Feeding an undereater can be unnerving. 

And I understand. Our job is to nourish our kids.

Add in a little pediatrician pressure—”Do whatever you have to to get your child to eat more”—and feeding an undereater can be downright frightening.

So, here’s the question: What should you do when your undereater misbehaves at the table?

Toni wrote:

“I would love to hear your thoughts on how to handle the misbehaving underweight child at the table who needs disciplining for their actions – time outs? (taking them away from those calories during that crucial hunger window) reprimand them? (negative emotions decrease appetite) other?”

1: Let me say, as with so many parenting issues, the problem here is…competing goals.

We need to nourish and civilize our little monsters. And while keeping a child well nourished certainly seems more important…here’s the good news: It turns out, the two goals are really inter-related. Solve one and you’ll solve the other.

And solving the behavior problem has to come first.

2: Worrying that a child won’t eat enough food during meals may be one of the most common parenting concerns.

Parents of undereaters have reason to worry, but still…one study found that 85% of all parents of young children want their children to eat more. Pushing more food into any child is a strategy that backfires.

However, pushing food:

  • Sets up a control struggle.
  • Disconnects kids from their own hunger and satiety. (And yes, this happens even for undereaters—just not in the way you’d expect. Keep reading.)
  • Reverses the parental/child power structure.

3: The only solution to a mealtime misbehavior is discipline.

In other words, be firm about the rules—and the consequences for breaching the rules.

A few points of clarification:

  • Discipline is NOT synonymous with punishment. I like to think of discipline as being consistent, as in, “It takes discipline to train for a marathon.”
  • Ask yourself, What does my child need to learn? The answer is usually not, “What behavior is acceptable.” Most kids already know that. The answer is usually, “My parents mean business.” That’s the importance of consistency.

4: Reluctance to set and enforce boundaries encourages both bad behavior and poor eating.

Inconsistency encourages kids to do as they please. Their thinking: “I never know when I will get my way. But, since there’s always a chance, I might as well go for it.” (Think of this as intermittent reinforcement.)

The only way to encourage an undereater to eat is to serve small, structured meals.

5: Use the Eating Zones Rule: Make sure there are times when food is available and times when food is not available

The Eating Zones Rule doesn’t just teach kids to eat at the right time. Eating Zones give undereaters secure times when they know they won’t have to think about eating.

For more on Eating Zones read, Hunger vs. Appetite.

6) Serve very small meals.

The research shows that undereaters eat less food when they’re presented with too much food. How much is too much? You’d be surprised. For some children, it’s serving more than a couple of bites at a time.

Read, The Portion Size Problem: A Matter of Trust.

7) Recognize that doing anything to get your child to eat is a strategy that will always backfire.

Kids don’t eat better when parents do anything. The only thing that happens when parents do anything is that power shifts from parent to child.

For more on this, read, What’s Holding You Hostage.

By the way…if you think I’m immune to forcing food, read, You Have to Eat. Or Else…

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~