"I don't want to eat" has almost never been a problem in our family! Nonetheless, this article on ending mealtime battles caught my eye, and it has some wisdom in it, so I'm passing it on. I can sum up what I like about it in a couple of quotes.
It's dinnertime and my 4-year-old son is deep in play. When I announce that dinner is ready he makes his own announcement: "I don't want to eat, Mommy."
I tell him five words that avoid the food battle that he wants me to engage in: "You don't have to eat."
This is the rule in our house but it is followed by a second rule that everyone follows, regardless of wanting to eat or not. I tell him that family dinners are about being with family, and not just eating, so we all have to sit at the table.
What I like most about Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding, is it gives parents and children very specific jobs in the realm of feeding. Parents are in charge of deciding what is served at meal time, when meals occur and where. Children get to be in charge of choosing what to eat and how much from what is offered to them.
So when my children complain about what I make for them, I always remind them that they can choose not to eat it. And I make sure to include at least one or two items they are likely to accept. This gives them some control, melts away the tension, and makes them more likely to try it....
This strategy puts more onus on the parents to make sure all the food offerings are nutritious: if the meal on the table includes chips and soda, a strategy of letting your children decide what and how much to eat from the offerings appears a lot less wise. Nor would I include anything not part of the family meal among the offerings, i.e. no chicken nuggets when the rest of the family is eating chicken tikka. But letting them choose proportions (including nothing) from a good meal sounds like a reasonable strategy for giving children autonomy within secure boundaries.
I wonder: if I had not been required to eat a portion of everything served, would I have learned to like vegetables sooner than I did? Very early on I developed the tactic of swallowing my vegetable bites whole, with great gulps of water, like pills. (Peas are particularly easy.) My parents were willing to insist I eat the veggies, but would not go so far as to require me to chew and taste them. If, instead, they had simply been offered as part of the meal, and I had observed my parents enjoying it all, might I not have tried them now and then, thus developing the taste for certain foods that eluded me until later in life? I'll never know, but I like this strategy better.