butter sandwich.)
posted by scody at 2:35 PM on April 13, 2005

Oh, and also:

My other son (who is eight years old) is (and always has been) just the opposite. He'll eat his food and the plate it was served on.

Even if that's the case, please -- and I'm really begging here -- do what you can to avoid setting up the older son as the "good" kid who eats the "right" way. (I know it's got to be frustrating and weird for you, though, that Boy 2 is just so radically different from Boy 1.) That used to piss me off ferociously, but I couldn't explain why it was so fucking unfair -- but I remember feeling just pure, wordless rage when I'd get the "your older sister eats nicely; why won't you?" thing from my folks (who, to be fair, must have just been at their wits' end with me at times). I'm starting to see the same dynamic between my oldest nephew (who's a bit of a "golden child") and middle nephew, who now (heartbreakingly) refers to himself as "the bad boy" at the age of 3, and it worries me deeply.
posted by scody at 2:42 PM on April 13, 2005

Most children do grow out of this sort of thing unless you reinforce the behavior by making a big deal of it. If your child wants to sit there and not eat, then let him do so. If you quit reacting, he'll likely get bored and begin eating faster. Sooner or later there will be something more interesting than sitting at the table, especially if you're not there fussing at him.
posted by anapestic at 2:43 PM on April 13, 2005

Do not make him sit there after you finish. It will accomplish nothing.

Why not, though? Wouldn't his jealousy and envy that everyone else gets to go have fun while he sits alone and finishs his supper be a motivator?
posted by tristeza at 2:47 PM on April 13, 2005

More votes for ThePinkSuperhero--I would add--use a timer of some sort so he can see the passage of time--if you say 20 minutes he has to have some way to visualize the passage of time--be matter of fact--this is not a punishment--respect his food preferences but do not, I repeat do not, cater to him or fix special meals--no snacks/desserts if he does not eat a reasonable portion, thank him simply and directly for eating what he does, do not attend to his eating behavior while at the table--He will not starve--if after six/eight weeks you see no improvement get some professional help--rule out medical problems and do a double check on what might be a few parenting problems--Good Luck Frank
posted by rmhsinc at 2:51 PM on April 13, 2005

I think, if I may, that ThePinkSuperhero has the best answer. In my (limited) experience, "games" don't work... threats do. Stick an egg-timer in fron of him and when it dings, dinner is over. To me, it's matter of setting up some boundaries and rules (that are reasonable of course) and sticking to them. If he cries, let him cry. When he begs for another chance, tell him that his second chance comes at the next meal. Be firm, but not mean. Stick to your guns no matter how painful it may be to see him "suffer".

I think that, unless he really does have some kind of medical problem, physical, mentally or emotionally, like others have said... he'll eat eventually. Don't leave snackable treats and other foods easily accessible, so he won't be tempted to sneak some grub. Good luck.
posted by Witty at 2:57 PM on April 13, 2005

Why not, though? Wouldn't his jealousy and envy that everyone else gets to go have fun while he sits alone and finishs his supper be a motivator?

It never was for me. It just made me angrier. If I wanted to stay and finish because I was still actually eating (even if it was slowly and the food was cold), I'd do it. If I didn't want the goddamn scalloped potatoes, I. Wouldn't. Eat. Them. I might feed them to the dog, sneak them into the garbage disposal, or stuff them in the crevices of the chair, but what you're describing never made me actually eat beyond an occasional teeny, grudging, look-I'm-choking-on-these-scalloped-potatoes extra bite.

I eventually became a much healthier eater (and not a bad cook), but not because I was forced to sit alone at the dining table finishing food I didn't want in order to watch "Happy Days" in the next room. (Jealousy and envy don't strike me as very healthly motivators, in general, really.)
posted by scody at 2:57 PM on April 13, 2005

My parents tried everything you've tried. It was a horrible power struggle that still brings up old feelings of resentment. In addition, I have delightfully fucked up food issues! Whee!

So, from this perspective: let it go. When dinner is over, ask him if that's all he wants, and if it is, then let him be done. Don't resent or disapprove of him for what he does or doesn't want to eat, just try to guide him toward healthy choices. A power struggle over food will just lead to eating disorders later. Finally, as anapestic said, this shall pass.

An aside: in my case, the whole problem was caused by too many taste buds. Kids have more taste buds than adults, so food can often seem too strong to them. To exacerbate matters, I'm an over-taster--even more taste buds than the average bear. So meal time was hell for me as a child.

I hope you'll make it easier on your tyke, no matter what the reason is.
posted by frykitty at 2:59 PM on April 13, 2005

Have you tried simply saying "Look, you're going to sit there until you eat most of your meal. We will be finished, we will get up and leave, and you can't leave the chair til you're done. No playing, no talking until it's gone. We'll be in the living room having fun."

My parents tried that with my younger sister, I still remember her sitting in the kitchen at 10pm in the dark staring at her plate.
posted by probablysteve at 3:10 PM on April 13, 2005

I'm with the folks who say dinner time is eating time and when it's over, there's no more dinner.

If he wants to sit there and eat slowly, fine, but for god's sake don't make him. Jealousy is a fucked up thing to try and motivate a child with. Oy.

He really will eat when he's hungry. Give him a couple days, his body will start to demand food. Make sure he's getting some good ole fashioned exercise, too.

A side note: you shouldn't cater endlessly to his tastes, but keep in mind that he may truly want to eat the same thing day after day. The reason for this is: four years is about how old humans were when they traditionally started finding and foraging for food on their own. Familiar things, therefore, are safe and appealing.
posted by Specklet at 3:14 PM on April 13, 2005

On preview:

This is absolutely heartbreaking:

My parents tried that with my younger sister, I still remember her sitting in the kitchen at 10pm in the dark staring at her plate.
posted by Specklet at 3:15 PM on April 13, 2005

For us, our 2 year old just doesn't eat at supper. She might pick at it a bit, but generally she snubs it. Then she wants down from the table to come climb up on our laps or go play or whatever. At first I thought maybe she didn't like what was cooked, but this is consistent behavior. So either she's just trying to get our attention or she's just not hungry.

Our thinking was this:
- she won't starve herself
- we don't want to let her set the rules about what food we'll feed our family
- we don't want to make 2 meals every night (ie: not a specdial one for her)
- we don't want this to ruin our suppers and become a power struggle of her stealing our attention away at mealtime

We dealt with it by giving her the same meal as the rest of the family, and when she says she is "all done" we let her get down from the table and go play or whatever - with the very important stipulation that we are still eating supper and she isn't to bother us. Then if she says she's hungry later we offer her the same plate of food - no exceptions - until she has eaten a reasonable amount. Then she may be able to get dessert or other snacks.

To relate this more directly to your question:
We didn't make a big deal of it. She gets to have control over her eating, but we stuck to our absolutes (ie: she must eat only what is offered, she can't disrupt our supper). I don't like power struggles, and I didn't want to create big issues over food. Now, none of us stress about it.

frykitty and anaseptic have the right idea, I think. If it's possible to let it go and just stay out of it, I think that's ideal. If you really can't stand it, then ThePinkSuperhero & rmhsinc have a good tactic to try. But I urge you to consider: is it REALLY that important, or is it only a big deal because you're spending so much time and energy on it? Sometimes just letting go and stepping away from the problem can make it disappear - and failing that, at least you've stopped giving yourself a nervous breakdown about it.
posted by raedyn at 3:21 PM on April 13, 2005

Knowing this is a hot button issue for me, I"ll just say listen to frykitty.

posted by Space Kitty at 3:26 PM on April 13, 2005

You should check out the "Love and Logic" method of parenting for some really good techniques that would help with your problem. Using them allows you stay calm and puts the consequences of your son's choices right back on him. Much of the above advice is folded into the theory behind it. While I am not one to put total faith in parenting manuals, this system really works for tough situations. I highly recommend it.
posted by brheavy at 3:31 PM on April 13, 2005

Well, we've done the egg-timer thing, we've done the "sit there until you're done, we're going to go have fun" thing, we've beat him (not really), cajoled him, rewarded him, punished him, ignored him, praised him. All to the same effect - he won't eat but will get really upset (crying, getting mad, getting sad, etc..) and promises to eat, but then does nothing.
We've also gone the "eat only what you want" route for two weeks and he lost five pounds. I am not exaggerating when I say that if we do not force him to eat, he will starve to death.

He most definitely looks upon food of any type with disdain and the eating of which is a 'chore' that must be accomplished. He really dislikes eating.

I'd be more than happy to prepare filet mignon and french fries for him every night if only he would eat it. Trust me when I tell you that I'm not a mealy-mouthed PC parent and he is definitely not a spoiled kid. Being a second child myself, I absolutely do not hold up his brother as 'the good son' as that wouldn't be fair for either of them.

Thanks for the suggestions and keep them coming!
posted by Lactoso at 3:32 PM on April 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Is there a way to maybe get him involved in preparing the food? Maybe the satisfaction in actually making dinner would encourage him to eat it more often. Maybe the rest of the family can eat the food he helped make and go all crazy about how great it is and what a good job he did, etc. Just a thought.
posted by Witty at 3:41 PM on April 13, 2005

I'm with the "set a time" group. When dinner is over (give him some extra time, maybe 5-10 minutes longer than the rest of the family), take the plate away. Engage him in the usual dinner table conversation, but don't prod him to eat. If he gets hungry enough, he'll eat.

On preview, if he won't eat unless prodded, ask for a referral to a pediatric ENT or neurologist. That's not normal. If he really hates to eat, there may be another reason for it that your pediatrician can't find.

Is it chewing or swallowing that he won't do? If he'll drink, but not chew, get his jaw function and teeth checked. If he doesn't like drinking either, get his throat and esophagus checked.
posted by jlkr at 3:43 PM on April 13, 2005

Funny question. Now here is the deal: I saw it as the older brother and as the parent.

My parents despaired at my brother eating habits. They would try everything you possibly tried, from letting him choose whatever food he wanted to making him stay at the table until his plate was empty to making him leave the table when the meal was "officially" over. My brother has to be the only seven year old I ever saw refusing a meal of chocolate and fried potatoes. To add insult to injury, much like your older son, I have always eaten like there was no tomorrow (at the age of three I have actually cried when I heard someone in the TV saying there would be a food shortage somewhere).

Now, as Fate goes, my son exhibited the same eating behavior. He would not eat anything or he would eat enough food for a small bird. The doctors reported the same your doctor said, a little taller than average, a bit thin but nothing to worry, no signs of anemia. Based on my childhood experience, we avoided all forms of pressure. He was only required to eat something and to control the amount of food he put in his plate (that is, don't waste food). While that was going on, my wife started trying different kinds of food, mostly non-child food. Eventually we found out that while he would hardly eat meat, fish and other seafood (including raw fish and other Japanese food) would delight him. Some strange cheese would also disappear quickly.

Eventually both cases ended well - when my brother reached 15 years old and started to grow for good (from 1.5m to 2.0m in 4 years) he also started eating very well. As for my son, at 14 he is not a voracious eater but he eats well enough. I guess the only advice I would have for you is to stay calm and wait for things to solve themselves - he won't starve.
posted by nkyad at 3:45 PM on April 13, 2005

Your family doctor said he'd grow out of it? Did the doctor have anything to say about him losing five pounds? How long do you wait for a kid to get hungry before freaking out?

I'll admit, I've done quite a bit of nannying (and have younger siblings) and although there were eating issues, it was never quite like this.

After ruling out problems with his jaw/throat, I wonder if it might be time to look at his general constitution; perhaps a medical person coming from a more holistic background might help. Again, I'll mention exercise, but I wonder if there might be some stress in his life that's interfering with his body's natural hunger. In my own experience with eating issues, my naturopathic doctor/acupuncturist was wonderful and addressed many things that my allopathic doctor did not.

Does he sleep well? Is he normally a good-natured kid? Get outside in the fresh air and light? Okay relationship with all members of your family?
posted by Specklet at 3:46 PM on April 13, 2005

I'm totally in the "let it go" camp. He is at the age where he could very easily develop serious food issues which could haunt him for the rest of his life. I would not make him sit there and finish (although I would definitely say that when he's done, the food goes away). If he wants to sit there for two hours, why does it matter? Some people eat slowly (my grandmother was famous for not having finished her soup by the time everyone else had had dessert and was on their after-dinner coffee). As duck said, if you're worried about vitamins, give him a multivitamin, but I don't see the point of making a big deal about this. I honestly think when kids are at this age things like eating get a bit weird (as in the classic "he won't eat anything but peanut butter and ketchup" phase) because their tastebuds are just getting truly wired up to their brains, and thing taste and feel weird to them. Let him eat at his own pace, don't nag him, don't make a big deal either (maybe everyone in the family has one night they get to choose dinner, but don't ask him every night). He will eat enough, unless he has something medically or psychologically wrong with him (as Specklet mentions). I'd certainly be sure to rule this out, but otherwise, I'd just stop worrying so much about it. It could easily be a control issue, so why not let him have control over this? He has to sit down when everyone else does, but he can finish when he finishes.
posted by biscotti at 3:48 PM on April 13, 2005

Maybe he has heartburn or gas. Not as uncommon as you think, and he might have the engrained "food is bad" even if he doesn't get it after every meal.

Certain foods give me acid reflux, I was never a big eater as a kid at all. I didn't even know I had acid reflux until I took a Zantac after a meal once and realized not everyone has the unpleasantly full feeling. Zantac's really safe but you'd probably be best asking a doctor about it.
posted by geoff. at 3:56 PM on April 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

A lot of replies to this one, I don't have time to read them all. With that said...

I was like this as a kid too, and it was just because I didn't feel like eating, and my parents forced me to sit at the table and eat till I was finished. Please don't do that to your kid, they will remember that as a punishment for the rest of their lives. I ate when I felt like, and it never caused any problems for me.

Right now I am skinny and tall, but it's better than being fat and short ;-)

I would just give him the option of eating whenever he wants, no "dinner time". I don't like being given a time when to eat, sometimes I want my dinner at 2pm, sometimes at 8pm, why should I be forced to eat at the same time everyday?
posted by Sonic_Molson at 3:56 PM on April 13, 2005

Sounds like you're paying way too much attention to this whole question. Don't cajole, implore, explain or discuss. Dinner is over when everyone else is through, maybe plus a few minutes of talk (not about eating). Treat the process as self-evident. Don't discuss it. Neutralize it. Don't lecture when you take the plates away, just do it.

BTW, if he feels sick when he eats he'd have told you by now.
posted by words1 at 4:13 PM on April 13, 2005

(My youngest is also like this, in a way, although it tends to be more "I don't want to eat this chicken. I'm only hungry for ice cream!")

As a general rule, though, I'd say you're really in one of two basic situations:

1) "Normal": If he's normal, but just a reluctant eater, then he _won't_ really starve himself. If you set a good time limit for dinner, and he gets the message that he's got to eat within the time limit or that's it for that meal, he'll eventually start to eat enough over time that he'll be fine. (He might be skinny, but he'll be fine.) You'll probably want to couple that with some positive/negative reinforcements, like "You get dessert if you make a good effort", and "If you're hungry again before bed, you can only have carrots/celery/whatever".

2) "Something else is going on": If he really _is_ at risk of starving himself, then "slow eating" is just a symptom of something deeper, and there's a whole other level of stuff you need to help him with. It might be physiological, or it might be psychological, but if he's really at risk of starvation, forget about his eating pattern and figure out what's really going on.

Obviously, there's no way for any of us to help you really diagnose what's really the case. You just need to make sure you're really abstracting your normal parental concern--and maybe confer with his doctor--and make the call whether he's really at risk of starving himself. If you're really just _scared_ he might, then follow the solid advice you've gotten here about boundaries, etc. If you're really convinced that he _would_ starve himself, though, forget about the boundaries...four-year-olds have an incredibly robust physiology, and there's no way a healthy one would simply do that without some other way that he really needs your help.
posted by LairBob at 4:24 PM on April 13, 2005

Jealousy is a fucked up thing to try and motivate a child with. Oy.

I feel the need to defend myself lest you all think I'm a total ogre - maybe "jealousy" was a bad word choice. I guess I meant whatever the word would be to describe "Jesus, I wish I were in there with my parents and brother rolling around and laughing - but they said I couldn't til I finish dinner - maybe I should scarf a few bites so I can go play too..." I just don't think that's such a horrible motivation. Or maybe it is and that's why I'm fucked up.

posted by tristeza at 4:26 PM on April 13, 2005

As mentioned before, he could be tasting the foods a lot stronger and/or different than you are. I'm was the same boat - wouldn't eat certain foods, ate like a bird, etc. I was skinny growing up, and am still skinny as an adult.

As an adult, I cannot stand cheese. Now I can articulate why - I process the sour as OMG SOUR!, and it's completely overwhelming, and completely horrid. Even the mild cheeses taste this way to me. Also, as an adult, I can take the steps to avoid cheese without too much hassle.

As a kid, however, I couldn't get beyond "It's icky!". My parents, well meaning but naive, couldn't fathom how some child could hate CHEESE. (To top it all off, I was born and raised in Wisconsin. I couldn't escape the stuff.) There were many tries of "keeping me at the table until I'm done"/"Take away neat treat"/"Feed me the same food the next day", etc, and none of those worked. Because they couldn't grok just how horrid cheese tastes to me. They thought it was me pulling a power play and treated it accordingly.

The final step was to make 'noncheese' meals, or 'light cheese' meals. I'd eat those. And to feed me lots of veggies, which I couldn't get enough of.

Maybe you're unwittingly feeding him something he can't stand?
posted by spinifex23 at 4:32 PM on April 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Boundaries are always good, and so are natural consequences.

If you're confident the kid doesn't have some sort of physical ailment (difficulty swallowing, lacks tastebuds, reflux), I'm with those that say to set a timer and clean off the table entirely when it goes off, no more food available except carrots from the fridge (or whatever you feel is a healthy, can-always-eat snack).
posted by five fresh fish at 4:56 PM on April 13, 2005

A power struggle over food will just lead to eating disorders later. Finally, as anapestic said, this shall pass.

Like frykitty mentioned, when he is hungry the eating will happen. Ever notice food tastes better when you are hungrier. I was in a similar boat growing up because my meals were large for an adult. The thinking behind it was for gaining weight. Which never worked because of my growing spirts and metabolisms were different than those serving me.

Being left alone and letting me choose my meal size pushed me out my slow eating habit.
Today will eat most everything and clear my plate the fastest at any table. This includes full proper table manners and equal to more helpings than the rest seated around me. Also, I'm usually the smallest seated at the table today.

In America most meals are severed on a scheduled time and the serving thought is in advance than dictated by our hunger. Which is unlike other Countries which have little weight issues. I eat my food today systematically to fill my appetite that is based on my tastes which change daily. If any meal is skipped or very little is eaten, I’d pick lunch.

Ever thought about including his help making the meals of the day? I'd add choices but you tried that.

but it's a struggle to make sure he's eating enough to fend off anemia.
Did a dietitian tell you this? If you took him to one you may be surprised how they put weight on children that need weight gaining. It includes first lowering the metabolism through less food intake in order to create a slower metabolism. Then more food is added into the diet so the weight is gained successfully.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2005

Also, I'm usually the smallest seated at the table today.
In the USA that is.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:59 PM on April 13, 2005

My experience with the super obstinate 4-year-old who is now five and is growing out of it:

Our rule is that you eat, and when you're done you go to your room or downstairs so we can eat in peace. Then he can eat as much or as little as he wants, but we have a designated snack (probably a bad idea) that he has to eat later if he gets hungry, and it's usually something like carrots.

This is not a perfect solution, and I am a mediocre parent at best, but it has helped.
posted by craniac at 5:02 PM on April 13, 2005

Have you ever thought about letting him start his meals alone before the family sits down?

You do realize he may be distracted by the table's surroundings and the family conversation during the meals. Since he is the youngest by 4 years, it is obvious he had the least time at a busy table. Which is a distraction for the younger ones because they are trying to fit in rather than eat. When I’m excited, I eat less which I think most do.
posted by thomcatspike at 5:05 PM on April 13, 2005

I say back off, Lactoso. WTF does time have to do with eating? Maybe he's right and you're wrong. Why don't you plan a two-hour dinner, like they do in France or Italy, filled with wonderful conversation and personal stories and laughter? Make dinner a social event, not a race against the egg timer. And you must see Mostly Martha.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:17 PM on April 13, 2005

You'll probably want to couple that with some positive/negative reinforcements, like "You get dessert if you make a good effort", and "If you're hungry again before bed, you can only have carrots/celery/whatever".

I think this is a really bad idea. It turns food into a reward, which is fine for dogs, who always have their food controlled by people, but terrible for people, who end up being in control of their own food.
posted by biscotti at 5:24 PM on April 13, 2005

Are there any situations in which he does eat contentedly? I know that some kids will munch distractedly while watching a video, or in the course of a game (I used to eat a lot of apples pretending to be a horse). If your son is like this, you can try to provide food at these times to increase his nutrition. A little plate of crackers, cheese, PB and vegetables next to him as he watches TV or plays with cars might end up getting eaten without him having to focus on the eating at all.
posted by xo at 5:26 PM on April 13, 2005

He's four. Give him a break. Leave the plate. When dinner is done, leave it there and let him graze. It goes against what we were taught as children, but it's probably healthier.

Maybe when he's six I'd consider it an issue. But at four? He's still learning how to reason with you, and the rest of the world. The whole concept of if-I-do-this-then-you'll-do-that is still pretty weak at that age (speaking as the father of a 3, 5 and 8 year old).

Whe the kid's hungry, he'll eat. The more often you respond to requests for food with "You can eat when it's dinnertime," the sooner the concept of dinnertime will catch on. I wouldn't stress over it too much. But that's just one dad's opinion.
posted by sacre_bleu at 5:43 PM on April 13, 2005

Put one tablespoon of each dish on his plate- seriously, one tablespoon- and let him eat that. Hey, success, he "finished" his dinner before everybody else, yay!! Would he like seconds? Thirds? And he can work his way up to elevenths if he wants to, but dinnertime is over when dinnertime is over. No snacks of any kind if he doesn't eat at least his first "course."

If you do it this way, it makes it easy for him to succeed; you're still training him to eat at a reasonable pace, but you're setting him up to win instead of lose. Success is a great motivator!
posted by headspace at 6:01 PM on April 13, 2005

I agree with FryKitty. When the family done with dinner, explain that everyone is done, and that he is welcome to continue eating or not. If he wants a snack later, make it vegetables or his reheated dinner. If he chooses to continue eating, keep him company at the table if you're able. That that was my approach to a similar child and it worked out ok.

I think a key point is to make him realize he can't manipulate or provoke you with his eating habits. Don't make it a big deal unless he shows signs of being malnourished.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:03 PM on April 13, 2005

BTW, if he feels sick when he eats he'd have told you by now.

Not true if his sick feeling is normal. As with the reflux-sufferer he'd think it's just a normal part of the eating process, which he already is showing you he doesn't like.

As an aside, I have an adult male friend who eats probably 1,000 or maybe slightly more calories per day, and those very slowly. He's thin, but gristly and healthy. His best friend has almost the same physique but eats constantly! Some people just metabolize differently.
posted by lorrer at 6:23 PM on April 13, 2005

You should definitely talk with your pediatrician, who can check out if there's anything medical going on. Your pediatrician can also confirm with you that your son isn't going to keel over from not eating enough, and support you in saying, "This is dinner time, and when dinner time is over, we move onto bedtime things."

Eventually, he will eat. If your doctor verifies that there's a medical problem that causes him to eat to slowly, you can deal with it. On the rare chance that he has a psychological problem leading to this, you will get help for it. Otherwise, no power struggles, no getting him to eat for you. Logical consequences, and he makes choices.
posted by Raspberry at 6:50 PM on April 13, 2005

Pediatric speech therapists and occupational therapists deal with food aversion issues all the time. You might see if your pediatrician will give you a referral for an evaluation -- a good ST or OT will consider all the possible underlying physical/medical issues mentioned above.

FWIW (I'm not a parent), in a class in dysphagia (swallowing disorders) we learned that by being a slow or non-eater, the child usually gets lots of attention, which might be encouraging the behavior. So the parent should put the plate down and go about their business -- no encouragement, no pleading, no bargaining, no threats, no nothing. The only psychology that should be employed is having everyone else visibly and audibly enjoy their food. Of course, before trying this approach, you'd want to rule out the physical and medical issues.
posted by kmel at 8:03 PM on April 13, 2005

Lots off good advice in this thread. I'll add my 2-cents as well.

First: the kid is not going to starve. Don't worry about that. If the doctor says he's healthy, he's healthy.

Second: don't worry about the behavior. Different kids act different ways. There is no need to stress yourselves over it.

Third: you are the parent, so you need to keep the power in the situation. If you are worrying over the behavior, your son - directly or indirectly - has the power. You don't have to be angry, or upset, or yell. Just be consistant in your position, and hold firm in whatever tact you take.

My son was a slow eater. There were times in McDonalds we'd count the number of familes that would come in, eat, and leave while he was still going at it.

We approached meals with the understanding that there was a set "end time". Sometimes we had lots of extra time, and he could take as long as he wanted to eat. Other times we needed to get done and on to other things. Either way, when meal time was over, it was over. If he was done, YAY! If not, then we packed up what he had left, and he could eat more later.

We set the expectations up fairly clearly, and stayed consistently. We used a "warning system" during the meal: about ten minutes before meal's end we'd give him a heads-up, and then give another heads-up at 5 minutes. this way he knew that a transition was coming and he'd better get ready. When it was time to end the meal, we packed up and were done. Again - if he had food left we'd save it for him. Later on if he was hungry we could heat it up for him, but again it was on our terms: if heating up food wasn't convienent at the time he'd have to wait.

Kids are pretty good about getting the food they need - be it larger meals at other times, or snacks during the day, or what have you. It may take some time for your son to come around to whatever method you decide to go with, and there may be some crying on his part. Stay calm, stay in contol, and don't worry if he's making a scene. He's four, and can be forgiven for that behavior.

Good luck!
posted by jazon at 8:37 PM on April 13, 2005

The 1st objective is for your child to eat enough to stay healthy. Remove all the junk food from the house, so any food he eats is nutrition-rich. Provide frequent, small healthy meals, with as little fuss and fanfare as possible. To keep his weight up, leftovers, if appetizing, or wholegrain toast and an apple is an easy snack.

Work with him to make sure the meals are appealing. If you can get your children to cook with you, it helps them enjoy eating. There's a lot of reasons why a child won't eat; I don't think it's a good idea to punish it, but I'd really remove the attention. Adding a vitamin and maybe pediasure sounds like a good idea.

The 2nd objective is for the family to have an enjoyable mealtime together. Your son should have a meal that he can eat with you, even if it's a small meal. He should be at the table for whatever timeframe you negotiate as reasonable, sharing family time.
posted by theora55 at 8:38 PM on April 13, 2005

If it's any consolation, he is, in fact, eating properly. Probably over doing it a bit, but the proper way to eat is, in fact, to eat slowly and stop when you're satisfied, not full.

The reason for this is that if you eat slowly, your food digests as you eat it and you're more aware of how much you've eaten and how much more you'll want within the next bite or two. If you wolf everything down, then you don't know if you ate too much because it hasn't digested yet. You're eating based on a hunger you won't have if you just let it digest as you eat.

Cleaning your plate, despite the starving hordes in china, is also a bad idea. If you eat until you're not hungry, even if there's something left on your plate, and then stop, you won't gain as much weight as from eating what's in front of you, no matter what. This is for obvious reasons.

Now, clearly your kid is overdoing it quite a lot. I would recommend remembering two things, as a kid who ate notoriously slowly for my family:

1. He may be reacting to the way his older brother eats. It may be his way of saying that you can't make him be his brother when he wants to be himself. Respect that, but don't let him think it comes without a consequence. The suggestion to let them have as much time as the rest of the family and no more is a good one, not so much the suggestion to have them sit there for hours. Any kid will do that. They'll hate it, but they'll do it and you'll lose the contest.

2. How is his sense of smell? The person who mentioned their adenoids up above had a problem similar to mine that I didn't realize was an issue until very recently. I had a deviated septum and a continually clogged nasal cavity for almost all of my life. I still can't smell half as well as any normal person can. We taste mostly with our noses, more so than we think. So food is mostly a matter of texture to me. I have no concept of the complex tastes people rave about in their food. When something is strong enough to get past my poor sniffer it weirds me out, in fact, and I don't want it. (pepper, etc...) resultantly I am an extremely picky eater, because everything to me is a bout texture. Orange juice is fine, oranges are not. Too slimy. Stuff like that. Your son may have something along those lines. It's not debilitating, but he may not understand why food is so different to him and this is his way of acting out about it.

Again, I recommend going with the "you get as much time as the rest of us, and that's it." deal. eventually you'll have to let him have his own time, when he's eating normally, (which he will do) but for now fussing is the worst reaction and hunger will do your job for you without making him anemic. Chances are he's loading up on food at school, anyway.
posted by shmegegge at 8:40 PM on April 13, 2005

What frykitty said, mostly.

I'm the mom of an 8-year-old boy. He does the dinner lingering thing in phases. I won't make a big deal out of it, plain and simple. I keep lots of healthy foods around, and I really don't mind if he grazes; it's one of many healthy ways to eat throughout the day. What I do insist upon is family dinnertime. If he's not hungry, he still sits with us while we all discuss our day.

This isn't to be confused for those times when he IS hungry, and THAT is why he's stubborn and/or cranky. In those cases, I invoke the "just one bite of each thing and you're home free" rule. If he's really hungry, the one bite leads to two, and so on and so forth.

The best parenting advice I've ever received came from my mother-in-law: "Choose your battles."
posted by houseofdanie at 9:03 PM on April 13, 2005

I'm with kmel. I work with young children with and without disabilities. What you're describing may be a sensory dysfunction, meaning that the nerves and muscles in his face and throat may not be sending the right signals to his brain. In that case, kids don't know when their mouths are full and have trouble coordinating chew-swallow. Perhaps you could consult with a speech pathologist or an occupational therapist. If you are in the US, you are entitled to request such an evaluation (free) from your local public school system, even at age 4. Call the special education department for information or check with your health plan about their OT/speech options.
posted by coolsara at 10:28 PM on April 13, 2005

Lactoso, does your son drink an excessive amount of water? If so, he may have Nephrogenic Diabetes Insipidus. See This parent's story:
"If we knew what would make our sons dig in, we would cook it and serve it. I’d probably cook up the family pet if I thought he’d eat it. And I’m tired of hearing, "Have you tried fried clams?"… or pickled green tomatoes, or whatever other dish that is suggested. "Trust me," I say to myself silently (because if I said it out loud I’d end up being rude). 'If I thought Eli would eat it, I would have served it to him. That includes caviar and Godiva chocolates.'

My son Eli has nephrogenic diabetes insipidus (NDI), and, like most other young boys with NDI, would rather drink water than eat."
I just had to quote that since the introduction almost mirrors your own words.

It appears that this condition would not necessarily show up in a regular examination if the child were sufficiently hydrated, and that to test for it specifically sometimes the patient is kept from drinking anything for a few hours before testing.

Anyway - probably not, but if he is always thirsty and urinates frequently, definitely something to check for.
posted by taz at 11:12 PM on April 13, 2005

I'm late to the party, but:

You do not have a problem here. If your pediatrician says he is OK, let him eat when he is hungry and forget about it. Scientificaly speaking there is a 0.0% chance that he will starve. One day he will outgrow it--a process that you cannot speed up. Your only choice here is to make a conflict of it or not.

That strong will of his will be of great use to him as an adult. Bless you and good luck.
posted by LarryC at 11:50 PM on April 13, 2005

Thanks for all the great info and advice! A very few people appeared not to have read through the entire original post, but for the most part everyone has offered great information and advice.

Thank you all.

Ed T.
posted by Lactoso at 5:45 AM on April 14, 2005

By the way, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, in her infinite wisdom, has also addressed this problem.
posted by exceptinsects at 4:05 PM on April 14, 2005

I'm not sure if anyone has suggested this, but try serving him a commensurately small portion of food. Give him the amount that his slow pace will consume in the same period of time that the rest of the family eats.

This should accomplish the same thing as taking his plate away early (ie: making him hungry after a day or two), with the added shame of getting less than everyone else. I've never seen a kid who didn't respond to getting less of something than everyone else.

If you can think of foods where this will be particularly dramatized, use them.
posted by scarabic at 5:40 PM on April 14, 2005

« Older AJAX Demos   |   Lost MeFi link to Mining Pictures Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.