My 6-year-old son is an extremely picky eater. He throws fits when I try to get him to taste new foods. His automatic answer is no -- he doesn't even think about it first. I live in another state and am not able to see him as much as I'd like. His mom is a picky eater too and is starting to have health problems because of it. She doesn't push different foods with him. How do I get my son to try new foods and not end up like his mother?
There are only two areas where a child has the final say: eating and pooping. You cannot force a child to do either, and if you try, you're likely to set yourself up for power struggles.
I agree that it's important for kids to try new foods, and expand their culinary options. But if your son is a picky eater, it's important to avoid turning meal time into a battle zone. Here's my advice:
- Let go of trying to control what his mother does. When you find yourself struggling with righteous indignation towards her, remember that the focus needs to be on what is best for him. If you can remember happier times when you were raising him together happily, keep that image in mind. Children are always harmed when parents are in conflict, no matter how justified it may seem. While I can imagine it's terribly frustrating to not have as much contact with your little boy as you would like, focus on building a strong connection with him when he is with you. If he gradually expands his gustatory horizons with you and continues to be a "mono-eater" with his mom (eating only a few things), find a way to be okay with that. The more you try to make his mom go along with your agenda--even if it's in your son's best interest--the more likely she'll resist it. Nobody likes to be told what to do; especially former spouses.
- Don't bribe or force your son to eat, and keep the mood at the table relaxed. Place very small portions on his plate and talk about the color and shape of what's there, rather than fixating on getting him to eat it. Some children are hypersensitive to tastes, textures and temperatures. If his mother has similar issues around food, it is possible that your son could have legitimate sensitivities that need to be factored in. By downplaying your need for him to eat new things and taking the pressure and anxiety off the table, so to speak, you'll give him space to develop his own curiosity.
- Encourage your son to help you shop and prepare the food so he's more invested in the meal. Take time with sauces, which can mask the flavor of new foods by making them feel familiar, or try blending foods so their texture is less unusual. Have fun together with how the meal is placed on the plate. You might even create an interesting table décor, adding fresh flowers or candles sometimes to give dinnertime a "fancy" feeling. In other words, try to associate mealtime as a fun, enjoyable chance to spend time with one another, rather than a tense half an hour where the two of you are engaged in conflict over how many bites he's eaten of something.
The dinner table is one of the best places to gather as a family, even if the family consists of just the two of you. Transform this time into a sweet chance to connect, talk, play guessing games, or share interesting things about your day. My friend Laurie David has a wonderful book, The Family Dinner, with lots of ideas for making great family food. And keep an eye on the Huff Post Family Dinner Table Talks for kid-friendly conversation starters that will help make mealtime one of your son's favorite times of the day.
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.