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Six-year-old is a terrible eater
by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
See Aletha Solter's books, Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), and Raising Drug-Free Kids. for more information about allowing children to become self regulated in regards to food.
My six-and-a-half year old is a terrible eater. He refuses to try new items, and literally only eats about six things: peanut butter and jelly, pizza, spaghetti, cheerios, oatmeal, milk, juice (100% fruit), and a few other things, but really that is about it. When we go anywhere for dinner or a holiday, it's very hard and almost embarrassing because he will not eat anything. I refuse to make him special meals anymore, but would love some suggestions on how to approach this problem . He is healthy, and I do give him a multi-vitamin, but would welcome some suggestions.
Between the ages of two and eight years of age, children are typically picky eaters and often eat less than their parents think they should. Many children this age restrict their preferences to a few favorite foods, as you have described with your son. This eating pattern is quite normal because children's growth rate is fairly slow during this period. Studies have shown that children will spontaneously select a healthy diet from a variety of wholesome foods if they have not been interfered with. They know instinctively what they need. Your son's diet is not that bad, and he is probably getting the nutrients he needs. My recommendation is that you try to relax and let him eat what he wants, in the quantities he desires. When your son's puberty growth spurt begins, he will probably eat so much of whatever you serve, that you will wonder why you ever thought you had a problem!
Many of us adults have lost touch with our body's messages, and we no longer know what foods are good for us. Some people don't even know when they are really hungry, and they eat only because it is lunch time or dinner time. One out of five adults in the United States is overweight. In order to avoid later weight problems and eating disorders, children need to be allowed to stay attuned to their body's messages.
It is best not to comment on what he eats or to control his eating in any way. This will only create a power struggle between the two of you. Some parents use a reward system in which they withhold a desired food until the child has eaten something the parents want him to eat. Studies have shown that this method accomplishes the reverse of what is intended. It actually decreases the child's desire in the future for the food he has to eat to obtain a reward. This is a major pitfall with the use of rewards. So it is best to avoid all rewards as well as punishments.
You can gradually try to increase the variety of foods he eats by building on what he likes but without forcing him. Maybe he would like some raisins or a cut up apple or banana on top of his oatmeal. Perhaps he would eat pizza topped with vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini squash, or spaghetti sauce made with tofu. Many children will eat fruits such as peaches, strawberries, or bananas if they are blended into "smoothies" (milk drinks made in a blender). Many wholesome desserts can be prepared with fresh fruits. The idea is to offer a variety of foods in attractive ways, but to let him decide what he wants to eat. You can suggest that he take one little bite of a new food before rejecting it. He might actually like it.
Another suggestion is to encourage him to help cook. Children are usually eager to eat the foods that they themselves have helped to prepare. If you have a yard, you can help him plant a little vegetable garden. Many children enjoy eating tomatoes, cucumbers, or carrots that they have grown themselves.
There is no need to prepare special meals for him. However, it is important to have the foods available that he likes. If he doesn't want the dinner you have prepared for the family, he should be allowed to eat a peanut butter sandwich or perhaps some left-over spaghetti or pizza from another meal. If a friend were visiting you who liked only certain foods, you would probably make an effort to have those foods available. You would certainly not try to force your friend to eat what you have prepared for dinner. The same respect should be given to children. Nothing will be accomplished by making him go hungry. Depriving him of food will not make him like other foods. Instead, it will only create resentment and damage your relationship with him. If you go out to eat, you can bring along a peanut butter sandwich for him, and you can warn friends ahead of time that he might not eat what they offer.
I have found that eating creates many needless struggles between parents and children. When parents begin to relax and trust their children's natural food preferences, and when the children do not feel threatened, manipulated, or coerced, they eventually do eat a greater variety of foods.
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.