The Problem With The 'Eat It Or Starve' Argument Is That Some Kids Will Literally Starve

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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One of my biggest surprises of parenthood has been how freaking hard it is to feed my kids.

I had glorious expectations of kids who would eat a dazzling rainbow of foods — who would willingly sit down to eat my amazing home-cooked meals each night with gratitude and at least halfway decent manners. Instead, I was blessed with two kids who are ridiculously picky when it comes to eating. Each of my boys have very opinionated and decisive feelings about what they will or will not eat and when.

I have written a bunch about what it’s like to have picky eaters. I do so because I think it’s important for parents to know how very common it is for young kids to refuse to eat basically anything besides bread and nuggets for years. I want parents to lose the guilt and know they haven’t done anything wrong, and that whatever they do, picky eating generally passes as a child gets older.

Almost any time I share my honest struggles, someone comes along to give me advice (hey there, internet commenters!). It usually goes something like this: “You are totally letting your kids have the upper hand. You have turned yourself into a servant. What you need to do is feed them a meal, and let them decide if they’ll eat it.” (Note: I’m making this sound a lot more palatable than how certain commenters sometimes relay this message, ahem.)

It’s the “eat it or starve” argument. The idea is that if you keep giving in to your kids’ requests for different, specialized foods, you are just helping to perpetuate the problem. The logic here is that no kid is going to consistently pick starvation, so just go ahead and present their meals to them, and teach them that they need to eat what you serve or not eat at all.

No one wants to starve to death, the argument goes, so all kids will eventually choose eating over starving.

Except what if they don’t? And for how long are you willing to wait until they do?

I have two picky eaters. One is picky because he’s 4 years old, has a million more taste buds than I do, and is learning what kinds of foods he likes and doesn’t. He is also trying to figure out what it means to have preferences and balance them out with the needs of others around him. Also, he’s a royal pain in the butt, because he’s 4.

My other picky eater is 10 and actually much more reasonable about his pickiness than the 4-year-old is. Whenever possible, he tries to eat what I serve him and not make a fuss. But he is also really sensitive to smells and textures, and although he has become a little more adventurous as he’s gotten older, he still has a pretty shortish list of foods he’ll eat, especially when it comes to fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

I could probably use the “eat it or starve” tactic with the 4-year-old. He is stubborn enough that he might skip the meal that I served with that approach — and maybe the meal after that. But eventually, he would cave in and eat, I suspect.

My other son — the one with strong sensory issues and preferences when it comes to food — he would literally starve.

And he has. During the few times that’s he’s been in a situation where he gets served a food he won’t eat (at birthday party or other event, for example), he will just skip the meal, no matter how hungry he is. If I pack him a lunch he doesn’t like, he will skip lunch altogether and come home starving with an aching belly. In fact, he often doesn’t really eat much lunch at school because the smell of the cafeteria turns his stomach.

I have never used the “eat it or starve” approach for either of my kids. But that doesn’t mean that I am their servant. I can keep their preferences in mind and not break my neck to do so. I don’t make my kids more than one meal unless I’m making something I know they really do not like.

I try to pick foods I know everyone will eat, but I’ve learned to become a pretty great multitasker at mealtimes, often preparing more than one meal at once or tossing a quick yogurt or PB&J at the kid who I know won’t eat what I’ve cooked. I am also teaching them to make their own snacks if they don’t like the food I’ve given them.

Yes, there are limits and boundaries at mealtime, but my kids will always get a say in what they put into their bodies. I think that is just natural human decency. I believe that kids having and voicing food preferences is part of their bodily autonomy. I certainly don’t want anyone telling me what I can and cannot put into my body or forcing me to clear a plate, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t offer that same respect to my children.

Of course, it can sometimes be highly annoying (can you name one aspect of parenting that isn’t?). And certainly, they need to continue to learn manners and have solid boundaries about the whole thing. But I think there is a way to do it that respects their needs and preferences rather than making mealtime feel like a punishing and stressful experience for them.

Bottom line? Please don’t offer advice to other parents about things like eating (or sleeping, or discipline, or really anything) unless you truly know their kids or are in their shoes. Parenting methods and rules are all fine and good, but just because something worked for your kid absolutely doesn’t mean it will work for another kid. Our kids are beautiful, complex creatures, and the way we parent them is as unique as they are. (This is my kind way of telling you “eat it or starve” folks to please STFU, mmmkay?)

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