Ask: How to heal a picky eater's setback

Feeding specialist Joan Comrie addresses how to get a picky eater back on track after a holiday meal disaster.
Feeding specialist Joan Comrie addresses how to get a picky eater back on track after a holiday meal disaster.

Q. Help! Christmas dinner at the in-laws was disastrous! My mother-in-law made my 3-year-old eat turkey and green bean casserole. He ended up choking on it and then vomited all over the place. He freaked out and hid for the rest of the night. Now what do I do? I feel so bad.

A. Although it is never a good idea to be a short-order cook, it is even a worse idea to try to change the ways of a picky eater during a stressful event such as a holiday meal.

A few things: First of all, you cannot make a child (or anyone for that matter) eat something that they do not want to eat. I think that point was made loud and clear when your child choked and vomited.

Tricking and bribing a child to eat will most often backfire. Either you need to up the ante by giving them something even better than last time to get them to eat it again, or if they decide that they don’t want the bribe, you are cooked.

If your child is truly a picky eater (see our website and take the test), then you need professional assistance to help your child develop healthier eating habits.

So given the situation, what should you have done? As I said before, you should not have to be a short-order cook. However, during the holidays or any potentially stressful gathering, to ease the stress on you and your child you should offer to bring a side or something healthy to share that you know that your child will eat. Bring it anyway, even if the hostess says that you do not need to bring anything.

Do not ever allow anyone to make your child eat. Nothing good ever comes of this scenario for your child or the person who tried to get your child to eat. Given the intensity of the situation, (choking and vomiting), it will probably be a long time before your child trusts your mother-in-law.

Help your child get his plate of food and get seated at the dinner table. If your family follows the “no-thank-you-bite” rule, it can apply. This is neither the time nor the place to “force” acceptance of a refused food.

If anyone tries to give you their advice, listen, smile and use common sense. When talking about feeding difficulties and picky eaters, well-meaning advice from a family member or friend is often bad advice. To avoid further advice or conversation about your picky eater, tell the advice-giver that you are getting professional help and then seek that professional help.

If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Joan or any of our experts by sending email to

Joan Dietrich Comrie of Carolina Pediatric Dysphagia has dedicated her entire career to studying, teaching and practicing in the area of dysphagia, specifically pediatric dysphagia.  She received her bachelor of science degree and then her master of science degree in the area of speech pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1986.  Before starting Carolina Pediatric Dysphagia in 1996, she worked at several hospitals (Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, Lexington, Ky., Vanderbilt Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn., and WakeMed, Raleigh) where she developed or reorganized the hospital's pediatric dysphagia program. Joan has spoken on the topic of pediatric dysphagia nationally and internationally.  She has published in a professional journal.  She co-taught the first dysphagia course offered at UNC and continues to guest lecture to several university graduate level speech pathology programs and to the UNC Medical Students who complete their rotation at WakeMed.  She has served as chairman and member of a subcommittee of the Special Interest Division  #13 of the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA).  She has received her certificate of clinical competence (CCC)  through ASHA and is licensed in the state of North Carolina.