The worst thing you can do for a picky eater

Time after time, I’ve seen parents respond to a child’s resistance to eat by nagging, cajoling, threatening or bribing with dessert.  And, next, out comes the big ol’ TIME OUT.  The child is hauled away from the table and plopped into a time out while the parent returns to the table and ignores the child.   No matter the setting or number of times I see it happen, I want to squirm out of my skin.


Time out’s are a common topic of conversation in parenting circles.   Historically, parenting advice has moved from Watson’s cautions against sharing emotion with children to Bolwby’s advice to consistently respond in a sensitive way.  We’ve moved to a general acceptance of the spectrum of attachment-based parenting and positive discipline.  To confuse us further, our feeds are also filled with articles warning against helicopter parenting, permissive parenting and the “collapse” of parenting all together.   Whether or not you use time outs, be aware that your general parenting style, and fears, greatly impact the type of environment you create at the table.  Because it has a ubiquitous impact on family life, it is worth spending time reflecting on your parenting style and any changes you’d like to make.

Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute has a wonderful analogy illustrating time outs.  She describes a basketball coach calling a time out for a team playing poorly.  The coach simply pulls the team off the court, waits the prescribed time, says “are you ready to play yet?”, then puts the team back on the court.  How in the world is the team supposed to improve performance as a result of a “time out”?  The players were able to rest but they did not receive any constructive feedback on how to improve…. without the actual coaching part, it is very likely the time out only served to make the players feel worse about themselves.

I’d go as far as suggesting that in any scenario, time outs are useless without coaching.

Time outs at dinner time ARE THE SAME THING.  Without coaching and mealtime skill development, time away from the table on it’s own, will not improve your child’s mealtime behaviour.  Your child will simply learn that the behavior garners loads of attention and gets you out of her face.

Another thing to remember:  an increase in stress and cortisol levels will knock out any appetite your child may have had.  Stressful mealtimes = kids who don’t feel hungry!  What a vicious cycle.

Time outs are tempting because they may get your kid to take a couple of bites.  It’s the same reason that parents force feed a bottle to a baby who is cuing “NO”….. the sole focus is on the intake at that moment.  We need to think beyond the immediate caloric intake and set the stage for a healthy relationship with food.

Do a little self-reflection.  Are you giving your child a time out from dinner because you need a break? Are you at the end of your rope after a rough day of tantrums or a long day at work with adults that may as well have been tantruming?  Are you doing it because it’s what your parents did?

Eating is a learned process.

You are a food coach and your job is to teach your child how to eat, not punish them for not eating.

Things you can try instead of a time-out:

  • talk about appropriate mealtime behaviours away from the table, outside of a snack or mealtime.
  • set simple table rules such as:
    • we all sit at the table together
    • there will be one thing you like at each meal
    • outside of snack and mealtime the kitchen is closed
    • you are expected to interact with the food in some way even if it is to smell, touch or lick it
    • use polite requests and refusals (we don’t say “yucky”, we say “no thanks”)
  • division of responsibility  (you get to decide what food you offer, where and when you offer it while your child decides what to eat and how much)

If you are at the stage where you are using time-outs as a primary strategy, it’s time to seek out help.  Check out picky eating courses available through the health region or privately.  Contact me and I can help you find the best resource for your situation.



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