Parenting K-6 Kids/picky eaters

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Question
I have long heard the advice from "experts" that parents should not force their children to eat anything in particular.  (Not that one actually could!) But my two girls, aged 5 and 7, are just hopeless.  I have always served them a little of whatever the grown up meal is (veggies, meat), plus safety foods like fruit and bread, for dinner.  They only eat the fruit and bread, unless it happens to be pizza night.  For breakfast, they skip the fruit altogether and just eat the waffles/syrup or whatever bready thing there is.  For lunch, I again serve fruit alongside something they like, which usually winds up being a hot dog or sandwich, etc.
Eventually, I started insisting that they eat a certain amount of fruit at lunch before they could have a sweet at snack time.  This seems to be their only motivation for eating just enough fruit.  
If I didn't do this, they would eat nothing healthy at all.  I know I'm supposed to have nothing at all to say about what they eat.  But how can I actually do that and sleep at night, as they fill themselves with empty carbs and sugar all day?  From what I understand, I am supposed to serve healthy food options and then let them pick what they eat from it.  But here we are 7 years later, and nothing is working. Any advice? Thank you.

Answer
We might begin by asking ourselves (as adults) how we motivate ourselves to do things we find unpleasant. The answer, of course, is we link one or more "rewarding" consequences to performing the unsavory chore. For some tasks, only one reward need be provided - like money or someone's adulation. For other, more energy-consuming or unpleasant tasks, we link a series of rewards in sequence to "lure" ourselves forward.

The same principle applies to children, except they haven't learned how to do this themselves. So, parents need to teach them. In the broadest sense, this learning/instructional process can be considered "discipline," though over the years the meaning of discipline has changed from an instructional process leading to independent thought and action to the mere compliance with rules - usually imposed through punishment.

The situation you describe offers an opportunity for disciplining the children in the instructional format. For example. rewarding each child for each small step toward compliance encourages more compliance with additional rewards. This might be termed the "Hansel & Gretel" approach to discipline. Here, rewards are offered for right acts and "punishment" is the denial of such rewards. The most powerful rewards available are a parent's affection (NOT LOVE, which is given independent of behavior, but affection, which consists of things we DO with and for kids WHEN THEIR BEHAVIOR IS PLEASING & ACCEPTABLE). Affection withheld appropriately honestly apprises a child of a parent's satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with a behavioral choice.

Concrete example: A photo is posted in the kitchen displaying the food groups. Anyone (and this includes both parents and children) who eats one member of each group at any given meal gets a token. A token is required to (watch TV, use the computer, go w/ parent to get a toy at the store, etc.). Maybe 2 tokens are given if several items are eaten from each group. The stakes can be raised to make compliance more compelling - 21 tokens (a whole week of 3 meals) to go on a trip with a parent while those w/o required tokens stay home w/ a babysitter.

Hope this is helpful.

AM Davick, M.D.

Parenting K-6 Kids

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Alan M. Davick, M.D.

Expertise

As a Johns Hopkins trained Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician with 40 years experience, I have focused on distinguishing underlying willful, poor choice-making (like Oppositional-Defiant Disorder)from innate "conditions" masquerading as willful misbehavior (like ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, Bipolar Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, Developmental Delay, Epilepsy and "Behavioral" Seizures). Though I cannot act as a formal medical or psychiatric consultant, I will answer queries with generic information and suggestions for discussion readers may direct to their own professional advisers, including physicians, psychologists and educators.

Experience

I trained at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Pediatrics, Child Psychiatry and Behavioral-Developmental Pediatrics. Thereafter, I've continuously practiced Behavioral-Developmental Pediatrics and have taught the principles mentioned above to parents, colleagues and professional groups.

Organizations
American Academy of Pediatrics SW Florida Sportsman's Association Florida Writers Association

Publications
First Travel Meds - 1987; Managing Misbehavior in Kids: The Mis/Kidding Process; Bullying: Rarely Travels Alone; Discipline Your Child (without going to jail); AD(H)D: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Education/Credentials
Undergraduate - NY University WSC Arts & Science, NYC 1959-63 - B.A. Medical Degree- State University of NY, Upstate Med Ctr, Syracuse 1963-67 - M.D. Internship/Residency - Johns Hopkins Hosp/University - Baltimore, MD 1967-70 Major, US Army Medical Corps, Chief Pediatric Section, Savannah, GA - 1970-72 Sp. Fellow, Dept Child Psychiatry - Johns Hopkins Hospital/University - 1972-73 Practicing Behavioral-Developmental Pediatrician, lecturer, author - to date Currently practicing Child Psychiatry - SalusCareFlorida, Fort Myers, FL.

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