Meal Ordeals


Dear Dr. Ray, My four-year-old daughter is a picky eater. Often she refuses to eat anything at all. Mealtime is not pleasant in our home. ― Fed Up

Meal ordeals — they rank in the big three of everyday preschool problems, right up there with bedtime badtimes and temper tempests. Meal ordeals may be the easiest to resolve, though, as nature is on the parents' side. Even the most finicky food refuser eventually will eat because her body tells her to.

If you don't want to wait for hunger to drive your daughter to do something drastic, like swallow food, here is a menu of suggestions to help simmer down potential meal melees in your home.

One strategy, usually resorted to out of sheer frustration, is the "Seat-until-you-eat" order, or the "You'll-sit-there-until-you-eat-or-take-at-least-one-bite" stand. This approach has a few drawbacks. One, it may work with some kids, but generally not with those who, as long as you are upset over their fasting, are determined not to take a single bite until their wedding rehearsal dinner. Two, you may be forcing yourself to sit and supervise. In other words, you too must seat until they eat. And I'm sure you have better things to do with your time than stare at a four-year-old mindlessly stirring squash throughout his mashed potatoes. Three, invariably Cookie will whine and fuss ad nauseam. Isn't it amazing the energy those little tykes have on an empty stomach? Invariably, we don't stay fussless either. A food fight erupts, with us pleading, arguing, and finally threatening to force-feed Cookie intravenously. All this just prolongs the ordeal. During such standoffs, the only consolation we have is knowing that someday, twenty-two years from now, Cookie is going to have to live with the realization that she once had the chance to eat with reckless abandon and not gain weight and she let it slip by.

More effective, less prolonged, solutions to meal melees are these:

  1. Set a time when the table will be cleared and the meal will officially be over. Whatever is still edible on Candy's plate, that is, whatever is not a greenish-yellow, unrecognizable semi-liquid glue, can be covered and placed in the refrigerator. This is her meal to eat if or when she eventually gets hungry. The decision to reheat the meal or not is certainly yours, but for most parents the choice to re-serve warm or cold food usually hinges on the temperature of their mood at the time of hearing "Mom, I'm so hungry my belly is bubbling."

  2. While you're occupied with your own food, try to ignore the fact that Grace is not occupied with hers. Resist cajoling ("Mmmm, these carrots taste just like chocolate ice cream"), threats ("Sugar, if you don't at least try your beans, you'll never see another Popsicle in this house"), or bribes ("If you eat two bites of bread, you can leave the table until next Saturday"). It may initially agitate your stomach to stifle the urge to prod your preschooler, but it will help if you fantasize that your daughter is actually eating. Imagine that Grace is gratefully relishing the meal you prepared. You may succeed in tricking your stomach into settling down. One mom told me she spoke to her son as though he were eating. "Aren't those peppers good? I like them, too!" He must have thought she had slipped a bean, because he actually started eating. I think he felt sorry for her.

  3. Absolutely no dessert or snacks (save only highly nutritious ones broccoli, spinach, carrots, and the like) will be available later in the meal or the evening. The temptation is to allow Honey a vitamin-fortified, fudge-covered, sugar wafer bar just to get "something" into her, but over time she may learn to shun your nutritious offerings in anticipation of more tasty treats later, especially if she knows you get panicky as her hunger strike stretches into five hours. Besides, for all you know, she may have been munching on roots and berries outside. A lot of preschoolers do. Have your daughter finish her meal it's still in the refrigerator before she can enjoy the evening's goodies.

I think the major difference between grown-ups and preschoolers involves eating and sleeping. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood we grow to crave both.

Dr. Ray



Ray Guarendi "Meal Ordeals."

Reprinted with permission of Ray Guarendi.


Raymond N. Guarendi, aka Dr. Ray, is a practicing clinical psychologist and authority on parenting and behavioral issues active in the Catholic niche media. Guarendi is an advocate of common sense approaches to child rearing and discipline issues. Guarendi received his B.A. and M.A. at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, and his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 1978. He is the author of You're a better parent than you think!: a guide to common-sense parenting, Good Discipline, Great Teens, Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It; Straight Answers to Hearfelt Questions, Discipline that lasts a lifetime: the best gift you can give your kids, and Back to the Family.

Copyright © 2005 Ray Guarendi

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.