Let’s be real here.
If you’ve struggled with a child who’s a picky eater, you know mealtimes can be stressful. If you have a child who’ll only eat a few select foods, meals can feel like a battle, where the tension is blazing hot between you and your child.
You want your child to eat. You want your child to be healthy, and deep down inside, you worry your child may be at a disadvantage because of the limited foods they might eat. You might even feel like a failure as a parent because feeding your child feels like such a struggle. Mealtimes feel distressing, something both you and your child dread.
I know because I’ve been there, too.
As a mother of 5 children, I’ve seen it all. Not just seen it but lived through it. My first child was a relatively easy going baby and seemed to love food. She happily ate most things we offered her, and I thought I had this whole feeding thing down right out of the gate in new parenthood.
All of that was quickly thrown out the window when my second baby came along. When it came time to start solids, it was a struggle right from the first bite. She didn’t seem to take to solids like my oldest. And this was a preview of what we would go through with her through her toddler and early childhood years.
For so long, I thought it was my fault, like I was failing as a parent.
I was also a new dietitian, which made me feel even worse. Aren’t dietitians supposed to have these unicorn kids that love vegetables and happily eat everything? Yet here I was with my own child who wanted nothing to do with vegetables and ate very few foods willingly. I worried about her growth – was she eating enough to grow steadily?
I feared about her nutrition. Weren’t the early years of life most important for setting the foundation of healthy eating? For a while there, mealtimes felt like a struggle – like me trying to convince her to take a bite of something I thought would be good for her to eat and her refusing everything I had made. To say it was stressful is an understatement.
All that to say, if you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, I want you to know you’re not alone.
Feeding kids is hard enough as it is, and it’s made infinitely more challenging if you have a child who doesn’t seem to enjoy eating or who eats very little and few foods.
This all changed for me and my picky eating daughter when I started to let go of my own expectations of how I thought she should eat and prioritized connecting with her at mealtimes over nutrition.
I realized we were getting nowhere quick.
I started to see that my expectations for her were way beyond what she was capable of doing at the time and hurting her ability to learn to eat. It was a tough realization on my part, but once I understood this, it gave me the freedom to let go and try something new for both myself and her.
I know it might seem counterintuitive: Aren’t we supposed to prioritize our child’s nutrition above everything else? Aren’t we supposed to ensure that they eat vegetables and other healthy foods?
See, that’s what I thought too as a new mom trying to navigate how to feed a pickier eater.
And so my feeding approaches emulated this. I was so hyper focused on what she was eating that I neglected the bigger picture: Connecting with her at mealtimes, helping her feel safe around food and making eating feel like a more enjoyable experience.
What was more important than what I was feeding her was how I was feeding her and establishing a trusting feeding relationship to support HER in learning how to eat.
This is what changed everything for us. Instead of putting the cart before the horse, I needed to rearrange my priorities.
In order to do that, I needed to lay down my own expectations of how my daughter “should” be eating in order to create space for her to learn how to eat on a timeline that felt safe for her.
I needed to stop comparing her to other children or even her own siblings and focus on making mealtimes a safe place where she could come and eat in a way that felt best for her.
This was a hard pill to swallow, but I knew it would be the only way forward in helping my pickier eater learn how to eat and build a positive relationship with food.
Connection Over Nutrition and Why It Matters
When we become parents and caregivers, we aren’t handed a manual on how to feed our children.
Yet, feeding our children is one of the things that we do the most: multiple times a day, every day of their lives. And for how little information we’re given on how to feed our children, there’s an overwhelming amount of well-meaning advice on how to do it best.
Unfortunately, much of this misinformation is seeded in diet culture, which puts all the emphasis on what we feed our children versus the things that really matter most when it comes to food: building trust, connection and positive experiences.
You can read more about how diet culture influences how we parent and feed our children in this post here: “Diet Culture Dropout: Best Advice for New Parents on Feeding Kids”
But the reality is that as long as we’re more preoccupied with getting our children to take so many bites of vegetables and eat so much of the food we’ve put on their plates, we can’t help them feel confident about eating or actually enjoy experiences around food.
Our kids can eat all the vegetables in the world, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be healthy.
And perhaps that’s the biggest lie we’re fed as parents: that if we just raise compliant kids who happily eat whatever we put in front of them, they’ll be healthy and grow up free from all kinds of problems.
The other thing to remember here is that how or what your child eats is NOT a reflection of you as a parent or your child. This is another lie fed to us that makes us feel so inadequate when our kids don’t eat to a certain “standard”, which drives us to push our children to eat in a manner that may not be attainable for them.
This is especially true for picky eaters.
The truth of the matter is that all children have different eating temperaments. Some children are naturally more adventurous than others; others are more cautious and slower to try new foods. What’s important to understand is that one way of eating is not better than the other.
So having a child who may be pickier with food isn’t necessarily a “problem” to be fixed.
What I discovered with my own daughter was that she had sensory sensitivities. She was much more sensitive to certain flavors and textures, which means it took her longer to feel more comfortable with foods that may’ve been more challenging. That didn’t mean there was something wrong with her.
She was simply built in a different way. Interestingly enough, her eating temperament closely mirrors her personality. She’s more reserved and cautious, she takes a little bit longer to learn new things compared to her peers. She processes things deeply before feeling ready to take the next step, and all of that is perfectly okay.
When we can come to grips with the fact that every child is built differently and will learn how to eat in different ways, we can more easily let go of our own expectations. Our expectations of how we think they should eat or behave at mealtimes often keeps them trapped in a box they were never meant to fit into.
Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to feeding our children.
Why does this matter so much, especially for picky eaters?
You see, when we try to push our children to eat certain foods or amounts that they’re not quite ready for, this can backfire and make them more averse to food and eating altogether. Pressure is often applied at mealtimes as a way to encourage the intake of certain foods (commonly fruits and vegetables) but can have unintended consequences.
In fact, research has shown that when we pressure our children to eat (and there are many forms of pressure), children are more likely to become even more picky.
Other studies have found that increased pressure has been associated with a higher risk of disordered eating among girls. In addition, eating pressure can impair a child’s ability to self-regulate energy intake, which could potentially promote overeating.
Pressure to eat can be positive OR negative and can look like:
Encouraging a child to take a bite
Bribing or coercing a child to eat
Praising a child for eating or trying something
Using desserts or sweets as a way to get a child to eat
Threatening or taking away other things as a means of getting a child to eat
Rewarding a child for eating
Comparing a child to a sibling as a way of encouraging them to eat (ex: “Look, your brother is taking a bite of this. Try it, you might like it!”
If you’ve done these things, please know you’re not alone, nor are you a bad parent. I’ve been in this boat too many times and understand WHY we resort to these types of tactics. We have good intentions and want our children to eat. This isn’t intended to shame you or make you feel bad, but rather, to see the bigger picture of what might be happening here.
When we rely on these types of approaches in effort to get our children to eat, this can actually make it HARDER for our children to feel safe with eating. And when our children start to form negative associations around food and eating, they’re less likely to want to eat.
Pressuring our children to eat is taking away their autonomy and safety around food, both which are crucial elements to helping them build a positive relationship with food. If your children don’t feel like they have a say in what they put into their bodies from the foods you’ve made available, this can put their brains on high alert that they’re unsafe.
Children naturally resist this.
Think about how you might feel if as an adult, your food was plated for you, and then you were forced into taking so many bites of certain foods or made to eat so much of your food. Or imagine if you went out to a restaurant with your best friend, and she ordered for you and told you what you could or couldn’t eat. You’d feel pretty miserable, right? My bet is you’d try to find a way to skip out of that meal as quickly as possible and avoid the situation at all costs.
Kids really are no different, and when we force them to endure these types of situations around food, it actually creates negative associations around food and eating.
Negative associations around food are actually worse for your child’s health and nutrition over time.
This is what it means to put the cart before the horse, in this situation.
When nutrition is prioritized over connecting with our children and making mealtimes a safe place for them, it sacrifices the more important things that matter in the grand scheme of their overall health and wellness.
On the other hand, when we prioritize mealtimes as a place to connect with our children and focus on creating a safe space for them to learn how to eat on their own timelines, they will be better positioned to grow at a rate that is right for them. They’ll also be more confident with their eating skills and have the foundation to build a positive and healthy relationship with food.
When we stop trying to do our children’s eating jobs for them and stay focused on our responsibilities with feeding, things go so much better at mealtimes for all of us.
Imagine sitting at the table with your child and being excited about eating together. Imagine your child coming to the table without meltdown or throwing a tantrum. That would be pretty life changing, right?
This was what I experienced when I pivoted my approach to feeding with my children.
The catalyst was having a picky eater who forced me to see that my old ways of thinking about feeding kids simply weren’t working. Nor was it going to be a long-term solution to helping my children feel good about food and eating.
Ultimately, feeding our children is more than a transaction, where we simply offer the food and expect our children to eat it.
Feeding our children is about cultivating a relationship with them, one that is deeply rooted in comfort, attunement to their needs, and connection. When we can pivot to this perspective, I can assure you that things will go so much better for eating with your children. Good nutrition is the natural outcome of positive eating experiences.
So how can you start to move toward this direction in your home? What are tangible ways you can focus on connecting with your children around food and helping them feel safe at mealtimes?
How to Connect With Your Child to Help Them Feel Safe at Mealtimes
The good news is that it’s easier to get started than you think. If you’re ready to bring more peace in your home around food and help support your picky eater in a positive way, I’d love to share these tips with you.
Let’s dive into them below, shall we?
Let go of your expectations:
I alluded to this earlier, but it’s so important that we need to re-address this here. In order to really help our children feel safe and welcomed at the table, especially our pickier eaters, it’s crucial that we adjust our own expectations about how we think they should eat.
This can be super hard, believe me – I understand.
It means we first need to be aware of what our expectations are and the invisible standards we’re holding over our children’s heads. It’s figuring out where those expectations come from and being willing to lay them down to help give our children the space they need to feel safe with eating and learn how to eat on their own timelines, not ours.
For many parents, this might have to be a daily practice for a while, until you’re able to fully let go of the things you can’t control. This includes what your children might eat from the foods you provide, their appetites and how they grow.
Instead, choose to focus on making mealtimes a positive experience for your child. Make it a point to connect with your children and help them feel welcomed at the table. Practice unconditional acceptance of wherever your kids might be on their learning timelines with food.
When you can adjust your own expectations to actually meet your children wherever they are, you’ll automatically take the pressure off of both of you.
One thing that might help you with this is to remember that children don’t eat what their bodies need in one meal. Meaning, we can’t take any one given meal as a snapshot of their nutritional intake. Children often get what they need nutritionally over the course of days and weeks, not in one meal.
This is important to keep at the forefront of your mind because it can also help dispel any pressure you might feel to get your child to eat in a “balanced” way at mealtimes.
Generally, children (especially younger children), don’t eat in this manner. As adults, we might be more inclined to aim to eat a variety of different foods at meals. But children, on the other hand, are usually not going to eat in this manner. They’re going to eat what feels best and safest to them at the moment, and it’s our job to be respectful of what they choose to eat from the foods we offer.
The cool thing is that when we focus on doing our jobs with feeding our children and providing them regular opportunities to eat with a variety of food options, they’re naturally going to get what they need over the course of time to grow at a rate that is best for them.
This is true for our pickier eaters, too!
We don’t need to micromanage them at each mealtime to get them to eat in a “balanced” way – that’s only going to add more stress for everyone. In order to help your children eat what they need, it requires you to adjust your expectations about how and what you think your kids should eat and allow them to learn how to self-regulate their intake from the foods you provide.
I’ve seen this with my children, where they naturally tend to get a variety of foods – not in one meal or even one day, but over the course of the week. Which leads me to my next point.
2. Focus on your jobs with feeding, trust your child to do their part with eating (eyes on your own plate):
Feeding children in a positive way boils down to this mantra: Parents provide, child decides.
Meaning, your job is to choose what foods to offer your child, including when and where you’re offering them food. Once you’ve provided the food, the ball is now in your child’s court. This means your children are now responsible for deciding: 1) Whether or not they even want to eat, and 2) How much they want to eat from the foods you’ve made available to them.
Sticking to your feeding jobs and trusting your children to do their parts with eating is essential to creating more positive experiences around food for your family.
This can be especially tough to do when your kids might not want to eat or are choosing to eat very little from the foods you’ve made available.
It can be stressful when your kids are vocalizing their refusal to eat – even frustrating! You’ve worked hard to put a meal together for them, and inevitability, you feel like you’re always getting pushback.
Here’s where it can be helpful to step back and see the big picture at work: Helping your children build a positive relationship with food starts with their eating environment. And when kids don’t feel pressured to eat, they’re going to feel much more positive about the eating experiences they get to have with you.
Part of raising intuitive eaters is learning to respect your children’s eating cues and TRUSTING them to eat what they need from the food you offer – even if that means not wanting to eat at times.
It’s allowing your kids to build their autonomy and have the power of saying no to food, even if that might make you feel uncomfortable. It’s letting them know that eating is not a criteria for being welcomed and involved in your family meals.
When children trust they have a choice at mealtimes, it gives them the ability to flex their intuitive eating abilities and learn to eat in a way that feels best in their bodies. This can build their confidence and trust in themselves – not just with food and their bodies, but in other areas, too!
Remember, mealtimes are more than a transaction with an end goal of getting a child to eat. They’re about cultivating a relationship and connecting with our children. Connection should be the priority, regardless of what or how much our children might eat.
Think about the things you can do and say to help your kids feel welcomed and safe at mealtimes and focus on making THIS the end goal rather than the food itself. When you can pivot to this perspective with feeding, I can assure you that things will go so much better for eating with your children. A healthy relationship with food is the natural outcome of positive eating experiences.
If you need more help in this area, check out this post here: “End Mealtime Battles and Raise Intuitive Eaters With These Phrases”
3. Prioritize safety and connection at mealtimes
Adjusting your expectations and focusing on your feeding jobs are huge steps toward helping your children feel safer at mealtimes. Prioritizing safety and connection at meals is essential to creating more positive experiences for your children.
How else can you facilitate this?
Here are some other ideas for you to consider:
Consider family style meals: When children get plates on the table that are pre-plated with various foods we’ve prepared for them to eat, this can already feel like pressure. I know this might seem silly, but really step back and look at it from your child’s perspective. If they’re getting a plate full of different foods they may not be comfortable eating or portions that feel overwhelming to THEM, this can put them off from eating before they even sit down at the table. Sometimes, we plate food for our children with a hidden agenda: we feel like if they just have some food on their plates, they’ll actually eat it or be willing to try it. But this can be a hidden form of pressure. Some kids aren’t actually ready to try the foods we offer on their plates and need to build more comfortability with certain foods before they’re okay with having those foods directly on their plates. This is especially true for pickier eaters. Previously, I would plate food on my daughter’s dish in hope that she would try certain foods or eat things. But I quickly realized this was causing her more stress and anxiety. When I started putting out empty plates and allowing my children to self-serve what they wanted from the foods I made available, things seemed to go way better for all of us. This is a family style approach to serving and works wonders for children and picky eaters. You can learn more about this approach here: “How Family Style Dining Makes Feeding Kids Easier at Mealtime”
Include 1-2 Safe Foods at Meals: As the parent, you are in charge of the food you’re offering to your children. We want to expose them to a variety of foods, including things they’re still learning how to eat, without pressuring them to eat any foods. We want to take their preferences into consideration without catering to them either and only ever offering their preferred foods. So how can you strike this balance, especially if you have a picky eater? I remember for a while with my daughter, we would regularly only give her the handful of foods we knew she would eat, just so we could feel assured of her eating something. However, I realized it was doing our whole family a disservice because we weren’t eating and enjoying the variety of foods we loved. And it’s just not feasible to create multiple meals for everyone in your household – that’s a surefire way to lose your sanity. So what I started doing was creating the meals we wanted to eat and adding in 1-2 food components I knew would be safe and accepted for my daughter, who was our picky eater at the time. Her safe foods would include things like bread, fruit, pasta and rice, and I would find ways to rotate these with the meals we were already having. Having accepted foods at the table will help your child feel safer coming to the table, because they can identify at least one thing they’re comfortable with.
Focus on Anything but the Food: We talked about keeping your eyes on your own plate, but this can be easier said than done when you’re worried about your picky eater or how your child might be eating at mealtimes. When you feel like you’re stuck in the vicious cycle of mealtime battles, everything feels like it’s about the food. However, this just brings more attention to it, which is only going to make things more stressful for you and your child. Instead, focus on connecting with your child and talking about anything else BUT the food. Bring up a topic of conversation that you know your child will be interested in. Save the heavier, harder topics for outside mealtimes. You might even consider playing a game together as a family during dinnertime – not a board game, but something like the “20 Questions” game. We’ve actually done this a lot with our children, where one person thinks of a Disney character, and the rest of us get to ask questions to figure out who that person is thinking about. I know it may seem silly, even nonsensical – why would you do this during a mealtime? But again, when your children aren’t feeling pressure to eat and their attention is elsewhere and not on the food, it actually makes it easier for them to eat and explore food. Playing a game or having a lighthearted conversation on something you know your kids will be excited about can facilitate the connection you want to be forming at mealtimes. You’re showing your child that you’re more interested in the relationship you’re building with them versus the food itself. This is huge! Other things you can do are to reassure your child that they don’t have to eat if they don’t want to and include a “no-thank you plate” at mealtimes that your child can put food items they don’t want to eat.” While these things might seem small, they’re significant in helping your child feel safe at meals.
How Do Picky Eaters Eat Healthy?
When we can prioritize connection with our children over nutrition at mealtimes, our kids will be better able to eat, which positions them toward improved health.
Just remember, what might be healthy for your child may look different from your own expectations of how or what your child “should” be eating to be healthy.
As an example, children often need much smaller portions of fruits and vegetables to meet their micronutrient needs than what we tend to estimate. Many children, including picky eaters, are able to meet their nutritional needs sufficiently over the course of time, even when food selection is limited. A majority of our foods are fortified with micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, that can support our children’s needs.
You can learn more about this here: “Hiding Veggies in Food? How to Help Your Picky Eater Eat.”
All this to say, hyper-focusing on nutrition can create added stress at meals, which again, can prevent our children from eating and learning how to eat in a healthful way for them.
In the case of my own daughter, I’ve seen her grow and expand on what she eats gradually over time. I know the reason she felt safe and comfortable to do so was because we began prioritizing connection at mealtimes and pivoted our approach to feeding her (and the rest of our children).
Between the ages of 3-7, she hardly ate any vegetables, nothing that was remotely spicy or seasoned, and mostly gravitated towards plain, beige foods. We moved away from trying to micromanage her and prematurely get her to eat foods she wasn’t ready for and instead, continued to offer and expose her to a variety of foods without pressuring her to eat.
Only just recently, around the ages of 8-9, has she started trying different foods she never would’ve touched before, including things like shrimp, pepperoni – even salsa! These were things she tried completely on her own, without any outside prompting whatsoever. While it took years for her to get to a point where she felt ready to do so, I know it’s because she felt comfortable around food and trusted she could learn on her own timeline.
Thankfully, she has always been a healthy girl and growing at a rate that is right for her, even during the times I thought she would be at a disadvantage because she ate such few foods.
There is hope for you and your family, too.
Consider how things might be different if food didn’t feel as stressful and you were actually able to enjoy meals together as a family, without worrying about every bite your kids ate (or didn’t eat). When you can bring joy back to your mealtimes, eating can truly go better for everyone.
I also want to acknowledge that picky eating can be so tough, on parents and children alike. If you’re truly concerned about your child’s growth or eating behaviors, please trust your instincts and reach out for the help you need. Working with a pediatric feeding therapist that specializes in responsive feeding can help you have the personalized guidance and support you need to move forward. Connect with me today for more information and to learn how I might be able to help you and your family.
You can also sign up below for the waitlist for my upcoming workshop on Picky Eating, where I’ll be discussing more strategies to help support you through this.
I hope this helps encourage you, my friend. What are your thoughts and questions about this? Feel free to leave your questions in the comments below. Cheering for you!