It goes without saying that mealtimes should be enjoyable for both you and your child. It’s a time to slow down and connect, not stress. But many times, mealtime feels like a battle of wills, with your kid refusing certain foods or refusing to eat at all. If you find yourself knee-deep in power struggles or picky eating (or you want to fend off food fights before they start), follow these steps to bring harmony back to your dinner table.
Tackling Picky Eating
Written by: Jessica Diamond, MPH, RDN
It goes without saying that mealtimes should be enjoyable for both you and your child. It’s a time to slow down and connect, not stress. But many times, mealtime feels like a battle of wills, with your kid refusing certain foods or refusing to eat at all. This might make meal or snack time something you dread. It’s important to remember that some degree of selective eating is expected as your child grows, but how you respond to it will make the world of difference. If you find yourself knee-deep in power struggles or picky eating (or you want to fend off food fights before they start), follow these steps to bring harmony back to your dinner table:
Follow the Division of Responsibility. Adults are responsible for what is being served (the menu), when meals happen (the schedule), and where meals happen (the environment). In contrast, babies and children are responsible for how much they eat and whether they eat. This framework, created by Ellyn Satter, will help you raise eaters that listen to their own hunger cues while making mealtimes predictable and pleasant. Say goodbye to “the airplane” or any other games, bribes, or tricks you’ve been using to get your baby or kid to eat. Remember, whether and how much to eat is their job, not yours, and this should feel liberating! If you stay in your lane and let your kids stay in theirs, their behavior at meals will change and they will become more intuitive and a lot less picky.
Aim for pleasant – and present – mealtimes. We know it’s so hard, but turn off all electronics (TV, tablets, cell phones, etc.) and eat with your child when you can. Studies show that distracted eating leads to mindless eating (think about eating popcorn in a movie theater). It’s best to have your child eat without the TV on so that they can focus on their tummy and notice when they are hungry or full. Studies have also shown that eating as a family, whenever possible, increases a kid’s sense of connection and reduces the probability of anxiety and depression down the line. So, whenever you can, sit with your child at the table, turn electronics off, and give them your full attention: this lets them practice their communication skills and really tune into their body.
Don’t pressure your kids to eat certain foods. Stay neutral about food and play it cool. This may be the hardest at first, but it will pay back in dividends if you stay consistent. Both positive and negative pressure, although well-intended, will make picky eating worse. Kids pick up on pressure very quickly, and they’ll notice if you put certain foods on a pedestal. Negative pressure is more obvious, so we’re more likely to catch ourselves when we’re doing it: “One more bite of your broccoli and then you can have your dessert.” Positive pressure may feel better, but it will backfire, too. “Doctors say that if you eat your greens, you will get big and strong” feels like good advice, but it’s still pressure. And whether positive or negative, your child will make their food choices in response to this pressure, rather than deciding based on their hunger cues or taste preferences. This is the opposite of intuitive eating, and it will teach them to listen to external cues, rather than themselves, when it comes to food. If you stay neutral, your kid will pay more attention to their body’s cues and taste buds, and this will nurture their intuition around food and develop their sense of independence.
Prepare one meal for the entire family. Make sure you’re family-friendly in your meal planning (meaning, offer one thing your child finds acceptable at every meal), but don’t cater completely to your child’s preferences. We know it’s hard to break the short-order chef cycle, but once your child figures out that you’ll cave to their protests about what’s being served, they will just keep doing it and get pickier and pickier and pickier. Stick to your meal plan no matter what, and tell your kid, “You can have as much or as little as you want.”
Let your child serve themselves and eat in their own way. We’re a big fan of family-style meals whenever possible because they give everyone at the table a chance to take as much or as little of whatever they like. They also allow your child to learn to eat the way you do. We know that pulling together a large meal can sometimes feel stressful, but studies show that parents feel less stress once they actually sit down at the table. If a family-style meal isn’t in the cards, do these two things to mimic its benefits:
Serve your child’s food in ramekins so that they can practice serving themselves. Giving them this independence is a game changer.
Take a couple of bites (or a snack-sized portion) of the meal you prepared for your child so that they feel like they’re eating with you. This will make mealtime feel more communal (see above for the benefits!) and will teach them to eat the same foods as you.
Offer regular and predictable meals and snacks. Your child will likely complain about hunger in between meals and snacks, and it’s healthy for them to notice these hunger cues. But kids also love predictability, and they will learn to trust their bodies when they know when the next meal or snack time is. When your child complains of hunger in between meals, say “Oh, I see you’re hungry, the next meal is in 30 minutes. Here’s some water until then.”
Finally, use these magical phrases. We promise they work.
“It’s not on the menu, but it will be tomorrow.” – When your child starts to make requests or has a meltdown because they don’t want what you’re serving, use this phrase over and over again. Remember, you are in charge of the menu, and this will remind your child that menu creation is your job, not theirs. Trust us: if you are consistent with this boundary, they’ll eventually give up on pushing it and will move on to eating what you have prepared.
“You can have as much or as little as you want.” – We love this phrase because it doesn’t put negative or positive pressure on your child to eat. Less pressure means fewer power struggles, and by giving your child this choice, they will learn to listen to their own hunger cues and make intuitive decisions about portions. You will say this at practically every meal in some way, shape, or form for a very long time!
Picky eating and mealtime power struggles can really wear you down. Implementing these simple steps and being consistent meal after meal will eventually make meals enjoyable for everyone.
If you want more information and guidance on picky eating:
And while most picky eating is normal and can be addressed at home, there is some picky eating that may require medical intervention. So, if you feel your child’s picky eating is more on the extreme side – or if they have aversions to certain textures or don’t chew and swallow in a normal way – reach out to a pediatrician, speech language pathologist, and/or occupational therapist for help.
If you or your child is having a health emergency, please call 911 or your emergency services number immediately.