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Dinner Table Showdown: Hunger Games with Picky Eaters

HUNGER NUDGES out pickiness: a little more hunger, a little less fussiness.

Beth, mom of an eight-year-old and a six-year-old, wrote me with the suggestion that maybe moms of picky kids should simply offer them a “healthy” alternative, like pasta, whenever they don’t want what’s served. Good idea, right?

“I don’t want them to have to eat things they seriously don’t care for,” she said, noting that her kids don’t have medical, developmental or sensory processing issues or other such real problems. They just aren’t crazy about certain textures. Or probably, they just would rather have pasta than what’s served sometimes.

Thus far, I agree that no one should have to eat anything against his will.

“That being said,” Beth admits, “it upsets me that I have to make separate meals for them. It means we eat at different times and eat different things.  It isn’t an ‘always’ thing, but it is an ‘often’ thing. I would love to have a happy medium, at least.”

Yes, there is a happy medium, Beth.  Parents, there’s no reason to  cook more than one meal. It’s enough time and effort to make one meal. Doing more for your kids is rarely better for them.  Or you.  There’s a simple solution to this problem.

No Hungry Kids: Who’s Suffering?

The sticking point for Beth is that tough thing of seeing her kiddos go to bed hungry because they didn’t like what was offered for dinner.

“I agree that they certainly won’t starve, but I’m just too sensitive, I guess. I don’t want them to ever feel hungry, sad, etc. Going to bed without finishing dinner, I just can’t abide it. Because while I get frustrated when my kiddos won’t eat certain things, I just can’t send them to bed without what I consider to be a healthy meal,” she explains.

So it’s OK for you to suffer repeatedly over your kids’ fussy choices, but it’s not OK for them to suffer in any way? At all? Ever?

Of course it upsets you when you have to make separate meals for your children.  It’s unreasonable. It’s over-complicated. You should be upset. Other people of whom your children expect unreasonable concessions will probably also be upset. What you’re doing is a problem for your children as well as for you.  If your children got a little upset just once or twice, though, neither you, nor they, nor the people around them would need to continue to get upset.

Offering alternatives to meals is not real life. It’s not sustainable. It’s coddling, a softening of life for your kids with artificial cushions.  You’re enabling one of their their less admirable qualities by refusing to allow them to experience consequences.  They are not so fragile and rigid as you make them out to be and as you are encouraging them to be.

You don’t have a real problem on your hands. The only problem is of your own creation.

You are losing the classic dinner time showdown for no good reason. Your kids’ hunger is not something to fear; it’s something to take gentle and loving advantage of.  The happy medium is neither forcing them to eat what they don’t want nor supplying upon demand whatever it is they do want.

The Choices of Reality

You and your kids need a dose of reality. Starving kids aren’t fussy. But fear not: you need not starve your kids. You only need to shift your home atmosphere from one of over protection to one of normal and natural attitudes toward food. A shift from co-dependency to autonomy and self-management.

How to accomplish this shift? Giving your children the realistic and natural choice between being hungry and being a bit more open minded about the perfection of their food choices will help them take charge of their own eating.

You can gently press them in this direction. Let them feel the reality. Cut off the alternative meals. Let them know, in all loving, nonchalant sweetness:, with no cringing: eat what’s offered, if you’re hungry, or wish you had. They’ll learn fast. Why should they be open minded if Mom bails them out anytime they feel like turning up their noses? Where is the encouragement toward being a bigger boy or girl?

If they KNOW they WILL go to bed hungry if they choose not to eat what is offered, they will probably decide not to take that option more than a time or two.  I’m confident that they’ll decide they don’t dislike the food THAT much. They might even be surprised to discover it tastes pretty darn good when it’s that or being hungry. It’s not cruelty, it’s just natural consequences. You’ll wish you’d done it years ago.

Then the problem of their own hunger becomes theirs instead of yours. Yet, the problem will probably cease to be a problem. They’ll give up the pickiness more and more. They’ll gain the gift of enjoying far more foods.  You’ll be doing them a favor. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. You’ll be doing everyone who has to live with your kids in the future a favor.

How to Cultivate Contentedness and Autonomy

You want to cultivate contentedness, not fussiness and hard-to-pleasedness in your child. A little hunger edges out pickiness. It’s real, it’s normal, they can take it.  Kids are resilient. Going through some hunger won’t hurt them at all. It will help them be happier,  more mature, more enjoyable people. You’ll be happier.  Because what’s good for them is good for you. Be patient. Be calm. It’s not as big a deal as you make it out to be. Your kids can adapt. They can eat more than they’ve been left to think they can, and enjoy it, and survive.

You must show confidence. Your kids need to see that you know what you’re doing. When they see that you are sure they’ll be fine, they’ll also be assured that they’ll be fine. Your attitude teaches them to be either resilient or fragile.

Remember, they don’t have a real reason to be fussy; they’re just being more hard to please than hungry. Shift the balance toward feeling that hunger you’re currently afraid they’ll feel, and their choices will open up. Let them worry about being hungry. Put it in their hands instead of yours. Encourage them to be in tune with their own bodies and be autonomous, not co-dependent.

Your primary concern should be about raising kids who are agreeable, sociable, grateful, gracious, open and happy with all the blessings they have instead of being demanding and fussy and particular.  That’s already a lot to tend to. When you focus on those things that they don’t do naturally choose on their own, the natural process of eating generally takes care of itself.

Whether they’re hungry or not can and should be THEIR problem. They can handle it. Really, they’re the only ones who can handle it.

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