From Power Struggles to Peace at Meals

Help for Picky Eaters

Eat your broccoli, or there’s no dessert!
Nooooooo! It’s yucky!!
Then no dessert for you!
But I want ice creeeeeeeeam!

You’ve heard dozens of times that an important key to family connection is enjoying meals together. But what happens when those mealtimes turn stressful, anxious and anything but connective because parents and kids disagree about what kids should be eating? The power struggles that ensue can ruin everyone’s appetite and decrease the likelihood your child will grow up to be a healthy eater. We appreciate what Ellyn Satter said in her classic book How to Get Your Kids to Eat, but Not Too Much:

Parents are responsible for what is presented and the way it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat!

We share three important principles with a variety of practical ideas in this article to help bring peace to your family mealtimes. These come out of my professional training with children’s eating difficulties and coaching dozens of families through these struggles. Try one or two this week and let us know how it goes!

1) Create an ENJOYABLE MEALTIME environment

  • Ditch the label “picky eater” if that’s what is in your mind and comes out of your mouth. (It’s in our title because it’s a frequently searched phrase.) A shift in perspective will help you all relax. No labels, just think – my child is anxious about food, my good intentions may have made that worse, but we can all learn and grow together.
  • Have regular sit-down family meals, with positive conversation and atmosphere, and no screens or distractions. We encourage everyone (including parents!) to surrender phones during meal times.
  • Refuse to engage in power struggles related to what or how much your child chooses to eat. The dinner table is not the time to “win” the battle. In some families, kids do well with a “Let’s all try a bite of everything” approach, but if this becomes a power struggle it is counter-productive.  
  • Pass food. When capable, children should be encouraged to pass food and place servings on their own plates. Resist the urge to comment on how much or how little they take when the serving bowl or plate passes by them.
  • Allow messiness and play. For younger children allow some messiness and playful exploration of food, especially at snacks. Exploring and playing with food is an important part of development in which children learn about food and also learn to enjoy it. How high can they stack their crackers?
  • Talk about the characteristics of the food. Describe the food’s size, color, shape, texture, smell, and taste.  In a relaxed way, talk about why you enjoy it, and how it is similar to a food which your child accepts.
  • Include children in food preparation when developmentally appropriate. When kids have a chance to help plan, shop for, and make a meal they are more excited to eat it!

But what if your kids really struggle with limited diet selection?
Research consistently shows that attempts to make children eat certain foods are more harmful than helpful. One study even revealed that children who were rewarded for eating a new food were less likely to eat it the next time it was served. Children who were simply presented the food had increased interest in trying the food in the future. If your child won’t put certain foods on their plate or experiment with any new foods, you could start by ordering the children’s book Strawberts Sensational Story, as well as Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater to equip you with lots of practical tools for your family’s feeding challenges.  When there are extreme issues with food or you are concerned about sufficient intake, consult your pediatrician. Therapists trained in the S.O.S Approach to Feeding can also be of great assistance. 

2) Offer many HEALTHY FOODS

  • Provide variety. Children need repeated exposure to a variety of nutritional food. At the store, remember: If you don’t want your children to eat it, don’t buy it.  
  • Serve small portions. Young children are easily overwhelmed by large portions. You may even consider cutting a larger piece of meat into smaller bites.
  • Limit drinks with calories.  Offer mostly water between meals.
  • Don’t reward with dessert. Rewarding vegetable eating with dessert, for example, gives a strong message: the sweets are “yummy” and the vegetables are “yucky.” Instead, just have dessert once or twice a week as a regular part of a meal – whether kids finish their vegetables or not.
  • Include one preferred food, but refuse to become a special order cook. At each meal include one food you know your child will eat. Create an “our food” mentality, not “my food, your food.”
  • Modify favorite foods. If your child wants only certain foods, serve them at most once every other day and modify them slightly in size, shape, color, flavor, etc. – just enough so that your child will notice, but not get upset. This builds flexibility in eating as you gradually increase the variety.

3) Use GENTLE ENCOURAGEMENT

  • Use “You can” language. A demand such as, “Try a bite of broccoli,” invites a power struggle. “Can you try your broccoli?” expresses doubt. Both are easily answered “NO!” To help a child feel empowered but not controlled, parents can say,“You can try that new food.” Even if your child says, “NO!” you can simply respond with a smile, “You can when you’re ready. When you try it you can decide to swallow it or you can quietly put it in your napkin.” This decreases anxiety as kids know they have options and won’t be stuck with swallowing something scary.
  • State the rules in a neutral way. Avoid saying “Stop,” “Don’t,” or “No” at meals. Instead state rules regarding appropriate behavior in specific terms, i.e. “The food stays on the table,” “Chairs are for sitting not standing,” “We use our inside voices at the table.”
  • Teach your children the “10 Times Rule.” Research shows that it takes about 10x’s of trying a food to know if you like it.
  • Gently affirm sampling of new foods. Do not pressure, manipulate, reward or excessively praise children for eating. No pom-poms, balloons and Facebook photos! These tactics imply children wouldn’t naturally want to eat the food, as if there’s something wrong with it. Observations like, “I see you tried something new,” or “We’re both eating our peas,” are helpful. Your child should realize he is eating something of his own choice, not to please you.
  • Teach kids the benefit of different food for their health but not in a lecturing way. Help your kids notice whenever they make a choice to strengthen the good body God has given them and affirm that choice. One dad would lose at play wrestling and give the food credit for the victory after his kids had eaten a particularly healthy dinner. 😉

An important consideration in implementing these ideas naturally is realizing our own level of peace or anxiety about food. How we were raised to view food when we were kids spills over into our parenting.  If you struggle with food issues yourself, or resented your parents’ approach, it is important to sort that out, maybe getting some professional help if needed.

Instead of modeling anxiety, you can model confidence and enjoyment of the food that was served, and a desire to care for the body God gave you. Kids will naturally begin to catch on. We’ve seen many families’ mealtimes and kids’ food choices dramatically improve with these ideas, as kids learn some important beliefs:  

  • Family meals are enjoyable and even fun.
  • I’m loved just as much even if I don’t like something on my plate.
  • I am capable and responsible to nurture the body God has given me!  

This article includes excerpts from the appendix of our book Discipline That Connects with Your Child’s Heart.


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