Food Fight! - Kimberly Thompson

Ah, food issues. Aren’t they just great? Sarcasm intended. If food issues in your home have escalated into a battle royal — or if you are just tired of pouring love, thought, and lots of work into preparing food only to have it rejected or complained about — it’s time to rethink the whole thing.

This is not going to be nutrition advice. This is going to be behavior advice. I’m betting you already know plenty about how your child should be eating. The problem is that your child doesn’t really know or care about all that. So what you need to figure out is: What is your child gaining by complaining about the food in front of her, refusing everything but corn dogs or mac-n-cheese, or creating disruptions at meal time?

It could be truly about the food. If whining, complaining, throwing fits, or refusing to eat eventually wear you down only once, a strong-willed child will continue to try that strategy … escalating higher and stronger every time she is told no for a long time afterwards. She likes French fries best,  she knows there is some in the freezer, and by George, she will hold out until she gets them.

Which leads us to the most likely possibility. It is probably about the power and control. There’s not much that a kid has control over … and once she discovers that you are not going to literally shove the food down her throat, she has you. You can order her to eat all you like, but as long as you can’t or won’t force her, she wins. If she also can get you to feel guilty later because she is hungry, so much the better.

For some kids it may also be about the attention. If you are spending a lot of energy coaxing her to eat, or even grumbling about her pickiness, she may be enjoying the extra attention.

My answer? Stop. That.

Okay, I know that’s not really helpful. So, here are some things that you might really be able to use.

  • Serve three meals a day and three meals only. They don’t have to be hot homecooked meals, but they do have to be offered at a particular time and taken up and put away afterward. Do not allow your picky eater to graze.

  • Cut out snacks and any drinks that contain calories (with the exception of plain milk, and limit this to what your pediatrician recommends per day). Toddlers that have no feeding issues might be an exception to this rule, but a child who has been going without proper nutrition or without food at all for long periods can certainly live without a snack in the afternoon.

  • Give at least two choices to your child. Make at least one choice an acceptable one that you can enforce. An example is, you have the choice of eating your dinner or sitting there politely while everyone else eats. Eating a Poptart is not an option. If your child refuses to do either, then a consequence sets in.  You know about consequences, the things like sitting in the naughty chair or going to bed early. If this is the first time you have had to apply this kind of structure to your child’s behavior, expect it not to go well at first. However, stick to your guns and your child will eventually learn to comply.

  • Identify your child’s behaviors that trigger your irritation and that tend to set off “scenes.” Then create a rule that this behavior is not allowed. For example, your child is not allowed to ask for a corn dog. Explain ONCE that you know she likes corn dogs and that you don’t need to be reminded. Then when she is consistently complying with this rule, occasionally offer a corn dog (if this is on your acceptable foods list).

  • Walk away rather than argue. The more you say, the more likely she is going to wear down your resolve. Walk away from tears, whining, and tantrumming too. If it goes on for more than a few minutes, put her in time-out.

You say, “But I like to graze! It doesn’t seem fair not to allow my child snacks when I like them.” Do you have a problem eating your dinner? If so, you probably need to do without snacks too. Your personal lack of self-discipline could be modeling bad habits for your child. However, you probably don’t have a problem eating dinner … in which case, go ahead and have a snack. You’re allowed.

We used to have a saying at our house, “Nobody under the age of 18 is allowed to eat on the living room couch.” Why? Because the under-18 crowd was a lot less careful about spills and crumbs than the adults. The adults paid for the couch … if my husband or I spilled something, we had to pay to have it cleaned. (We have now changed the rule to “nobody under 30.”) Really, you don’t have to abide by the same rules as your kids as long as it is not a character issue. If it would be OK for them to do when they are all grown-up, why should you restrict yourself now? Adults have skills, abilities, and resources that kids don’t have. Kids need to have some things that they look forward to “when I’m a grown-up.”

Of course I’m not talking about stuff that you really should not be doing anyway. Be a good example to your children for how to be the very best possible adult. But snacking or eating on the living room couch do not fall into the realm of important moral failings.

I once talked to a mother of three teenage boys who guiltily confessed that she had hidden two doughnuts under the sink in her bathroom so that she could lock herself in with a cup of coffee and know that her treat had not been gobbled up by the ravenous hordes. I can relate! I promise, allowing yourself to do some things that give you a boost of enjoyment will recharge your batteries for parenting.

OK, enough for my rant on how it’s OK to have different rules for adults and children. Back to the food stuff.

  • Junk food in the house creates a battleground for the child hooked on it.  Get rid of it. Put it in the trunk of your car or in a desk drawer at work. Buy basic foods like fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, and bread. Your wallet will thank you too.

  • Once the initial battles have calmed down, get your child involved in food preparation. She is more likely to be interested in eating if she got a little bit of power and control back through preparing it.

  • Consider planting a garden or at least a few pots of tomatoes and peppers on your patio. Visit a dairy farm or buy your eggs directly from someone who raises chickens. Help your child get interested in where food comes from.

  • Ditch the idea that you have to prepare gourmet food every night. This may have been why you bought all that junk food to begin with … you couldn’t face a full-on Julia Child cooking marathon every night. Read Little House on the Prairie. Our ancestors’ “fast food” was stuff like warmed-up beans with bread (cornbread here in Texas). Get good at preparing double batches of stuff so that you have plenty of leftovers. After years of raising a large family and also working and going to school, I consider myself to be the Crockpot Queen. Soups, stews, and large cuts of meat with vegetables can all cook unattended and we come home to a simple and delicious meal. Your kid might not eat that stuff at first, but if you drain the power out of her resistance (by avoiding head-on confrontations and taking away whatever she is gaining by her pickiness), she will eventually get used to it.

I truly hope this helps. Food fights are not fun and can really damage the parent-child relationship. Unfortunately you can’t reason with a child and get a thoughtful answer to the question, “What are you getting from this conflict, hon?” It’s up to us as the adults to figure it out and to take away that unintended reward. I can’t promise that this will turn your child into a “foodie” that eats all kinds of exotic foods, but it should put her on a path to eating a healthy variety of healthy food in healthy amounts.


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.