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Manipulative Mealtime Behavior: When a child won’t eat dinner but then is hungry at

When a child won’t eat, the real reason for the manipulative behavior could be something that is going on in the child’s life during non-mealtimes. Last week, reader mom Angie* had turned to ZisBoomBah for expert help when her middle child, 5, refused to eat his dinner, suddenly “not feeling well.” Like so many parents facing power struggles at the dinner table, this mom felt her son was using food as weapon — “because it is the one thing he has control over,” she wrote.

EXPERT TIP: If your child won’t eat, give him praise for eating and less attention for not eating during mealtime. To help Angie and her husband manage their child’s manipulative mealtime behavior, ZisBoomBah’s distinguished child nutrition expert Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA encouraged the parents to devote some one-on-one time to their middle child and to give him praise for eating and less attention for not eating during mealtime. It worked. After his parents tried Dr. Ayoob’s method for only a short amount of time, the little boy began to learn that doing what he was supposed to gets him the attention he is craving from his parents.

Still, Angie needed more help. What’s a parent to do when a child won’t eat dinner but then is hungry at bedtime? Angie wanted her son to learn to eat when it is mealtime. Once more, our child behavior expert shared his advice. “This is a common occurrence with children who are being manipulative eaters,” Dr. Ayoob said.

Knowing that you won’t let him go to sleep hungry puts your child in a power position Many parents can relate to Angie’s mealtime dilemma: Kids who won’t eat might say they are not hungry or that their tummy hurts when it’s time to eat dinner. But hunger kicks in eventually, and they don’t want to go to bed hungry.  “They have also figured out that Mom doesn’t like it when they go to sleep with nothing in their stomachs,” Dr. Ayoob explained. Kids know parents will give into their whining for a bedtime snack, because it means the child would at least have eaten something before going to sleep. And there is the dilemma: Parents naturally want to nourish their children. “This puts your child in the power position,” our expert pointed out.

“If your child refuses to eat, let him know that it’s okay, but that you want him to stay at the table and participate in the meal by talking to you and keeping you company,” Dr. Ayoob suggested. In this case, the expert wanted Angie to tell her son that there would be no other food allowed after dinner, if he didn’t want to eat what was on the table. Since this scenario constitutes a power struggle, Dr. Ayoob foresaw the child still wouldn’t eat what the mom had prepared for the family. “Now, before bedtime, he will test you,” the expert predicted, instructing the mom to offer her 5 year old the reheated dinner everyone had eaten during family mealtime. “Because that’s the boundary you have set at the time, and you need to stick to it,” the child nutritionist explained. “He may say OK and grudgingly eat the leftover dinner; but more likely, he’ll have a tantrum and protest. Hold your ground because now you are the one driving the train — as it should be,” Dr. Ayoob said. “He’ll get the message loud and clear.” 

“You did not deny him dinner — that would be wrong. You denied him manipulative eating behavior.”  ~ Dr. Keith Ayoob This method of managing a child’s manipulative mealtime behavior might be difficult for any parent on the first night. Our expert, however, believes that children will get the message quickly. “Remind yourself, you did not deny him dinner — that would be wrong. You denied him manipulative eating behavior, and you are entitled to do exactly that,” our child behavior expert said. You actually respected your child’s wishes: He refused the dinner you made, and you honored his wish.  According to Dr. Ayoob, this strategy shouldn’t take more than a couple of episodes for a child to get the message, and often, kids get it after one night. 

Share Your Story Are you struggling with your child’s manipulative mealtime behavior? What strategy has — or has not — worked for you? We understand how challenging it is if a child won’t eat. Our experts are here to help you. Please share your experience in the comments below or contact us directly.

(*name changed)

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