Home > Advice Column > Push or Pull? When picky kids pick your dinner to pieces

Push or Pull? When picky kids pick your dinner to pieces


How do you deal with, or not deal with, a picky kid? -- photo by Anna Migeon

This question came recently from a reader, Rosie Kate:

“How do you deal (or not deal) with a child who picks through food for ingredients he doesn’t like?  My five-year-old son went through an ‘anti-onion’ phase, in which he complained about bits of onion in his food. I told him to quietly remove them, but not to be rude about it.

Now it’s zucchini (of which we eat lots because we have lots in the garden, of course!). Same rule applies, but it kinda bugs me (I’m making sure not to let him know that, though, because then it would be a control game).”

So what would you do?  The normal, intuitive response to this situation is generally to find a way to induce the child to eat the zucchini.

Which of these typical reactions would you try?

1.   Command: “You must eat it anyway: zucchini and all.”

2.    Offer a reward: “If you do, you will get dessert/get to play video games tonight.”

3.    Threaten: “If you don’t eat it, no dessert, or no video games tonight.”

4.    Talk about it.  Express displeasure. Try to talk him into eating and liking it. Tell him it’s good for him.

5.     Put up with his whining and complaining and misbehavior in hopes he’ll end up eating it.

6.     Put up with him picking out all the pieces, and then throw them away (or eat them yourself), but not feel happy about it.

Picky eating may just be experimental: “Let’s see what happens when I try not eating,” thinks Sam, unconsciously, of course.  “I want to be my own man. Maybe this is a good way to show Mom I can do my own thing.”  It’s up to Mom, next, whether it works well for Sam or not.

Keeping in mind that pushing leads to further resistance, and pulling away may well lead to greater appreciation for the thing withdrawn, we need to look for a way to pull away food, somehow, somewhere, when kids act fussy. We need an an anti-push action to counter their resistance.

My suggestion to correct undesirable eating behaviors is to always look for a way to restrict access to food somehow. Turn the rejected item into forbidden fruit. Turn it around so that instead of getting to turn something down, he’s getting turned down. For example, when any kid didn’t want to eat something, my mom used to say, “Good; leaves more for the rest of us.”

If your child isn’t hungry at dinner, don’t try to make him eat it; rather keep him from eating anything that allows him to be un-hungry for what you want him to eat until you are ready for him to eat. Then he’ll be hungry for YOUR choice.

So for Rosie Kate’s dilemma, this is my suggestion:

Tell your son, “If you are going to pick parts out, I’d rather you not take any at all. That is not an acceptable way to eat. You do not ever have to eat anything you don’t like or feel like eating, ever, but this dish has zucchini it in. That’s what it’s made of and how we eat it. No way am I going to throw out a pile of zucchini. You can just eat the carrots / soup / chicken tonight if that’s all you want.  Absolutely!  Dad and Ashley and I will keep the zucchini tetrazini for ourselves. But we all want some carrots / soup / chicken, too, so you can only have your share of them (another pulling away action that increases the perceived value of food). Now, I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

Having another component, such as carrots or whatever, to the meal, gives him some options, but if he’s still hungry after eating those options, all the better.  Don’t make him lose face if he decides to eat the zucchini tetrazini after all. Don’t pay any attention to what he does, how much or what he eats, or if he is hungry later. He might decide being picky is not really all that rewarding.  Not getting to eat something doesn’t have the same thrill as refusing to eat something.

The most important principle to stay true to is always leaving kids totally in charge of what goes in their mouths from among the foods you choose to offer. No pushing to eat and loads of pulling away: not allowing him to eat when, what, and where you don’t want him to.

***

Related posts:

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat Part II

Categories: Advice Column
  1. Anna Migeon
    December 2, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Hmmm. Interesting question (she says, stalling for time to think of an answer…). Actually I think I have a good one!

    I think I would have two goals in the situation of serving a one-course meal that you child is going to want to reject parts of (or any meal you expect picky behavior):

    1. Make it hard for him and look for ways to deny him food, without any pushing to eat.
    2. Don’t give him interesting attention about it.

    Here’s my strategy:
    I would stay away from the issue of pickiness. Say once very firmly that we are not going to talk about his pickiness at the table anymore, that you don’t want to hear a single thing about it again. No complaints, no moaning, no discussion. No telling you he doesn’t like this or that anymore. It’s tiresome.

    I would also set the law that if he picks anything out of something and leaves it on his plate, that he can’t have any of that dish. That’s not acceptable table manners. Then I would bring out the food and let him serve himself. I would allow him, with no complaining or making an issue of it allowed, to dish up his own food and to pick thru the dish, as best he can, and get what he wants, leaving what he doesn’t want. If it’s a stew and he doesn’t want the carrots in it, let him spoon through for the meat and potatoes. If it’s soup and he doesn’t like the liquid, let him try to strain out some chunks. Don’t make it easy for him. Ignore that he’s doing it. If he’s slow, though, let him know hungry people are waiting for the dish and want it.

    Seem to pay no attention and be uninterested in what he eats. But if you see him removing parts of his food on his plate, I would take it way and not let him have anymore of the dish. It puts value on the food. Again, always look for ways to pull food away from him when he’s being picky, and avoid pushing to eat what he doesn’t want. It’s always the better option. Give no more than one warning about it, then do the tough love thing. If he goes hungry once, he’ll survive, be hungrier for your good food next meal, and know not to do that anymore. Not getting to eat something will be a lot less glamorous than being pressured to eat something, for him.

    Also, if you notice him taking a lot of what he wants to eat out of the dish and not leaving the fair share for the rest of you, I would ride him about that. Say, “You can’t take that much of the potatoes and meat. We all want some.” Don’t make him eat a single carrot, but just don’t let him eat all the potatoes and meat. Again, don’t make his life easy. More pulling away food from the picky child. More value placed on your food. It’s a matter of training him to behave in a civilized way. Let him be picky, but don’t make it rewarding or let him be selfish and greedy about it. You can get on him about behavior and what he DOES eat (all the potatoes you also want), but not about what he doesn’t want to eat. No pushing, but plenty of pulling away. All very nonchalant, of course, about whether he eats the thing he doesn’t like, or not. You can be a little more fierce about his eating all the meat and potatoes that you want some of, or annoying you with his complaints, or disrespecting your food.

    How do you think that might work at your house? Let me know what you think or what happens if you try it! I’d love to write an “advice column” post on it. Thanks for your question!

  2. December 1, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    So when I make one-course meals, eg soup, curry, etc, and don’t have other side dishes, what then? This is one of my issues too and have been wondering the same thing.

  3. Anna Migeon
    October 15, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Hi Rosie Kate, good to hear from you. I was hoping I’d given you a miracle cure! Oh well… I am wondering if maybe it would help to ignore the issue more, pretend you’d forgotten all about how he doesn’t like peppers, especially now that he’s had time to experience being passed over for a yummy looking breakfast. Go ahead and offer food all the time, as if you’d forgotten his current pet peeve. I remember once my son was little and announced to us that he was going to “fast” from I forget what–all meat or all vegetables (I think it was veggies). We listened and said OK, and then proceeded to forget all about it, and so did he. I guess your little guy knows now that if he is planning to start picking pieces out, he shouldn’t take any, but maybe he will lose face less if you go ahead and offer it and act like all is forgotten. Then he won’t have to admit he’s changing his mind or wants to quit being picky and can just go on as if nothing ever was said. It may make it easier to give up the fight if you don’t make him come out and admit he was wrong and wants to eat stuff after all, and ask for it when you don’t offer. It might be for him like when two friends were mad at each other and don’t want to be anymore but don’t know how to change gears and be friends again. If he starts picking out pieces again, you could say, “Oh I forgot you don’t want peppers,” and say he can’t have it if he’s going to pick.

  4. October 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Hey, my question made a post! Thanks for the advice. I did this just this morning when my husband and I had yummy garden peppers and onions in our scrambled eggs. Since my 5yo has been complaining about peppers, none for him! Didn’t even offer him any. We enjoyed our yummy breakfast, and he watched and pouted just a little…

    I’m reeeeeally hoping this picky phase will pass soon. It’s a fairly recent development, so we’re just trying to ride it out.

  1. March 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm
  2. December 28, 2010 at 9:22 pm

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