I’m often asked by parents to help them figure out why their child won’t eat dinner. Or, more often, why their child won’t eat enough dinner. To figure it out, I usually ask them to identify what incentives their child has not to eat. Incentives not to eat? Yes, because when children aren’t eating well it usually has very little to do with the actual food. Instead, it reflects the interactions we have with our children and how we set up incentives for them to eat, or more often, for them not to eat.
The three most common incentives children have not to eat are:
- They aren’t that hungry when they come to the table.
- Too much of preferred food is served which they proceed to eat, without touching anything else.
- They know that if they don’t eat dinner, there will be a snack offered later, and it will be much tastier than dinner.
Of course, there are many other disintentives to eating — Some kids get overwhelmed by the amount of food put on their plate. Sometimes tired kids need food that is easy to eat because the task of cutting, or using a fork, is simply too taxing. The key is to figure out what incentives are working at your table and fix them.
Here are some ways to fix the three scenarios above:
Scenario One: If your child typically has a snack before dinner but then doesn’t eat dinner very well, eliminate the snack. If that feels like something you can’t do — because you can’t see asking your hungry child to wait before eating — offer vegetables or another really healthy snack. If your child refuses, that means he isn’t that hungry. If he accepts, then you’ll feel good knowing he’s getting veggies in and then you don’t have to worry so much at dinner.
Scenario Two: If your child always eats the pasta or chicken first, and then won’t eat anything else (even if the other foods are items she generally likes) then reduce the portion size of all the foods that are offered — so she can’t fill up by eating one of the items. Then ask your child to eat some of everything before eating all of everything.
Also, don’t always put preferred foods on the table. For instance, kids who get served pasta every night have no incentive to eat other foods. They like the pasta and it fills them up. What’s more, the pasta “calls their name” so loudly that sometimes it’s all your child can do to even notice anything else on her plate. And then you probably start bargaining, bribing, etc. and that never really works.
Scenario Three: If your child frequently gets to finish off the evening with a bowl of cereal, or some other preferred food, he knows (even if he’s very young) that a yummy treat is coming. Holding out on dinner in this scenario is easy to do. Either eliminate the after-dinner snack, or change it to something that is small, not preferred, and nutritious. That probably means no cookies, no cereal, no cereal bars. Instead, think of a small piece of fruit, a glass of milk, or perhaps something such as cottage cheese.
Some parents can’t even imagine sending their child to bed hungry, but learning that not eating produces hunger, and that mild hunger is survivable are wonderful lessons for your child. Teaching these lessons is part of parenting your kids around food.
Good luck figuring out what is going on with your child. Let me know how it goes.