By: Kristen Yarker, MSc, Dietitian
The following question was asked on our Facebook page:
“How do we get our 3 year old to stop saying “I don’t like that, give me something else!” at every meal?”
This is such a classic 3 year old move!
It typically comes from two different root causes – both based on a 3 year old’s developmental stage. Because I’m not in this parent’s home, I can’t determine which one is the cause. So here’s a description of both causes. The good news is that the solution is the same, regardless of the root cause.
Root Cause #1:
It’s frustrating but it’s a 3 year old’s ‘job’ to push boundaries. At this developmental stage they spend most of each day trying to control each and every situation. It’s a normal part of them exploring how:
- He/she is an individual,
- She/he has choice, and
- There are some rules that he/she doesn’t get a say in.
Root Cause #2
Most 3 year olds are at a developmental stage where they’re afraid to try new foods. I call this stage ‘food-wariness’. Three-year-olds don’t have the language to express that the food you’ve served makes them anxious. So instead they say that they “hate it”. You’ll know that your child has reached this stage if they announce that they hate something before they’ve ever tried it.
Regardless of whether your child is enjoying pushing your buttons (root cause #1) or afraid of trying the food (root cause #2), the absolute best way to get a child to stop asking this question is to not get them something different to eat the very first time that they ask. And, to not make kids try “just one bite”. Instead, tell them that they don’t have to eat it – it’s their choice. But you aren’t making anything else for dinner. And let them know when the next time is that you’ll be serving food – e.g. bedtime snack.
This way you are putting in a firm boundary – i.e. not making something else. But you’re giving them the ability to control the situation (which they want so desperately) because they get to control whether or not they eat the food.
After asking a few times (perhaps with a meltdown/temper tantrum or two), they’ll realize that this is one of the rules that they don’t get a say in. They’ll realize that they truly do have control over whether or not they eat the food. And, they’ll move on.
However, most of the parents whom I work with didn’t ‘nip this in the bud’. Because they’re amazing parents who want to make sure that their child gets the nutrition that she/he needs, they get up and make their child something different. While this may work in the short term (i.e. tonight), it backfires in the long term. Because what you’ve just taught you child is that what you serve for dinner is only one option. And, they simply have to say that they don’t like it to get another option. To a toddler, having the power to make your parents do things is the ultimate score. And they’ve just found out a way to do it!
The solution is actually the same as if you ‘nipped it in the bud’ – but with the addition of telling them about this new rule before you implement it.
- Tell your child that there will be a new rule in the house. Describe the new rule.
- At the next dinner, when your child rejects what you’ve served and asks for something different, remind them of the new rule and don’t get them something different to eat.
- Remind them that it’s their choice whether or not to take any bites.
- Let them know when the next time is that you’ll be serving food – e.g. bedtime snack.
- If they complain of being hungry later, have a discussion with them about how they’re feeling hungry now because they chose not to eat anything at dinner. Tomorrow they can have the opportunity to make a different choice. Remind them of when the next time is that you’ll be serving food – e.g. bedtime snack.
While it’s an awful feeling to know that your child is hungry, this method, called the Division of Responsibility for Feeding, has been proven by scientific studies to actually increase kids’ openness to trying new foods, leading to better nutritional health.
Do you have a question that you’d like me to answer here? Email me at Kristen@vitaminkconsulting.com and mention “Love Child Blog” in the subject line.
The Dietitian who Transforms Picky Eaters into Food-Confident Kids
Answering the question “How do I get my kids to try new foods?”