Avoid Battles With Picky Eater

Q. My 4-year-old youngest daughter is a very picky eater. She won’t try a food if she doesn’t want to, which includes just about every vegetable, no matter how it is prepared. She’d rather go to bed early than eat even a bite of something I’ve prepared, and once she indeed did go to bed at 6 p.m. and stayed there. If I prepare a meal with several foods and she doesn’t eat any of it, is it acceptable to allow her to have a healthy snack before bedtime or the next meal? If she asks, can she have yogurt an hour after a meal that she skipped? Should I be disciplining her with timeout or an early bedtime for not eating any of a meal? Do I insist she try at least one spoonful of everything offered, and how do I enforce this?

She has an appetite for candy, cookies and ice cream just about anytime, so it’s clearly not an issue of her not being hungry. Help!

A. Many children are picky eaters, and as long as your family physician isn’t concerned about her normal growth, you shouldn’t worry too much. It’s best not to make food into a battle, but it is your responsibility as a parent to teach and model healthy eating.

Serve your daughter small portions of the food you’re serving the rest of the family. Ideally, that should include at least one food she likes. If she tries a little of each food, she may have her dessert. If not, she should skip dessert and wait for the next meal. A healthy snack before bedtime qualifies as a mini-meal, but yogurt or anything else an hour after a meal doesn’t. If she prefers not to eat anything and would like to be excused from the table, that also works.

Four-year-olds don’t sit for long periods of time, and there’s not much sense in her collecting family attention with her pouting and complaining. The rest of the family can now enjoy the meal, and it would be good for her to hear casual positive comments from the rest of the family about how delicious the food is. Also, if she hears laughter and good conversation coming from the dining table, she’ll be more likely to realize she’s missing out on fun family togetherness.

She should definitely not be having any sweets if she’s not eating healthy foods. Pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Gordon suggested offering her water instead of food if she prefers not to eat. If there’s no battle, eventually her hunger will win out and she’ll join you in eating healthy food. When it does, avoid commenting as though her eating is anything special, and gradually she’ll eat more normally. If you praise her eating or bring attention to it, she may feel she’s lost the food battle with you. Food itself and good company at the table should be enough to encourage her. Sometimes it’s difficult to bring the youngest child into family conversation, and her food refusal could be the only way she can attract family attention.

Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com.