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The Slow Eater

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Dealing With a Slow Eater

Last night I spoke at a fabulous Adlerian nursery school called the North Toronto Early Years Learning Center.During the Q & A, I had several parents who wanted to know what to do with their child, “the slow eater.”

Slow eating is a great example of how children can engage in a power struggle with their parents. Usually we think of power struggles as fighting with an explosive defiant child who is up in your face.

Less obvious are those children who are quiet, pleasant resistors. Being lazy, sloppy and slow are equally powerful, but parents don’t recognize this power tactic as easily.

Instead we are apt to fall for their sweet bumbling innocents, believing this is somehow the child’s temperament or personality rather than the child’s choice of behavior.

So why choose to eat slowly? Well, gee, look at some of the potential benefits we inadvertently bestow:

  1. Perhaps it leads to you spoon-feeding them.  How powerful and superior to have a
  2.  Do you allow your slow eater to take their breakfast bagel in the car to eat on the way to daycare?  Car rides are less boring when you can nosh along the way, especially if you get yummier food choices in the car, maybe even drive-though!
  3. You let them eat in front of the TV.
  4. Or perhaps you offer up the 1 & 3 combo; you shovel in their breaky while they sit in their little foam plushy chair in the family room, distracted watching “Thomas the Tank” while you act as a human feeding tube.
  5. You sit like a hostage at the table believing you must stay with them and urge them to eat if you want anything to be
    consumed.  If you go upstairs to get ready yourself you fear they’ll just stare at their food rather than eat it.
  6. You offer them a constant stream of food all day in hopes of making up for slow and potential under eating at mealtime.

Now, imagine you stopped providing the above services?  For breakfast, you can simply set out breakfast and let them know you will be clearing the table at say 8 a.m.  You can give a 5 minutes heads up, or set the timer on the stove to ring at 7:55,  then stand back and let the chips fall where they may!   If they have only managed to eat three bites of cereal, so be it.  At 8 a.m. you removed the bowl of cereal and simply state with no rancor, “It’s 8 a.m. and breakfast time is over.”    If they flip out (which they will the first day),  you can be empathetic and say, “Sorry you ran out of time today.”  Nothing else is required.  Shhhhh. Say nothing else!  I know that is hard, but our talking doesn’t help and in fact hinders.

At suppertime when you don’t have the same time constraints of getting out the door to work or school, they can stay at the table as long as they wish.  That is their choice
to make. However, you are free to choose too.  You are free to excuse yourself and get on with whatever you had planned for the evening.  Slow eaters use this to ascertain “special one-on-one time with mom,” keeping her to themselves and away from other siblings.

After a few days your child will figure out that if they would like to ensure they have enough to eat, they should eat faster during meal times.   In this way, the child makes the adaptation to their behavior rather than the parent adapting the rules and changing boundaries to accommodate the child.  Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who has adopted a baby raised in an orphanage or someone who went to boarding school.  When we don’t cater to individuals they do just fine and fitting in and looking after themselves.   If  you have had success with this technique share your stories in the comment area to help motivate other nervous parents to give it a whirl.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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19 Responses to “The Slow Eater”

  1. Kristy

    My 3 year old is a slow eater, taking 1.5 to 2 hours to complete dinner with constant prodding from one or both of us. I like the idea of leaving her to get on with our dinner, but I worry that if we go that route she will eat her favorite foods first and not ever get to the vegetables or healthier items on the plate. Any ideas? Thank you.

  2. Elsa

    We’ve got the same issue as Christina.
    Our three year old is a slow eater. He’s not picky, he’ll try anything, but he doesn’t like to eat – he’s says that every meal.
    When he was littler he used to hold the food in his cheek and would keep putting more in when prompted. It took weeks of prompted him to chew and swallow before he stopped storing the food.
    Now that he’s got the basic mechanics down, he’d rather do anything than eat. Every meal is a battle. We’ve tried everything – setting the timer (he gets upset when you put it on, but doesn’t care when it goes off), playing games (games evolve quickly to over-the-top silliness and eating is forgotten), letting him choose the food (he ate peanut butter at every meal for a week), races (gets upset when we eat fast, but doesn’t make him go faster), threats (no dessert elicits a simple “ok”), bribery (he is quick to say what he wants as a prize for eating his dinner, but doesn’t improve his eating), time-outs (most effective but I fear detrimental in the slow eating since it drags the meal out even longer), leaving him to eat by himself (doesn’t bother him, often plays by himself instead of eating), taking his food away (no big deal), etc. – anything to get him to focus and eat. Nothing seems to make him eat more quickly (one bite after another)!
    Lately he claims his belly hurts – but only when he’s been at the table for awhile already. Sometimes he’s only had two bites, so I can’t believe he’s full.
    Like Christina, he pulls the same routine during mealtime bathroom breaks. He also is quick to volunteer to help his baby brother, the dogs or cat – anything to get away from eating.
    Part of the problem is he’s underweight. He’s barely growing – his 1 yr old brother is the same size (granted he is above average). So we’re supposed to be pushing snacks, having milk with meals, etc to gain him weight, but if he eats a snack, he doesn’t eat his meal. Half a cup of milk seems to fill him up.
    He’s been tested for everything and is fine.
    I’m just at a loss on how to make meals more bearable and still get him enough nutrients to be healthy!!!
    Any advice?

    • Laura Crawford

      I know this is an old post but it is exactly what we’re going through. There was 9 months of very very bad eating due to ongoing constipation issues and now she is eating but eating so slowly it makes mealtimes impossible. We’ve tried time limits, banning snacks, leaving her alone, etc. the results are the same… eating.
      How did you resolve your problem?

  3. Alyson Schafer

    I am assuming you have taken him to the doctor? Has he fallen off his growth curve? What did the doctor recommend? I am also wondering how co-operative he is in other aspects of life? He seems to have you jumping through hops a lot in the area of food, but does he help the family much? Co-operate at bedtime? Co-operate putting his coat on etc?

  4. Asha

    I have 6yr old and 7yr old girls who have been extremely slow eaters for years. As there are 2 of them they are constantly talking, playing, giggling and just general messing. The most problematic meal is dinner when it could take over an hour to eat dinner. We do seat them apart at the dinner table to eliminate distracting each other but there’s still alot of giggling, daydreaming and storytelling. I do not put a huge amount of food on the dinner plate as I think I’ll give them an amount of food that I feel they would be able to finish. I am getting very frustrated and after years of trying to encourage them to eat a reasonable of dinner I am getting fed up.
    Any advice on what I should/shouldn’t be doing?

  5. Sarah G

    I have 2 boys aged 11 and 3 (just turned 3). Our 3 year old isn’t just a slow eater…he just cannot be bothered to eat a meal. We can all be sitting down to breakfast/lunch or dinner and he will just chat away, stare into space, mess around at the table, play with his food, try and get his brother’s attention…any diversion tactic he can employ to avoid eating. It has become a serious power struggle trying to get him to have even one bite. The frustrating thing is that he eats perfectly nicely at nursery and we have been told that this is mostly due to what they like to call”baby peer pressure” or wanting to do what the other children are doing. He has always had a very varied healthy diet and I make sure his portions aren’t too big, but it can take anywhere up to 2 hours to get through a meal. When he does eventually take a bite, he says “mmmm, very nice” but it doesn’t seem to be a sufficient incentive to carry on eating. The disharmony this power struggle causes is immense and is having a big impact on our family life, as my husband and I are getting very stressed about it and have come to dread each family meal. Is your advice about putting time constraints on meal times appropriate for a 3 year old who would sooner be doing anything that having to sit at a table eating? (I should point out that he would be quite happy to graze and snack on chocolate cake and cookies throughout the day if it were an option). Please help!

  6. Wendy

    Here’s our situation. 8 year old boy. Almost always eats slow since he came to live with us 3 years ago. Saw some improvement at first after his tonsils were removed because they were so enlarged it made sense that he had to pulverize his food to a liquid state before he could tolerate swallowing. However, 5 months after the tonsillectomy, he, about a month ago or so, has gone back to very slow eating again. Part of the problem is that he feels that he has to chew his food until it is thinner than pureed baby food. We think this is probably due to a Sensory disorder and that he is scared of gagging. He especially does this with meat and high fiber vegetables, such as green beans or asparagus, which he likes as far as taste, but not as far as feel. Also, he has always had weak muscles, so we think that his mastication muscles may be really weak, although you would think they would have strengthened by now. Interestingly, he can really chow down quickly on Saturday mornings, but then we sleep about 2 hours later, and so maybe he is soooo hungry by the time we eat that he is motivated to really chow down; not sure. We are extremely frustrated though, and this cause great stress especially on M-F school day mornings. We’ve used a metronome to help him have a regular rhythm with chewing continually, feed him ourselves once a certain time has passed, taken the food away after a certain amount of time, etc. Nothing motivates him to try and swallow before the food is total liquid. Also, I wouldn’t be so worried about this but he is on ADHD meds which take away his appetite and so I feel like it’s even more important for him to get in a good breakfast since he’s barely hungry for lunch at school and probably only eats half of what he’s given. He’s fairly skinny as it is; in the 32% in weight for his age. He already receives Occupational Therapy for some other weak muscles/coordination due to his early years of neglect. I’m wondering if there is a therapy for helping him learn to swallow a larger amount and swallow coarser food. I wonder if I should take him back to the ENT to see if there is anything else wrong with his throat, or to the dentist to see if there is anything wrong with his jaw, teeth or jaw muscles. Any help or advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

  7. Alyson Schafer

    Hello Wendy. Thanks for the note and question. I am sure others reading your post will feel relieved they don’t have your challenges. Alas, it is a very complicated situation and with out meeting your son or discussing the medical situation with his team, I don’t think its right to offer any advice. However, I can share, that one of my mentors and teachers is both a psychotherapist trained in Adlerian psychology as well as being a family doctor. He could probably tease out the medical from the behavioural and offer suggestions. He practices with a co-therapist Christine Nisan at The Leaside Therapy Centre. You can book appts through Christine at Hope the referral helps!

  8. Maria

    Hi Alyson.
    I am so glad that I found this web page, because I have been struggling with my daughter (3) at all meal times, but specially at breakfast. She likes to eat and asks for food, the thing is that she wants to play while eating and gets distracted with anything that is at the table, and if there is nothing to grab, she would play with her fork. I feel very bad because I have been pushing her to eat for a long time now and it always ends on a fight between us. And if I take her plate with all her food after waiting for 45 min, she would cry and scream. Also her behavior has changed since her sister (6 months) was born, she is very jellous and wants all the attention. I know that I have to be more patient, which has been very hard for me, but I don’t want to be the crazy mom who is always yelling for everything. I really need help on how to get my daughter do the routinary stuff (dressing, washing teeth, eating, etc..) whith out a fight and even in a more fun way! Thanks for your help!

  9. Tiffany

    Christina, while I was reading your comment about the lengthy bathroom breaks, my almost 4 year old was doing exactly that, I literally laughed out loud! If nothing else, I feel better knowing that other people are in the same situation, and other kids are doing literally the exact same things that my son does!
    Alyson, any thoughts on having them eat unfinished food at the next meal? My husband wants to do this (from the point of view that it’s a waste of food to always throw out the food that isn’t finished in time), and I actually think it might work with my son, but my concern is that, with some foods, this isn’t food safe. Some foods it might be okay (fruit, raw vegetables, etc..) but then I think that would be inconsistent, which probably wouldn’t help either.

  10. jodi

    My four year old is also a slow eater we do not stay at the table to wait for her we go on with what we need to she likes to seat there talking or looking aroud sometimes I caught her getting up to play or go to the bathroom about 5-10 time during her eating. She is not really a picky eater but just does what I wrote it is very frustrating because she will take up to 2hours to eat when everyone else finishes in about 30 minutes so can you please give me some advice on how to make her eat faster

  11. Sonia

    Hi Alyson, I completely agree with not catering so much so they gain some independence. My concern here is that these days families are constantly in a hurry and I worry that we are somewhat impacting the normal and healthy constitution of a “laid back” child who may need more time? What are your thoughts on this?

  12. Nadine

    Hi our son is also a slow eater and I will definitely try the route you suggest above – what I am also hoping for is a bit of insight into why we as parents get our buttons pushed so much by this slow eating stuff? Before kids I thought the slow food movement was wise and necessary – now I just want my child to chew fast like a wood chipper. What happened? That can’t be good for him or us. I understand why it is a power struggle for him – but how do I try not to let it be a power struggle as well for me and my husband? Sometimes it feels like we’ve done this horrible job because our kid won’t listen to us – other times I feel like a horrible person trying to make a 5 year old be so obedient all the time. It’s very challenging to get the right mix.

    • Angelica

      Hi all!!
      I know it’s late but my now turning 4 yrs old son’s also having a same problem as u. He’said taking 2-3 hours finishing his food. I did everything (advices in google) but nothing worked! So a week ago I searched for a food pyramid for 4 yrs old and founderstand this food pyramid serving food 4-7 yrs old. Then copied almost all the food serving and made a week serving of food to my child to eat, grains, fruits, protein,dairy, veggies (but my child dnt eat veggies but beans) so what I do to veggies is aubstitute it with protein for my underweight son. What I do is I feed him 8am breaky and even if we took 1-1.5 hour then it’s ok then rest for 1 hour and feed him again . By 6 pm if he didn’t complete the food pyramid then I make smoothie and put all the remaining food from the food pyramid and that’s all .. so yeah.. I think now he meets the nutrition/food he supposed to have!

  13. Canada_City

    This method works!!! I run a home daycare and I have all different kinds of eaters in my care. Lunch is 30 minutes long.The kids get a 10 minute warning and a 1 minute warning that lunch will be ending. At the end of the time, I make them bus their dishes, throw away any garbage and wash their hands. If they’re still hungry, they’ll just have to wait until snack time, which is only 15 minutes long.

    My slowest eater eats next to nothing at snacks and meals. The other day it took her 20 minutes to eat a single strawberry. The lunch her parents pack her could honestly last her for 3-4 days. They’re so big! She basically eats none of it. But it’s not my problem. She’s the one who has to live with hunger pains, not me.

    Give your kids healthy portions of healthy foods and then walk away and wash your hands of it. You’ve done your job and that’s all you can do. Thank them for eating what they did eat and move on with your life.

  14. Mrs.Kas

    We have the same issue as Elsa and Christina.
    Our 9+ year old girl is a slow eater. She not picky.
    When he was littler he used to hold the food in his cheek and seat for hours.
    Every meal is a battle. We’ve tried everything – setting the timer,letting him choose the food,leaving her to eat by himself.Nothing seems to make him eat more quickly
    Doctors refuse to look into it till she losses weight. Which is unacceptable by my husband and me.
    I’m just at a loss on how to make meals more bearable and still get him enough nutrients to be healthy!!!
    I have even broken down into tears begging her to eat, missed playdates and appoinments. But nothing works.
    Any advice?

    • Alyson Schafer

      Hi there,
      Slow eating is a choice your child is making for themselves. The doctor check ups assures they are eating enough to be healthy, so the concern with the behaviour is about being co-opeartive and socializing them to how fast others eat. To stimulate a child to be co-opeartive they need to see the benefits of why they should adapt their behaviours. One reason that could be motivation to eat faster is that if you don’t complete your meal by a set time, the meal is over and your plate is removed and you go hungry. Another reason to be motivated to chose to eat more quickly is because after a certain time, everyone else leaves the table and starts playing without you and you don’t want to be left behind. I don’t think these experiences or consequences are happening with enough regularity as to create motivation for change. Another thought is that you are embroiled in a power struggle and eating more quickly will feel like loose to the fight to you. They would rather be hunger and left alone than than to loss the fight.

  15. Kim

    Hi, my 4yo is a very slow and very picky eater. I know it is, at least in part, a manipulation of sorts because she knows it worries me and I have caught her being deliberately deceptive about it. My problem is I can’t really do any of the above suggestions because she gets hypoglycaemic and has night terrors if she doesn’t eat enough. And she is already underweight – and dropping off her arc – so to speak. So I feel really trapped and lost and helpless. Mealtimes have become a war zone and I don’t know how to fix it. I’m a sole parent (100% custody) and I work 4 days a week – I get up at 5.30am and don’t get home until after 6pm – I get dinner immediately but she will eat til 9pm if I let her then she is too tired the next day and I sit with her so by the time she is asleep it’s 9.30 and then I can start cleaning the kitchen. I have no time to relax or exercise or even watch tv. I’m exhausted and at the end of my tether.

    • Alyson Schafer

      Work with your paediatrician with this issues since there is a healthy issue on top of the behaviour issue. I can’t monitor her weight and nutritional intake so I have to be cautious with my advice. That said, I am sure your paediatrician will agree that the less involved you are the better.


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