Preschooler Is a Picky Eater

How can we get our finicky four-year-old to eat what we put in front of her? Her highly selective eating habits are driving us up the wall. We never allow between-meal snacks, yet dinnertime has become a major pain. I see this refusal to eat as disobedience, but my spouse is afraid that making an issue of it will lead to eating disorders down the road. What should we do?

The most important issue facing you right now is the need to achieve some kind of solidarity with your spouse. If you’re going to be effective parents, the two of you need to get on the same page. Before doing anything else, find a time and place when you can get alone and talk about this problem in a rational, adult way. Whatever it takes, work your way through to the point where you can agree about the best way to deal with it. As part of that discussion, let your spouse know that there’s one point on which you can both rest easy: responding to your child’s mealtime willfulness with appropriate consequences will not cause an eating disorder later in life.

Once you’re on the same team, you can map out a plan of action. Begin by setting firm guidelines for your child as to what she eats, how she eats it, and how long it takes her to finish a meal. Make it clear that you expect her to eat what you put in front of her. There is nothing wrong with giving her a choice between two equally nutritious options. For example, you can let her select either broccoli or beans as the vegetable for her dinner. But don’t allow her to pick between beans and crackers.

Most importantly, don’t turn meals into power struggles. Just give your child clear, simple instructions about what is expected of her and then move forward with your normal mealtime routine. If you provide a wholesome selection of foods at a meal and she isn’t interested, don’t fight over it, make it the main subject of conversation, or force her to sit for hours at the table until she eats it. Just give her a reasonable amount of time to finish her meal. Then, if she hasn’t finished her food by the time dinner is over, put it in the refrigerator and take it out again when she’s hungry. Don’t be badgered into preparing something specifically for her at every meal, and don’t allow her to become stuck in a rut of three or four foods that are “the only things she ever eats.” She won’t starve if you hold your ground.

Remember, it’s critical that mom and dad agree on how to respond to this issue and that each of you is willing to stick with the program and follow through on the plan. If you don’t, the problem will persist and your frustration level will only increase. If you’d like to discuss your situation with a member of the Focus team, call us. Our staff counselors will be happy to give you a free, one-time consultation over the phone.


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