please help! my kid doesn't like to eat
April 5, 2012 3:33 PM   Subscribe

is there anything wrong with my son?

my son is about 3 years old. we have never had any luck to find stuff he likes to eat.

we all become super afraid of the meal time, because it's a mighty struggle to feed him. we are constantly trying different foods, italian, chinese, japanese, junk food, healthy food, but we are constantly failing. even the day care teachers are amazed by the fact that he never seems to get hungry.

otherwise he seems to be quite normal, not overweight but not skinny either (little bit underweight but not by too much), very energetic, constantly moving, talking & singing, all day long.

shall we seek medical attention at this time?
posted by kingfish to Health & Fitness (54 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you currently seeing a doctor in general for your child's health? Do they have any concerns?
posted by odinsdream at 3:34 PM on April 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I was three, all I would eat was Campbell's chicken noodle soup, and broccoli. My mom asked my pediatrician, who said lots of kids are picky eaters, and to give me a daily kids vitamin.

What does his doc say?
posted by rtha at 3:38 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, just ask your doctor. I'm always mystified at how little my toddler eats, but she is strong and tall and - bizarrely - on the chunky side.

Would your boy eat gummy vitamins? My kids get two a day and love them and it makes me feel better about my somewhat haphazard meal planning.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:40 PM on April 5, 2012

A doctor's visit wouldn't be a terrible idea, just in case, but he's more than likely just a picky eater. You're doing the right thing by exposing him to a bunch of different foods. Just keep doing that. Also, Flintstones vitamins are delicious, as are the off brand versions, I still take them.
posted by Garm at 3:41 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sure. But for what it's worth, my daughter is almost three and for about 6 months hasn't eaten much at all. I stopped trying new things and just stuck to the boring "tried and true" (luckily that includes some fruit and vegetables) for a while, and suddenly now shes interested in trying new things again. I say go with the flow and give up on the creativity, as long as he's getting enough nutrition overall.
posted by nkknkk at 3:41 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Kids can have more sensitive taste buds than adults. Try very bland food without many spices, and vegetables that don't have a very strong taste to them.
posted by empath at 3:43 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

He is probably fine. Kids are like that. My nephew ate hardly anything and he is now a hale and healthy thin 12-year old. My sister ate everything and anything. I ate only anchovies, pickled onions, and olives. We all lived to tell the tale.
posted by fifilaru at 3:43 PM on April 5, 2012

I understand that this is a common problem with 2-3 year-olds, and can be attributed to evolutionary principles: in hunter-gatherer societies, children of this age were just starting to experiment with finding foodstuff on their own. If they were too adventurous, they ran the risk of eating something toxic; but if they stuck with the familiar, they were guaranteed to eat a safe meal. And kids are just neophobic in general.

That said, I would advise that you do not force your son to eat anything, continue to offer him a variety of foods, don't cross something off the list because he refuses it (he may very well decide he likes it a day or week or month later), involve him in the preparation of the meal, and honor family mealtime (survey says children are less picky if they eat with other people).
posted by Specklet at 3:47 PM on April 5, 2012 [19 favorites]

My baby sister was a fussy eater and I'm impressed she survived childhood given her unwillingness to eat so many things. But she was otherwise normal, and grew up into a fine adult woman, and so that informs what I'm about to say :

If your child is gaining weight normally, and otherwise healthy, don't sweat it. Get some Flintstones vitamins if you want to be sure.

But some kids are just fussy eaters. The less of a deal you make of it, the smaller the chance this turns into an eating disorder later.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:47 PM on April 5, 2012

All our youngest son seems to like to eat is tofu, sticky rice, and udon noodles. And strawberries.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:48 PM on April 5, 2012

I saw a video once (of course I can't find it now) where a couple had a kid that was really stubborn about eating and every mealtime ended in yelling and tears. Anyhow, they had this food therapist sort of woman come in, and one of the things she did was make the parents try stuff they had never seen before, like it wasn't clear if it was food or not, so they would sort of know how their toddler felt.

In the end, just getting the kid to taste something or poke at it or whatever or smell it or whatever he felt like doing was the goal, and after a few times of doing that, he seemed to develop a better appetite or was willing to try new things. They also took him to a kid's cooking class, where he and he his dad learned to cook things and where the food came from.

The therapist type person said it really takes about 10 times of eating something to like or hate it, but letting your kid play with his food isn't bad, it is sort of how we learn what stuff is.
posted by katinka-katinka at 3:50 PM on April 5, 2012 [14 favorites]

Two things you want to worry about-
1) Nervousness and/or the obsessive need to control things (potty training). Children with these symptoms, combined with not eating, need help right away.
2) Failure to thrive. Underweight is fine but if child doesn't look healthy, then you have a serious problem.

Otherwise, keep trying and don't stress. Sometimes it helps to go about dinner on your own, letting the child play in the room you are in (or under the table). If you notice child getting curious, discreetly set cooled food within reach and go back to what you are doing. If the child eats, ignore it. If the child does something to demand your attention, such as making a huge mess or loud noises, then calmly congratulate child on trying something new.
posted by myselfasme at 3:52 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless the under/overweight is severe, most pediatricians are more concerned with movement between weight categories (percentile weight dropping consistently over weeks/months). Your pediatrician has likely been charting your son's growth on one of these for quite some time, so it would be an easy thing to check at your next well visit.
posted by The White Hat at 4:19 PM on April 5, 2012

Definitely pick up Ellyn Satter's books, specifically How To Get Your Kids To Eat and Child of Mine. Her basic premise is: don't push food on your kids, don't bribe them with desserts at the end of the meal, feed them what you feed yourselves for dinner (in other words, don't become a short order cook by making your son frozen chicken nuggets and yourselves a lovely bolognese), expose kids to different foods without guilting them or demanding that they eat it, don't enforce the "finish everything on your plate" rule, and only feed your kids during specified meal and snack times.

At the end of enforcing her regimen, you may still have a birdlike eater, but at least he knows that while he can pick at dinner and refuse to eat most of what's on his plate, he's not getting a snack at bedtime because he's still hungry. This method can do wonders to encourage kids to eat at dinnertime.

Nina Planck's Real Food for Mother and Baby (only the last part, the rest is about fertility and pregnancy!) is also useful if you're interested in what to feed your son. Her research shows that when kids are allowed to snack on starchy junk food, they'll often refuse to eat vegetables, protein and other healthy foods. Even if you give him pasta along with a plate of good foods, most kids will just eat the pasta, breads and rice instead of the good stuff. It sounds drastic, but simply cutting the starchy foods out of your kitchen can dramatically change your kid's palate.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:27 PM on April 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also came in to suggest Ellyn Satter, so since zoomorphic has already done that, I will second it! I like Nina Planck too.
posted by pupstocks at 4:31 PM on April 5, 2012

thanks for sharing all the good ideas here.

last time we checked with his pediatrician, he didn't seem to be very concerned as my son's weight was still within the range though at the lower end. all other index were all right.

but he was bit surprised that he still couldn't eat on his own. he suggested that my wife and i have meal with him together at the dinner time, in order to show some example, i guess. we tried once, but couldn't even keep him at his seat not to mention have him picking up the spoon. So went back to the "force feeding" mode.
posted by kingfish at 5:16 PM on April 5, 2012

I have a friend who to this day, in his thirties, eats little more than french fries, seltzer water, and vitamins. He says that this is because he is a hypertaster and finds almost every kind of food unpleasant. He has always been quite thin but appears to be fit. He says that it was a titanic battle with his mother when he was a kid over his eating habits and eventually they just agreed that he would see the doctor regularly to make sure he wasn't getting sick from it.
posted by XMLicious at 5:20 PM on April 5, 2012

we all become super afraid of the meal time, because it's a mighty struggle to feed him.

Quite likely you are making this worse. Stop struggling to feed him. Give him a good variety of food on his plate at each meal and if he doesn't want to eat, just stop talking about it. There is no chance your child is going to starve to death in the presence of wholesome food. If his doctor says his weight is fine for his height and he's properly hydrated, stop worrying about it.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:20 PM on April 5, 2012 [15 favorites]

As long as the doctor says your son is in good health, I wouldn't worry about it. Our (autistic) son had a problem where he pretty much stopped eating, would throw up almost anything he did eat, and lost a dangerous amount of weight. It turned out he had acute pancreatitis caused by bile stones blocking his pancreatic duct. It took six months to diagnose and treat, because he lacked the communication skills to tell us what was happening. But in your case, if something like that was going on you would not only see the physical symptoms but your son would also be saying things like "my tummy hurts" and pointing to a specific spot. So yeah, in the absence of that kind of complaining, and the absence of your pediatrician seeing anything else physically amiss, I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by Lokheed at 5:28 PM on April 5, 2012

Try also leaving food out on the counter, the table, and even next to his bed where he can get to it whenever he wants it. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, crackers, pudding cups, anything he can open by himself. And then just ignore him, eat your meals without forcing him to sit with you, and eat snacks between meals so that he sees that people eat at all different times. Give him plenty of attention and affection at other times.
posted by mareli at 5:31 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd also like to recommend Ellyn Satter's books. Meal times became infinitely more bearable once I stopped stressing about how much my 2 1/2yo ate. I try to put healthy food that I think he'll enjoy on his plate at every meal, and I pretty much leave the rest to him. Sometimes, if I want to introduce a new vegetable or something, I'll serve it to him at every meal for a week without really talking about it. After a few days, he'll usually try it on his own.
He gets gummy vitamins and usually a clif kid zbar as a snack, which I hope covers any nutrients he might be missing. We try to sit down for dinner together at the same, but he's usually at his own little table next to us and he almost never sits still. We let it go because he still takes bites. Sometimes. Other times, he seems to live on goldfish crackers for days at a time. I think it's all pretty common with toddlers. They're crazy.
posted by logic vs love at 5:33 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, one other thing: we have a 'snack drawer' in the kitchen that he has free access to. It's got small, portioned-out healthy (or mostly healthy) snacks in it that he can grab whenever he wants. It's also useful for letting me know when he's hungry, so sometimes I can say 'hey, why don't we have our leftover broccoli and noodles from lunch instead!'
posted by logic vs love at 5:37 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

we have two good eaters and our youngest 2 year old doesn't eat a thing - apart from chips, icecream and a few other non nutritional things. However she's snaking throughout the day on fruit and healthy biscuits. We always have a meal time as a family and I think this really helps her see that mum, dad and brother and sister are cleaning their plates. I think it's normal.
posted by mattoxic at 5:46 PM on April 5, 2012

We have one of these! He's healthy. I still bribe him to eat dinner by reading to him as long as he's eating. I know this goes against expert advice, but I feel about this the same way some parents of non-sleepers feel about all the expert advice out there: that's great, but you don't know my kid. He doesn't seem to recognize the uncomfortable sensations that accompany not eating as "hunger" that can be solved by eating, like some kind of developmental delay. We have two other kids, both totally normal eaters, so I don't think it's anything we've been doing.

One thing I've found is that texture matters at least as much as taste for him. Diced tomatoes, cooked and left chunky? Yech. Homemade tomato sauce, pureed? He can live with it. Cooked carrots? Yech. Raw carrots? Sometimes acceptable. (Basically nothing is particularly desired except a croissant with Nutella.)

Anyway, you could try bribing with reading. It's been the best thing we've tried. But I wouldn't worry about it as a serious health issue -- just one of those kid things you work around the best you can, until they figure it out at some point.
posted by palliser at 5:50 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

So your three year old isn't feeding himself? Did I read that right? Because if he is three, still not feeding himself and you are force feeding him, then something has gone wrong and it isn't necessarily that there is something wrong with him.

But yes, get Satler's books and start taking the pressure off. No force feeding, no yelling, no bribing, no short ordering. But don't be unrealistic either - make sure there's something they will eat at each meal (try not to just go with pasta all the time though). And accept that they change - from 12 to 18 months my daughter wouldn't eat meat or potato. Now (nearly 3) we trying not to let her only eat meat at dinner. She even ate a bunch of potato the other night.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:52 PM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

My daughter is six. Every night for dinner is a slice of a whole wheat pita with a bit of peanut butter, some sliced veggie hot dogs on top, a minigo and some cut up fruit or berries. Occasionally she will have some mini carrots too.

This has been going on for, oh, 18 months or so. She is at a healthy weight, is whip smart, and we stopped worrying about it a while ago.

Like most things, making it a battle makes it worse, and she will outgrow it when she is ready.

Don't stress over this.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 5:57 PM on April 5, 2012

I know it's hard to do dinner all together--you're busy and tired from work, your 3 year old is a little tornado, and you just want to get the night over with so you can eat and relax.

However, it's really really important at that age that children start learning basic human interaction and self-care. This includes table manners and self-feeding. You have to try to do dinner with him every night, and gently reinforce table manners. That means if he sits for a minute, tell him what a good job he's doing and consider it a success. Build it slowly.

If you're in the US, think about getting him evaluated through the school system. If he does have a disability, he might benefit from state-funded preschool or a therapist to help him learn how to eat. If he doesn't have a disability, it will be a load off of your mind.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:00 PM on April 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

My son has disordered eating, and has since infancy. He continues to grow, although slowly, and does not look especially emaciated, which amazes me, given how little he eats. He has participated in various food therapies, some of which have been somewhat effective. What works best for him is to have many opportunities to interact with a food before tasting. One day you might ask him to pick up a piece of cracklin oat bran cereal, for example. Then the next day to touch the piece of cereal to different body parts -- his wrist, his forehead, his chin, his nose. The next day, to smell the cereal. Next day, hold the cereal between his teeth, then his lips. Etcetera. Hold the cereal on his tongue for three counts. Small bite, then spit. Small bite, then swallow. This process is excruciatingly slow, but has worked for us, sometimes. Good luck.
posted by Malla at 6:03 PM on April 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh and the agency that does evaluations changes when the child turns 3, I think. It's worth talking to the pediatrician, although I don't necessarily see anything that is wrong with your child from your description. Sometimes the therapists they have can teach you new ways to interact with your child.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:03 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Final suggestion: does he have any digestive problems? Did he throw up a lot or cry more than usual as a baby? My partner has acid reflux and when he was a child he didn't like to eat because it hurt him. Now he's healthier, but he used to be very skinny from not eating.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:06 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are picky eater and there are non eaters. Some kids only like a few things, some don't like to eat even when it is their favorite.
When you have a non eater everyone seems to think it is that picky eater thing that so many toddlers go through.
Don't listen to parents that say oh my kid doesn't like to eat either. Skipping meals and having only a couple favorite foods is normal. Sliding down the percentile scale isn't.
Everyone has advise but a slim few have a non eater.

Count calories and track for a couple weeks and show your doctor. Remember, drinking has a lot of calories so track those too.

My kid is a non drinker/non eater. There are times I don't push it it and he will gladly go from breakfast to bedtime with out a drink or food. He's 4 now but basically been that way since birth. He has literally never eaten a vegetable and only 1 or 2 fruits. When I worked when he was an infant he'd go 10 hours without breast milk.

My advise is don't take any advise. I have never met anyone with a kid like mine. Just track your food and talk to a doctor and get a referral for a specialist if the calories seem consistently low for his requirements.

Good luck
posted by beccaj at 6:11 PM on April 5, 2012

Put Velveeta on it. I know it's Southern, but my brother and I were weaned on Velveeta-covered veggies, and grew up to love vegetables (without the V).
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 6:38 PM on April 5, 2012

My 2.5 year old has days where she doesn't eat much. The one thing she loves, though, is sushi. She loves using chopsticks. She also love samples on toothpicks at Costco. Her dietary habits seem to be less about the food and more about the delivery system.

My pediatrician told me that instead of aiming for a balanced day in terms of diet, we should aim for a balanced week. We can accomplish that and it's a lot less daunting than spending day after day trying to get a stubborn toddler to eat something.
posted by Ostara at 6:48 PM on April 5, 2012

Kids go through periods when they are all about control. He may be seeing how concerned you are that he eat, and decide as a way of controlling the situation, that he is not going to eat. This becomes a bad pattern. Maybe that is what is happening here.

When I was a new mom, I was all gung-ho about healthy eating, and had decided that I was NOT going to ruin my children's tastebuds with ketchup, etc, and they were going to have good eating habits, by hook or by crook. Well, that quickly was replaced by reality: chicken with ketchup was better than no chicken at all. A little sauce never hurt anyone. If you have something you want your kid to eat, give him a big puddle of ketchup or whatever he likes to dip it in, it's not going to kill him. (At least not right away :-)

Also I have read that it can take 10 times for a new food to be set in front of a toddler, for that food to be accepted. I think that is what worked for my kids and vegetables. Every dinner had a vegetable, and we steadfastedly put that vegetable on ours and their plates, and we did not require that they eat it, or fight with them about it (although we did ask that they taste), and now they are pretty decent vegetable eaters.

Also, I liked what geek anachronism said although I've never heard of Satler's books. I've used that strategy too - always make sure there is at least one thing the child will eat on the plate. Out of the meat, starch, and vegetable - I always made sure one of those was a crowd-pleaser. The child usually does not walk away from the table without eating, and nobody's horribly frustrated.

One last item from my bag o' tricks - children seem to get by on remarkably little food sometimes. When my kids were littler, and didn't eat dinner, I could generally joke with my husband, "oh that's ok, lunch (or breakfast) was the "good" meal of the day". It really seemed like they would be a bottomless pit for one of the meals (randomly picking one), and the other two they would just nibble.

Oh, wait! One more! My pediatrician said to me one time, when I was asking about getting my kids to eat at meals, to make sure they are hungry. Sounds like it should be obvious, but when your kid eats a handful of crackers or tanks up on watered down juice at 4PM and you try to feed him dinner at 5, he's not going to be hungry. Stop feeding snacks/drinks for a period of time before you want to feed him a "real" meal and there is more of a chance that he will approach the food with a hungry attitude. Toddler stomaches are small.

Good luck to you, I see some really good advice on this thread. One of these strategies will work for you.
posted by molasses at 6:52 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

So your initial post reads to me like this: Kid is basically healthy, always active, and doesn't like much food.

Your follow-up adds that the kiddo doesn't actually feed himself and hates sitting for mealtimes.

Does he eat at all? Does he graze throughout the day? Does he drink fruit juices or lots of milk? If he grazes, he might be eating more than you think he is. Try writing down every bite he takes throughout the day to see exactly how many calories he's getting. If he's drinking lots of fruit juices or milk, cut way back on those. If he's truly not eating anything, you need to talk to the pediatrician again, very soon, about where to go from here.

It just feels like we need much more information to really understand the issue.
posted by cooker girl at 6:59 PM on April 5, 2012

Nthing Ellyn Satter -- in particular, read the "division of responsibility" (easily found on her site) -- and also the notion that this is not your child's problem. Feeding a normal, healthy three-year-old is not normal behaviour.

For many years I have, for better or for worse, scanned the mess that is the "Yahoo! Answers" parenting section. Virtually all of the feeding problems in "Toddler & Preschooler" come from parents who are compulsive about getting "enough" in their kid, with very little idea of what "enough" is, and they do it with force-feeding/coaxing/bribing, or just feeding the same limited number of junk foods. Force-feeding, or even simply spoon-feeding your 3yo like a young infant, will only cause/worsen feeding problems.

There is little good advice for feeding problems that does not involve "return control to the child." Which does not mean that the kid gets to declare he's eating cake all day long -- it means the parent serves the meals and does little else. You don't coax, praise, criticise, you don't "help" it go in, nothing. There are not recorded cases of healthy children perishing because nobody nagged them enough about eating. Stop worrying! Stop coaxing, STOP FEEDING. He'll eat.

In re. "If he's truly not eating anything" &c -- he's pooing and peeing, right? And you mention that there are no health problems. He's filling up on something, and clearly it's adequate to sustain him. All you need to do is decide that you are no longer going to make meals a battle, and stop making them a battle by putting down the food and leaving him to it (or not). He will be fine. He is fine except for having unpleasant mealtimes. Please relax; you guys will do fine.
posted by kmennie at 7:03 PM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Smoothies. I puree spinach, kale, flax seed, protein powder, fish oil and berries for my 3.5 year old every day and I have since he was 18 months or so. Smoothie is with a straw as to be better for his teeth. He also takes a kids gummy vitamin.

We also do regular meals. The fact that you're feeding a child of that age by hand is surprising to me.
posted by k8t at 7:22 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is he a super-taster? My son is, and was violently opposed to a large number of foods when he was small. He outgrew most of his finickiness, largely because we never forced anything on him (okay, once, and I was covered in spit-up cauliflower.)
posted by Ideefixe at 7:22 PM on April 5, 2012

thanks again for all the suggestions.

because meal times are never successful, we always try to sneak in something between meals, little snacks, pops, chocolates, etc. so yes, these could make next meal even more difficult. but on the other hand, like some comments suggested, he may not be so deficient in food intaking.
posted by kingfish at 7:35 PM on April 5, 2012

Some kids eat more, some eat less. Some of this is metabolic: My kid's best friend has never eaten and has always been chubbier than my kid who eats like a horse. That's people for you.

Here's my free advice: Don't participate in this dynamic.

Make the food you would make anyway. If your child wants to eat, that's what there is to eat. Period. If he doesn't like dinner, he can have a carrot or something but do not make a separate dinner.

Nothing bad will happen if your kid skips a meal. But learning the skill of eating what's served instead of getting served exactly what you want will serve you for life. No first world small child who was not from an abusive home ever starved themselves.
posted by latkes at 7:36 PM on April 5, 2012

Put Velveeta on it.

Totally anecdotal, but that was the worst strategy to get me to eat veggies as a kid. Velveeta-covered broccoli and potatoes au gratin from a box stand out in my mind as two of my most dreaded meals from childhood.
posted by limeonaire at 7:45 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am also interested in the dynamic of your son not feeding himself. Is it that he cannot do it himself, or that left to his own devices he will wander off rather than eat so you spoon feed or force feed, depending on his level of resistance, in order to get food in him?

The advice is really different depending on the answer to this question.
posted by looli at 8:46 PM on April 5, 2012

to answer the question by looli, he will just wonder off if we let him eat by himself.
posted by kingfish at 8:57 PM on April 5, 2012

You need to be at the table, eating with him and eating the same food. He takes his cues from you. He'll be much more likely to eat if he sees you both eating. And you need to stop feeding him snacks all day. Defined snack time is fine: once mid-morning and once in the afternoon but not not whenever you think you can get him to eat a chocolate. It sabotages the regular meals. I'll also recommend Child of Mine/Ellen Satter. That book is a game-changer.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:25 PM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might find the BBC documentary Fast Food Baby helpful. Some of the case studies are of parents who eat terrible diets themselves, but at least one is of a well-meaning family with a toddler who "just won't eat" anything healthy. They bring in a therapist to help the parents change their behaviours around food and the kid ends up willingly eating vegetables.

The whole documentary is available on Youtube:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

One thing the therapist suggested was to let kids play with their food so it's not so unfamiliar to them. She demonstrated this by bringing out dishes of unknown substances and asking the parents to eat them. Some were edible, but one of them was paint, I think. Of course, the the parents checked out the weird goo by sticking their fingers in it, smelling it, smearing it around - exactly the same behaviours they had been scolding their child for.
posted by embrangled at 9:29 PM on April 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

My son went through this phase. We used a three step plan to help it (and it's much better):
  • Three strikes, you're out. If the child has three transgressions at dinner, s/he's gone. This includes antisocial attention seeking behavior, calling the food disgusting, angling for dessert (in fact, we hand out an X for even using the word 'dessert'), bargaining about what s/he needs to eat ("how many bites do I need to eat?"). Upon ejection, the child leaves the room and may not return. Refusals and tantrums are met by dispassionately carrying the child to their room or a time-out spot
  • Have the child involved in selecting the menu. Let him/her help decide what they want for dinner - make suggestions. Don't be afraid to lie/exaggerate about suggestions "oh, cauliflower? You've had it before - you liked/hate it. Don't accept the same thing more than once a week for dinner (my daughter would have spaghetti and meatballs every meal every day of her life if she could)
  • Have this child involved in the shopping/preparation. For example, my son wouldn't touch pineapple until he and I made mini english muffin pizzas together one day. He put sauce on muffin halves, sprinkles on cheese, sprinkled on ham, dotted with pineapple chunks, and more cheese. We tasted everything before putting it on the muffin.
Be consistent, be dispassionate in implementing the rules (by the way, arguing with the umpire is another strike), but be clear what they are. Initially, we put a post-it in front of each kid and marked it.

Here's what happens at dinner now - we say grace, taking turns (more on this later), the kids talk about their day, they have conversation, they usually eat their dinner, we get better comments ("I don't care for asparagus"). Here's what doesn't happen - having to constantly field the question, "how much do I have to eat now?" "what's for dessert?" "I hate this!"). Initially, we had to eject a child every night. That number went way down fast. Now, about a year after implementation we eject a kid once a month, if that, and that's usually for being an asshole (hey, we all have bad days). Through all this, my kids never starved, continued to thrive, have tried new things, discovered that they love broccoli, cauliflower, beef short ribs, mussels, calimari, and other foods not traditionally appealing to a kid's palate. Sometimes we stacked the deck by using a little more butter on things than otherwise, but so be it. We also have foods with family names on them ("Daddy's noodles" is pasta with red sauce and meatballs, "Stuart burgers" are cheeseburgers). And even though we had to modify our diet to be gluten-free (my daughter has Celiac disease), it has continued to work.

On grace - we started this as a ritual, not because we are deeply religious, but because it helps the kids focus. Grace isn't always the same - for example, a typical grace is "Thank you, God, for the food in front of us, the family around us, and the friends behind us." The kids love to riff on this and it's a great picture into what's bugging them or what they're loving on any given day. Sometimes it's fun to surprise the kids - one day when everyone was edgy, I said, "praise the Lord and pass the food". My son nearly had a heart attack since it was so short, so it became a discussion of why it was appropriate and not appropriate. My kids have now taken it into their minds that we should light a candle and turn out the lights before grace every day. They love to share the responsibility. They love the ritual. It's also a good time to focus and calm them. I'm mentioning this because the functional aspect of the ritual was pleasantly surprising. If this works in your family, great.
posted by plinth at 3:41 AM on April 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Stop, stop, please.
The dangerous thing here is all the attention being paid to eating and food, and I am not using the word dangerous lightly. I presume you eat regular meals as a family. You should just sit down at the table, with a setting ready for your son. He gets the offer of anything that is on the table, which should be a variety of healthy foodstuffs: something cooked, something raw, protein, veggies and starch, water and milk, maybe a juice. If he doesn't participate, ignore him. If he does, engage him in conversation about things he likes to talk about, not food. Enjoy the food and praise it among yourselves. Make it a nice event, every day, with candles, flowers etc. Let him participate in the preparations. Don't fret, don't argue, don't scold.
If he doesn't eat everything on the table, so what? If he doesn't eat at all, don't worry. Never, ever offer him food outside mealtimes. (Which should be three times a day + two snacks at fixed hours)
After a while, he will eat. After a little longer, he will eat anything he is served. I have two daughters, now at 13 and 18, and even today, people are constantly commenting their "un-picky" attitude. They eat everything, and they are both whole and healthy, the youngest very slender but not underweight. But when they were small, they both had periods of really picky eating at about 2-3 years old. The youngest living from apple juice and buttered bread for 6 months. The above was the cure - old-style European parenting.
posted by mumimor at 3:45 AM on April 6, 2012

little snacks, pops, chocolates,

This is not a good idea. My 3.5 year old gets chocolate maybe twice a year. Pops - I'm not sure if you mean soda or lollipops, but this is also a RARE treat. (No soda for my kid...)

This is just junk for him.

Snacks between meals should be healthy too. Maybe on the tastier side of healthy -- applesauce, raisins, cheddar bunnies or goldfish.
posted by k8t at 6:45 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My daughter survived on chicken nuggets, broccoli, calcium-enhanced apple juice, buttered rice and pasta, and gummy vitamins from ages 3-6. She's now an athletic 16-year-old with wide, varied tastes and a healthy body image. If I were you, I'd cut out the between-meal snacks and sweets and such, but I would also make custom menus for him at dinner time. I am experienced enough of a parent to know that what worked for us won't work for everyone, though.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:47 AM on April 6, 2012

The video of a family and food therapist I mentioned here is the BBC documentary Fast Food Baby that embrangled links to here. Thanks!
posted by katinka-katinka at 7:12 AM on April 6, 2012

because meal times are never successful, we always try to sneak in something between meals, little snacks, pops, chocolates, etc

Ah, well, there's your problem, obviously. Funny you didn't mention that in the first place.

Solution: stop doing that.

Treat mealtime as mealtime, provide him with food, if he eats, great, if he doesn't, don't make a big deal about it. (We don't let ours just wander away from the table, but if he's not hungry he can stay and make conversation with the rest of us. It's difficult to resist continually reminding him that he's got food in front of him, or to start bargaining with him -- "c'mon, just two more bites!" -- but we found ours rapidly started eating better on his one once we stopped pushing him to eat.)

First few times he won't eat the meal, then later on will get hungry and ask for snacks. You'll say no. This will be the hard part, because he's used to grazing on snacks all day instead of eating real meals. Hold firm, provide him with food at the next meal. Don't push it at him, just provide it to him. When he's hungry, he'll eat.
posted by ook at 12:05 PM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is going to be really really hard to change things, this late in the game. I can tell you all about my routine with my kid, but she's been at the table for dinner since she was a baby - first in a sling, then sitting in a lap, then in a highchair and now in a knockoff tripp trapp chair. Wandering off during dinner isn't on the list of things that can happen at dinner. Getting bored once she's finished? Hell yes, and we're slowly working on the civilized conversation after eating part of mealtime. Slowly. She has been feeding herself since she started solids. She's watched us cook since she was an infant, and worked beside us in the kitchen since she was able to stand (mushooms are easy to shop with a butter knife, same with some cheeses, or bread for croutons). She has eaten everything we eat, apart from allergy banned stuff, since she started solids. You're going to have to try and modify all of those behaviours with three years of maladaptive habits behind you. And only you can work out how best to work with your kid about it.

My advice? Start with one thing, and make it the easiest. That might be sitting together at the table. It might be new food. It might be getting him involved in the whole process. Choose one and move from there, often the rest will follow. Also, calm down about it and remove emotion from the equation.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:46 PM on April 6, 2012

I worked at a daycare for two years, and not wanting to eat is really common. We also found that the most helpful thing was involving kids in making the food. (Also growing it, because we had a vegetable garden, but that's not feasible for everyone.) Kids often want to try something they helped make, and they've gotten to poke around in the ingredients, so they know what's in it.

I was a really picky eater until I was about 8, and the big game-changer was when my stepdad taught me how to cook. It changed food from "mysterious thing that just appears" to "something I am responsible for, and I'm feeding my family". Obviously a 3-year-old can't make a whole meal, but he can help with mixing, stirring, adding ingredients etc.

Also, giving him sugary snacks is going to cause all sorts of hassle. He's probably not eating partly because he knows he'll get chocolates and pops. Snacks should be not-sweet and relatively nourishing, like baby carrots with dip, or crackers and cheese. My daycare kids usually had a snack of Annie's organic bunny crackers (kids LOVE those) with fresh fruit and milk or water.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:10 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

No definitive answer here, just a little anecdata: My kiddo is a fairly lousy eater. There are a few foods he will usually eat but he just hates the idea of anything from the produce department. (He was a baby who loved all kinds of food and never really turned down anything we gave him.)

Here's what we have done so far:
-Stayed chill. (That's part of my general parenting philosophy--most things seem to work themselves out.)
-Kept offering him food I knew he wouldn't want. By that I mean, we merely extended the invitation to try it or even just put it on the plate (see above rule).
-Family dinner table. This made a huge difference--we rearranged our small living room to make room for a table. We sit together and try to stay at the table until everyone is done.
-Sometimes we give him "our" food and sometimes we give him food he likes. If we're having a spicy curry, I'll give him something I know he likes. But if I can adapt what we're eating so he'll be okay with it, I do it (e.g. separate elements of something that is usually served over rice, pull chicken off the bone before it gets to the table).

He's growing, he's gaining weight, he's happy. And he's getting more and more curious about our food. He'll ask to try things that strike him as interesting and his list is growing. And in the meantime, a multivitamin and the occasional hidden veg fill out some of the missing stuff.

(If the picky stuff seems extreme, though, pursue stuff with your doctor. My little guy had some food allergies that went undiagnosed for a while. Getting the food that hurt him out of his diet has helped with everything!)
posted by wallaby at 4:28 PM on April 8, 2012

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