The Picky Eater Guide: Part 2. The “Don'ts”

Last post, the Picky Eater Guide started with some history and perspective. The bottom line: there is a huge nutritional problem in the developed world, and it’s causing huge health problems. But it’s not that kids don’t eat their veggies, or that kids don’t eat what their parents want them to eat. It’s that kids, and adults, eat too much. Unfortunately, some things parents do to try to get their kids to “eat healthy” might in the long run be contributing to the warped sense of appetite that seems to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic. This post is about what parents shouldn’t do—the “don’t” list of things that in the long run may end up doing far more harm than good. Got a picky eater? Let’s not make things worse by creating a picky eater with a weight problem.

Do not make food contingencies. That means, don’t make the availability of one food depend on whether another food is eaten first. Think about this common scene:

Mom: “Boscoe, if you eat your broccoli, you can have a brownie.”

Boscoe eats the broccoli, then eats the brownie.

What mom thinks: Good! I got him to eat the broccoli!

What Boscoe thinks: Wow, a brownie must be extra special—it’s a reward food! And broccoli must be some kind of horror. After all, I got a brownie for eating that dreck. I’ll keep in mind that no one in their right mind would voluntarily eat broccoli. I wonder if I can make some kind of deal to get more brownies?

So, net, after this scene, Boscoe did in fact eat some broccoli. But the cost of this was to reinforce how special and wonderful brownies are, and to encourage him to continue to crave them—while at the same time teaching Boscoe how nasty and unloved broccoli must be.

Remember: the point of a meal isn’t to get a serving of broccoli inside a child. (If that were the case, we could just sedate the kids and feed them through tubes.) The point is to 1) enjoy the meal as a family and 2) help reinforce healthy social and eating habits to last a lifetime.

Another big don’t: don’t force feed anything. You’ll create food aversions and a warped sense of anxiety and power struggles at meal time. If you’re forcing anything, you’re causing problems. Stop it. You also shouldn’t distract and fool children into eating, by, say, leaving a television on while you shovel the food in. Junior might continue to eat (kind of like a little bird, just opening up that mouth), but that’s not a way to teach children how to choose foods and modulate their own food intake. It’s also, well, creepy.

Next: how to reinforce The Rule, a Universal Truth and simple philosophy that should be the guiding principle of mealtime. When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re not hungry, don’t eat.


© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

(This blog was originally posted on on February 27, 2012)