You’re in a control struggle with your child: You want him to eat.  He doesn’t want to.  At least not that load of disgusting, yucky, awful-looking slop you so thoughtlessly put on his plate.

Never mind that he thought the exact same dish was absolutely divine only days ago.

Whatever you do, don’t believe that your child doesn’t like the food.

If he ate it yesterday (or as recently as… let’s see … 2 minutes ago) then chances are he has simply decided he doesn’t want to eat it.  And not wanting to eat something requires a different parental response than not liking something.  Read: What “I don’t like it” Really Means.

Don’t beg, bribe, threaten or in any other way try to convince your child to eat, either.

Sometimes this approach works – you have the big guns after all, so you can usually make the bribe or the bully big enough to win — but whatever gains you make will be temporary. You won’t have addressed the underlying problem (your child’s need for control), and you won’t have taught your child anything about how to eat right.

The only way to solve a control problem is to give your kid what he wants: more control.

This doesn’t mean letting your only eat eggs for months on end or never putting another pea on his plate.

The trick is to structure choices so it doesn’t matter what your child chooses.  For instance…

  • You decide what selection of vegetables to offer and your child decides which specific ones to eat.
  • You decide when to serve food, and your child where he eats it.

In other words, you make the BIG decisions and your child makes the little ones.

If you let your child eliminate foods from his diet, his circle of acceptable delectables will keep getting smaller.

It’s counterintuitive, because it seems like honoring a child’s passion to eat only pasta will satisfy his need for control, but it’s only a temporary salve.  The only way a child who expresses his need for control through food can keep feeling in control is to eliminate even more food.  That’s how a child who starts out not eating chicken ends up not eating chicken, eggs, apples, asparagus…

If you’re a parent who feels like your child only eats 5 different things, you know what I mean. The only way to solve a control problem is to redirect your child’s need for control into an acceptable arena.

Five effective ways to curb your child’s craving for control.

1) Serve 3 or 4 different dishes – a meat and 2 veg, for instance – and ask your child to choose 2 out of 3, or 3 out of 4.  Let him serve himself from the serving bowls.

2) Keep a selection of raw vegetables – string beans, cherry tomatoes, red peppers — in bowls in the refrigerator to supplement meals.  Ask your child to eat either the meal you’ve cooked or anything he likes from the bowls.

3) Ask your child what he would like you to prepare the following evening for dinner.  Give him 2 or 3 choices of main or 2 or 3 choices of side dishes.  When you do prepare his choice the following evening, make sure to remind your child that you complied with his request.

4) Have a backup that your child can choose at any time.  Read How Cottage Cheese Saved My Life.

5) Try putting really small portions of food on your child’s plate and encouraging him to ask for more if he wants more.  Read When Less is More.

6) Give your child choices before and after meals too.  For instance, you can ask him to choose which plates, which seats, which utensils, and which glasses he wants.  Your child can choose where and when he eats his snack, whether he wants his food to be cut in slices, cubes or circles.  At the grocery store, have him pick out the packet of peas she wants, the shape of pasta, the color of potato.  Think about expanding your child’s non-food choices too because the more your child exerts himself in other arenas, the less he’ll do it around food.

Of course, you could do all these things and your child might still put up a fuss.  But you should implement these techniques anyway.

Giving your child these kinds of structured choices creates a middle-ground which redefines the struggle away from your way or my way and towards a more cooperative approach.  Plus, it will establish the foundation you need to teach your kids to eat right.  Read House Building 101 for more.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~