I am becoming aware of more and more parents having trouble with picky eaters. Their kids won’t eat anything they make for dinner, even though they are happy to snack on goldfish all day long. One day they love broccoli and the next day they won’t touch it. They may only eat certain foods, such as grilled cheese and chicken nuggets, forcing parents to become a short order cook at dinnertime. After working with numerous parents and children regarding this issue, I have learned that a lot of this doesn’t have to do with the actual food, but more about practices around mealtimes and the distribution of control between the parent and child.
One of the most important things we can do is to let go. When we are stressed and try to control our child’s eating, it only makes the situation worse. When we are stressed at mealtimes and try to force our kids to “eat just one more bite of food”, it usually makes them even less likely to eat.
Children are inherently intuitive. By trying to force them to eat certain foods or to finish their plate, we are teaching them to listen to us rather than their intuition. This can lead to disordered and picky eating in the future. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to the experience of their parents not letting them get up from the dinner table until they ate everything on their plate and they now struggle with eating past the point of feeling full. Even though we may know more about nutrition than our children, we don’t know how they feel, how hungry they are, their perception of how something tastes or feels in their mouth. These are all things they need to learn for themselves. If we are constantly trying to control their eating, they lose the ability to recognize hunger and fullness cues for themselves.
If we start embracing a child’s intuitive eating from the very beginning, they have a higher chance of developing a healthy relationship with food. When they are newborns, we allow them to nurse or bottle feed on demand. Then for some reason, as they get older and we start to introduce solids, we start to control their eating as well. Obviously we have to control some factors (a one year old can’t exactly put together their own meal), but there are ways we can give our children more independence during mealtimes.
I will leave you with my favorite rule that I share with parents of picky eaters: the Division of Responsibility, coined by the Ellyn Satter Institute. According to this model, the parent determines the what, when and where of feeding and the child decides the whether and how much of eating. This means that the parent creates a feeding schedule and decides what is served at each meal, but the child is given the autonomy to decide if they want to eat and amount they want to eat. If a child decides they do not want to eat something (or at all), they are not forced. When we give children more control around eating, they are likely to become more open to trying new things. If you are struggling with a picky eater at home, this is a great place to start.
Emily Magee, MS, CNS is a board certified clinical nutritionist. She works with picky eaters and children on the autism spectrum to expand their diets and try new foods and sees patients at her Nutrition Response Testing practice in Bayport, NY. Emily’s passion is to help moms who are seeking a natural path to optimal health for themselves and their families. Visit www.emilycmagee.com to learn more.