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Baffling Kid Behavior -- Explained

They're hungry but won't eat

Why do famished kids sometimes refuse food? Usually it's because sitting down to eat requires stopping some other activity that's much more compelling. But instead of saying, "Gee, Mom, I was really hoping to catch the ending of this TV show tonight," they're more likely to say, "Chicken?! Yuck. I hate chicken!" It's lame, and you know it's completely untrue, but as tempting as it is to remind your child about the last six times she ate and loved chicken, take the high road. Simply point to the clock and politely tell her that it's dinnertime. Children appreciate predictability, and a regular dinner hour circumvents the frustrating debate over whether or not they are, indeed, hungry. And if yours takes a few bites and declares "I'm full!" so be it. She'll make up for the lost calories at the next meal or snack.

While family experts stress the importance of parents and children eating together, kids aren't always thrilled about it. Staying seated, chewing with your mouth closed -- family dining can be tough! "My son Théo, who's four, often shows no interest in mealtime," says Danielle Sauvé of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "When he's at the table, anything is more interesting than food. He'll tell us he's not hungry or that he doesn't like what's being served. Finally, after a lot of cajoling and sometimes high drama, he'll turn to his food and eat it all up."

Still, if your child is being really punky about coming to the table, try Sauvé's tactic with Théo. "If he whines or ignores us and doesn't come, we often ask him if he's too tired to eat with us and would prefer to rest in his room. Of course, he always prefers to come to the table." This is smart: They're giving him the opportunity to decide for himself what's in his best interest.

Bear in mind, too, that physical cues of hunger and thirst are often disregarded or unrecognized by small children. They rely on their parents and caregivers to offer snacks and drinks before the discomfort becomes overwhelming. As with family meals, a routine is essential for snacks. Planned snacks don't just make sure your child is refueled, they also thwart the casual intake of food and sweetened drinks that can sabotage a child's appetite for more nutritious fare.

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