If you find yourself feeling the dinnertime blues when it comes to getting your child to eat, you are not alone. Studies have indicated that 30-50% of parents classify their kiddos as “picky eaters.”
Some members of our community weigh in on their can’t-get-my-kids-to-eat experiences:
- “I need some serious stress relief when it comes to dinner and my three-year-old. She refuses to eat and when I finally give up fighting with her and clean everything up, she says she is hungry.”
- “Anyone else completely confused by their kids' eating habits? One day my girls are willing to eat something and the very next day they refuse to eat that same thing. It is maddening.”
- “I am in a constant state of wheeling and dealing with my kids. Just three more bites and then you can have (fill in the blank). I am starting to think this isn’t normal. Like I am raising our kid to be a hard-nosed negotiator before she’s even out of diapers.”
- “My child lives on macaroni and cheese and cheese sticks. If I don’t have those handy, she’s not interested. I am thinking of investing in my own dairy cow. Not really … but it may be cheaper.”
For parents, navigating mealtimes can be an anxiety-provoking, miffing experience. For children, however, this is often a developmental process that may start around age one and usually weans around ages four to six, although can continue longer especially if there are mechanical, medical or sensory contributions.
The Power Struggle
The question on parents’ minds across dinner tables everywhere is: Why is this happening?
One answer is actually not about the food at all, but about exercising personal power.
“There is a great deal of pressure on parents to provide adequate and nutritious foods, and so they come to the game already nervous,” says Dina Rose, Ph.D., a sociologist and author of It’s Not About The Broccoli. From a place of love, and sometimes fear and concern, parents sometimes attempt to manage every detail of their child’s food experience. And being turned into their parents, children often sense this pressure and push back.
“So, while the battle may start because of the broccoli,” says Rose, “it often becomes more about the expression of wanting to control their own food environment. A child’s job is to learn control for all body functions, and choosing what to put on their plate and whether or not to swallow that food is a ripe area they can control."
Here are three common parenting pitfalls around getting your child to eat:
1. The dessert bargain. When we tell our children that if they take two more bites of their green beans they can have their brownie, we unintentionally create a food hierarchy where the dessert is of higher value. According to Rose, “The green beans become the chore that needs to be done and the gooey brownie is the reward. And while the child might learn to eat the green beans, we’re not teaching them to prefer it.” Instead, we fall into a loop of rewards and punishments, which creates stress and power struggles.
2. The catch-all. Rose explains, “Perhaps your child doesn’t want to eat a certain food because they are cranky, not hungry, had their hearts set on something else for dinner - whatever the reason - but they say, ‘I don’t like it’ so they can get out of eating it. As parents, we systematically teach children that the only ‘legal’ way to get out of eating food is to say that they don’t like it. This phrase then becomes the label for anything they don’t desire to eat.” Rose shares that when this happens, we as parents miss out on teaching kids the skills they need to evaluate and express their thoughts and feelings around various foods.
3. The command. Eat everything on your plate and you can get up. Statements like these, although well-intended, override our child’s hunger and fullness cues. Part of teaching children about food is teaching them about their appetite, and when we command and demand, we pull them further from their internal wisdom about what hunger and fullness feel like. Instead, encourage children by asking them how they feel and if their body is satisfied, and afford them the opportunity to listen to and respond to what their body is telling them.
Where Power Lives (for parents and kids!)
Every time our child rejects a certain food or refuses to eat altogether, and we respond with our agenda, fear, or concern, they notice this cause and effect and thus, we enter into a battle of wills.
When it comes to getting our kids to eat, there are several approaches to take. One theory stems from the “Division of Responsibility in Feeding” model developed by registered dietitian, Ellyn Satter. The mindset here acknowledges that our power as parents is not in controlling our kids but rather controlling ourselves, and offering our children autonomy over their own eating experience.
What do parents control?
As parents, we are in control of the routine and rituals around eating, what is served and when it is served. Our duty is to provide nutritious food choices and meals at predictable and age-appropriate times.
What do children control?
Our children, on the other hand, have power over whether to eat, what to eat (from what is offered), and how much to eat.
In this model, there is no “getting your children to eat” but rather helping them tune into their natural hunger and fullness feelings.
When you offer a new food, it is unlikely that your child will love it on the first bite. Nutrition science research suggests that it takes kids up to 12 exposures to any given food to put it in the category of food that they like. “Exposure” may mean hearing you talk about it, helping prepare the food, seeing it at the dinner table, or actually taking a nibble.
Rose suggests that if you put too much pressure on a child to like a food right way, and if there is any reason a kid doesn’t want to eat that food, it gets put in the “don’t like it box” and it becomes tougher for the next exposure to go well.
Our taste buds are ever revolving and are replaced about every 2 weeks, so just because your child doesn’t like a particular food today doesn’t mean they won’t tomorrow if given time and consistency. Children have to see a food regularly in order to eat a food regularly.
In addition, infants and children have a higher concentration of taste buds that are receptive to sweet tastes, similar to a mother’s milk, which can last until puberty. So, in giving exposure to balanced proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, your child’s taste buds will likely adapt with exposure and time.
If your child seems to be a fussy eater with a limited palette, there are some things you can do to help.
1. Provide consistency.
Most children eat three meals with two to three snacks in between (roughly two to three hours apart, and no more than 6 times a day), however every child is different. Notice the patterns of when your child is hungry and offer nutritious food during age-appropriate times.
Help children tune into their natural rhythm and notice hunger sensations. By offering consistency, not only is it helpful in stabilizing blood sugars and behaviors, it helps children know what to expect and learn to regulate their appetite.
2. Allow for fluctuations.
Your toddler has cues to tell her how much to eat and when she is satisfied. One day your child may eat like a bird, and the next, they may eat everything under the sun. This is typical toddler eating behavior as their appetite and needs vary from day-to-day.
3. Meet them where they are.
A great way to help your kiddo explore new foods is to offer a healthy dip such as guacamole, salsa, hummus, tzatziki, or greek yogurt with ranch seasoning.
Another helpful tip is to deconstruct food. If you are eating tacos, and your child tends to resist "mixed-food" adventures, split up the taco on the plate, offering the meat, shell, and toppings separately from one another.
4. Serve at least one comfortable food.
More often than not, children like foods that appear safe. Why do you think they like chicken nuggets so much? The texture is predictable and safe, in general, beige foods are considered predictable and safe, and well, if they are shaped like a dinosaur, they are super fun.
So, if your child is a choosy eater, serve them the same foods you are eating while also offering one to two foods they are comfortable with. When offering a new food, let your child know that the food is available and they don’t have to eat them. As with exposure theory, the more they see something, the more it becomes predictable and safe, and the more they are apt to give it a go.
5. Avoid becoming a short-order cook.
One survey found that 75% of parents with picky eaters gave into their child’s food requests. This task falls into the hands of parents - deciding what to serve - and when we give that power away, we can encourage the process.
If your child asks for something that is not being served, you may say something like, “That isn’t on the menu for today, but let's make it happen for tomorrow!” Avoid making it an attention struggle where the child feeds off the attention of you getting up to make a separate dish. Instead, make mealtime an equal and level platform.
6. Keep it neutral.
In making some foods “forbidden”, we can sometimes excite a child’s curiosity and elicit an increased desire for it. So, instead of teaching kids that some foods are good and some are bad, keep it informative and neutral. Talk about the properties of food, giving them information about what their food can do for different parts of their body.
Instead of, “Cookies are terrible for you,” you may say something like, “Cookies have white sugar, and eating too many can hurt your tummy.”
And instead of, “Fruits and vegetables are good for you,” you may say something like, “Did you know that red foods help make your heart strong, green foods help your immunity stay superhero strong, yellow foods help you heal from cuts, orange foods can help you see in the dark, and eating your chicken can help your muscles run when you’re playing soccer?”
7. Offer acceptable options.
With children, more is caught than taught, so they are listening to our language and watching our relationship with food.
If you don’t want your kiddos to eat cheese puffs and ice cream for a snack, don’t stock or offer them, or make a healthier version of them. It doesn’t mean your household has to be full of kale and seeds, but when it comes to what is being served and what foods you’re talking about, model what you desire.
8. Go Montessori.
Another option is a Montessori approach. For snacks, set out age-appropriate and nutritious platters and let your kids help themselves as they please. This may include fruit, vegetables and dips, cheese sticks, and more.
You may also choose to keep parent-approved foods in reachable refrigerator bins or in small mason jars on a low shelf along with plates and utensils so they can self-serve when they are hungry. This works well for toddlers and older children alike, allowing them some sovereignty in choosing and serving their own snacks.
9. Recruit a sous chef.
Enroll your child in choosing groceries, or let them crack the egg or stir the pancake batter to involve them in the process. Involving children in meal prep gives them a sense of power and helps increase their motivation for the end result — eating a dinner they helped prepare.
10. Focus on the feel of the meal.
What would happen if we focused less on how much our kids eat and more on how the experience feels? Dine with your child, turn off the TV and other distractions, and spend time talking about your day, sharing stories, and enjoying the company of your little humans. As children begin to trust you, and themselves, mealtimes become more positive altogether.
While every family is different, this list provides some options to consider. Mealtime doesn’t have to be a battlefield, but rather a place to come together and connect. Start slow and allow for feelings around transitions into a new ritual. When we take the stress off of food, we can put a focus on what really matters - our relationship with our child.
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