If the power struggle to get your picky eater to eat their vegetables exhausts you and if making separate meals to accommodate the unique preferences of each child drains you, know you’re not alone and know there is hope!
This hope is backed by hard science1; it’s an approach developed many years ago by Ellyn Satter (who is both a Dietitian and Family Therapist). This approach defines the roles of parents and the roles of children when it comes to feeding. And while sticking to our roles and allowing our children to perform theirs is easier said than done, with time, the rewards of having a good eater are well worth the energy investment.
Parents are responsible for:
# 1 – What
As parents, we’re in charge of what food we allow in the home and what foods will go on the table at any given meal. When meal planning, be mindful of your child’s preferences, but don’t pamper them; provide a balance of both comfortable and unfamiliar choices.
If you’re not wild about the sugar puffs cereal your child only wants at breakfast, don’t bring it in the house. If you want your children to eat vegetables, but gave up because they didn’t eat them, be patient… it can take 10-20 (or more!) exposures before they may even decide to try it, or even better, like it. We’ve experienced the fruits of this labor: after repeated exposures, our eldest, at the age of three, was eating whole bell peppers. I have memories of her gripping the thick stem much like she would an ice cream cone!
Also know that you’re not a “short-order cook.” Your goal is to serve one meal for the entire family (of course, while keeping in mind age-appropriate texture and size). It’s up to them if they want to eat what’s been served (see children’s responsibilities below).
My wife and I strive for balanced meals. Yes, our daughters are exposed to foods of lower nutritional value (e.g., chips, baked goods, etc.), but they’re strategically provided. We’ve learned that depriving them can backfire, as we’ve learned of multiple “sneaking” incidents over the years!
#2 – When
Children thrive on structure, as do their bodies. As we both define and stick to the meal and snack times we’ve set, it allows their hunger cues to work as they’re supposed to; we enable our children’s bodies to become primed and ready to receive the meal. Grazing-on-demand isn’t allowed, and the only beverage that’s allowed in-between meals is water. The appropriate times you plan for meals and snacks are the child’s opportunity to eat. At the same time, it is appropriate to comfort a child by telling them they don’t have to eat if they don’t want to (see children’s responsibilities below).
#3 – Where
Have a designated place everyone eats. Allowing your child to eat while playing or nomadically roaming around, or while conceding to the presence of any electronic screen/toys/books will distract an them from their meal, prevent healthful interaction with the family, and promote disengagement from one’s satiety cues. (To add to this, there is a laundry list of reasons in support the importance of family meals!)
It’s ok to take a break too. Many Fridays of the month you’ll see us gathered in front of a screen to watch a movie (or My Little Pony episodes!) together. Outside of this, our girls know that the only place we eat is at the table.
Children (toddlers and older) are responsible for:
#1 – How much
We’re born with the ability to self-regulate the amount we eat. How do we know when babies are full? We don’t tell them when they’re full… they just know and they tell us. Children (and adults!) have the same abilities. However, there are things that can interfere with the stomach’s communication to the brain that it’s time to stop… telling your child how much to eat is one way we override their natural ability to self-regulate.
Allowing your child to eat as much as they want from what you serve may seem so counter-intuitive. Remember, you’re in charge of the “what” for the meal, so you can approach this more confidently as you provide a good amount of healthful choices. As of now, even though I’ve bought-in to this approach, I’m a slow learner, and still catch my thoughts of frustration like, “why isn’t she eating any more?!” I forget that I must always expect there to be a lot of variability in their appetites.
#2 – Whether
You can’t make a child eat and not expect negative consequences. You can, however, teach them how to politely say “no thank you,” as opposed to “nasty!” or “yucky!” This is another excellent teaching moment for how to use their napkin for foods they choose not to swallow. Getting them to take “no thank you bites” isn’t necessary!
Giving your child the choice to say, “no,” gives them a certain sense of control, and frees them to say, “yes” more often, eliminating the power struggle we all loathe. Please know your child will not starve to death; when they’re hungry, they’ll eat and make up their nutritional needs at that time. To fill any nutritional gaps that day, I suggest giving kids a picky eater approved multi-vitamin (try Yummi Bears gummy vitamins for kids). This way you can feel confident that they are getting those foundational nutrients.
In closing, crossing any of these responsibility lines by reminding, forcing, bribing, tricking, punishing, convincing, threatening, rewarding, or depriving will undermine this entire process. Picky eating habits are normal; furthermore, they can be steered positively by you! Remember your roles and remember your child’s roles. As you stick to your job and trust your child do theirs, in time, they will learn to be good eaters. Unfortunately, it does take time and much patience. Remember that this is a process… a process with which I continue to be imperfect!
- Satter EM. Feeding dynamics: Helping children to eat well. J Pediatr Health Car. 1995;9:178-184.
- Fiese, BH, Winter MA, Botti JC. The ABCs of family mealtimes: Observational lessons for promoting healthy outcomes for children. Child Development. 82 (1): 133-145, 2011.