A mother named Prue came to see me recently because she was concerned about her four-year-old son, Alex.
Alex, she explained to me, would only eat a narrow variety of foods. Because of this, he has had low iron levels in the past, and is taking an iron supplement prescribed by his pediatrician. But beyond nutrition, the main problem Prue came to me for is the conflict caused by trying to feed Alex.
For Prue, the main problem is at dinnertime, when Alex refuses to eat most foods she puts on his plate. Alex and his sister eat dinner between 5 and 5.30pm. Prue, on the other hand, usually eats with her husband when he gets home from work at 7.30pm. Weekends are the only time they all sit down and eat together – but even then Alex usually doesn’t eat what’s on his plate, and just wants to go to play.
Prue was understandably worried about her son’s nutrition. He eats cereal and milk at breakfast, crackers or a muesli bar at morning tea, a sandwich at lunch, and a banana smoothie at afternoon tea. The only meat and vegetables he’s willing to eat – at any time of day – come from spaghetti bolognaise that Prue blends in a sauce.
So by the time dinner rolls around, she feels like a bad mother if she doesn’t insist that Alex eat his food. This creates a lot of stress, as Alex becomes more and more defiant and Prue becomes more and more annoyed. That stress affects the whole family.
My solution for Prue was to start by reducing stress. We discussed the “division of responsibility in feeding”: it’s her job to provide a variety of nutritious foods at regular mealtimes for her children, but she can’t control how much Alex eats or what dishes he chooses.
By getting annoyed with Alex, Prue was not achieving what she wanted and was putting a lot of pressure on Alex. Mealtimes had become a battlefield. Prue started by reducing the stress dinnertime. She moved the meals later in the day, and now sits and eats with the children to model good behavior. She always prepares at least one food Alex will eat, so he won’t leave the table hungry.
If you’ve experienced the same frustration as Prue, these are the changes I would suggest:
- Have structured mealtimes. Don’t allow your child to eat in-between meals and designated snack times.
- Let your child eat as much (or as little) as they want at each sitting.
- Make sure that each meal includes at least one food your child will eat if they are hungry.