Should I Pressure My Picky Eater to Eat?

We have a 6-year-old son who won't eat! He'll go all day long on a few bites of cereal or scrambled egg in the morning. He may eat five bites of sandwich for lunch (or nothing at all). Dinner is a chore! We used to let him slide with not eating this meal, because the "experts" say children won't starve. “They'll eat when they're hungry." But we have decided to make him eat at least five bites of dinner and we really have to get on him for EVERY bite! I make him only foods he finds attractive: macaroni and cheese, PB&J, etc. What can I do?


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Let me start as a mother, and not a nutritionist, to recount an incident that occurred at my dinner table once. My 10-year-old son was going back for his third serving of a turkey and rice casserole. Almost simultaneously my husband and I looked at each other and began saying "Remember when we thought it was great if we could get him to eat one meal a day?!" Now we wonder when he'll stop eating! He too didn't eat when he was younger. He was too busy doing other things. Now he is growing before our eyes, and his appetite has increased to help fuel that growth.

Now, from a nutritionist's point of view... Six year olds really aren’t growing that fast, and consequently have limited and sporadic appetites. It is not unusual for parents to think they need to eat more than they are. The first thing you need to know is that you ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE for whether he eats or how much he eats. You are responsible for presenting him with age appropriate foods, establishing meal and snack times, making mealtimes pleasant, and enforcing standards of behavior at the table.

You should not put pressure on your child to eat. He has an internal pressure to eat, which is driven by his appetite, and by his desire to grow and to imitate adults and older children. You do not want to turn him off to his internal eating cues by superimposing external pressures. This is how people get out of touch with what their body is telling them. (This is why the clean plate rule sent lots of our generation to the diet clinics!).

You can encourage him to eat more in several ways. First off, set structured snack and meal times. Look and see if maybe you are allowing him juice or milk between meals, which may be filling him up so that he comes to the table without an appetite. In other words, be sure he is hungry when he comes to the table. If meal times are established, you end up eliminating ‘grazing’ which may inadvertently be affecting his hunger.

At mealtimes expect pleasant social behavior. Don't force him to eat anything if he doesn’t want, but you can let him know that you enjoy his company so much that you want him there at the table with you for at least 15 or 20 minutes. Then take that time to visit with him, as well as demonstrating how much you are enjoying the food you are eating.

Because he does seem to have such a poor appetite, you can serve nutrient rich foods so that you can feel secure he is getting good nutrition in a small amount. Some of these foods include puddings made with whole milk, full fat ice cream, chicken livers, well cooked but not dry hamburger meat or meat loafs, soft, mild creamy cheeses (like cream cheese or Muenster cheese), peanut butter spread on just about anything (banana bread, apple slices, etc.) Spread butter on muffins or toast. Put cheese sauces on top of vegetables. Use ranch dressing for dipping vegetables into.

Another way to entice a child to eat is to get them involved in the food preparation. There is nothing better than a sense of pride in one's creation to encourage eating. Let him mix up and bake some muffins with you, have him scramble the eggs (with your close supervision of course), let him make a milk shake in the blender, or allow him to cut the peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fun cookie cutter shapes.

All this may help encourage his appetite. But if it doesn't, that's OK too. Just the exposure to food and food preparation is a positive.

I have assumed right along that your son is healthy since you said nothing about any physiologic problem that would interfere with his eating. If you do find that he has no energy or the typical inquisitiveness and spunk of a 6-year-old, if he is not growing properly, or if he had an illness in the past that severely restricted his food intake, than you will need to speak to your pediatrician and allow her to access the situation. If, however, he wants down from the table because he's got much more important things to do (like go outside with the soccer ball), than I would relax and feel comfortable that you are doing the best you can.

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