“How do I GET my child to eat vegetables?”
“How do I GET my child to sit willingly at the table?”
“How do I GET my child to like the food I make my family?”
These are some of the common questions I hear as an intuitive eating dietitian that works with moms and children.
And as a mother myself who has a picky eater, let me tell you – I GET IT.
So much of motherhood often feels like what we need to get our kids to do in order to help them grow up into confident, capable adults. Food is no exception.
Except for one thing: Trying to get our kids to eat in alignment with our own desires or expectations can feel a lot like fighting a losing battle.
Why is that?
So often, no matter how hard we try to get our kids to eat or encourage them to eat certain foods, it seems to backfire.
This can be so frustrating and exhausting as a parent, especially around food in your home. On the one hand, you want to help your child get in the foods and nutrients their bodies need to grow and thrive. On the other hand, your child may be completely resisting your efforts, making your mealtimes feel like a battleground.
So what’s going on? How can you get your child to eat or eat the foods you know will benefit them?
This is the million dollar question, mama, and I want to help you look at this scenario in a completely different way.
What if I told you that it wasn’t your job to get your child to eat?
What if the responsibility of getting vegetables into your kids wasn’t on your shoulders?
How different would mealtimes be if you didn’t feel like you had to micromanage what or how much your child was eating?
I’d imagine things would be different for you and your children around the family dinner table. In a good way, right?
And that’s what I want to help you achieve.
It starts by pivoting our approach to feeding and understanding one crucial change:
Instead of asking yourself what you need to do to “get” your child to eat, try switching that to “let”:
How can you “let” your child figure out what to eat from the foods you’ve provided?
How can you let your child feel comfortable and safe at the table?
Can you let your children eat what they need and what feels best in their bodies?
Pivoting from GET to LET may seem insignificant, but it’s instrumental to creating more peaceful mealtimes and help your child build confidence with eating skills.
Ultimately, peaceful mealtimes are what leads to a positive relationship with food and body.
You can create more connection and safety at mealtimes when you allow your children to have a say and to regain a sense of control over their own bodies. When children aren’t allowed to connect to their autonomy, especially when it comes to food and what they’re eating, this can become a prime breeding ground for power struggles.
If you’ve been experiencing this with your child, you’re not alone and you’re not at fault.
We often recycle things we were exposed to as children. Not to mention, we have so much pressure on our shoulders, especially as mothers. We feel an innate sense of responsibility for the outcomes of our children – particularly around their health, growth and well-being. No wonder mealtimes can feel stressful when our children are refusing to eat, avoiding certain foods or unwilling to come to the table.
This is why a pivot in perspective can be life-changing for you and your family, especially if mealtimes have been challenging.
It boils down to understanding what you can realistically focus on when it comes to feeding your children and letting go of the things that are simply outside of your control.
Another crucial component is finding ways to support your children’s autonomy over their bodies. Let’s talk more about why this is so important.
Why Children Need to Feel In Control of Their Bodies at Mealtimes
Why is it so important to make this pivot, in terms of how you’re approaching food and mealtimes with your children?
It boils down to this: Your kids want to feel in control of their own bodies.
If we don’t respect our children’s bodily autonomy, especially at mealtimes, they won’t learn to listen to or trust their own bodies as the best experts of what they need.
Because essentially, when we micromanage our children at mealtimes or dictate what or how much they need to eat at any given meal or snack, we’re communicating the message to them that we know better than their own bodies, and that they need to rely on outside messages versus internal regulators as their guides.
Do they need our help, support and guidance? Yes, of course! This is not suggesting that we leave things to our children to somehow figure out on their own.
However, a key part of healthy childhood development (in all aspects, not just with eating) is maintaining control over one’s body. Without a sense of autonomy, children can’t create a sense of mastery over their own bodies.
With bodily autonomy, children are better able to develop:
Critical thinking skills
Healthy independence and sense of self
Confidence and trust in themselves and their bodies, increased self-esteem
Intrinsic motivation (doing things based on internal drive, not external rewards)
As a parent who may be reading this right now, I can bet that you want nothing more than to raise healthy, competent children who are capable of trusting themselves, especially in a world who will try to mold them into something they were never meant to be.
You want your children to trust their bodies as the best experts of what they need so they can withstand the damaging diet culture messages that will challenge their identities and sense of selves.
These things start with their capacity to trust themselves, to learn how to lean into their own bodies as the best experts of what they need, no matter how differently that might look from your own expectations of what you think they might need.
You can begin exploring this with the mealtimes you’re currently having with your children. Because how we engage with our children around food and their bodies will lay a foundation for how they feel about food and their bodies for years to come.
Learning to engage with your children around food in a way that fosters body confidence and builds trust is an essential part of establishing autonomy.
When your children learn that they have some sense of control over their own bodies, including choice over what they can eat from the foods you provide, this helps them learn to listen to and respect their own bodies.
However, when we have hidden agendas about how our children should eat or what we want them to eat, this will directly conflict with their abilities to establish autonomy over their bodies.
This is why this conversation of pivoting from GETTING our kids to eat to LETTING our children learn how to listen to their own bodies, especially with food, is so important.
This can look like:
How can you LET your children learn to become the best experts of their own bodies?
How can you LET your kids decide what they want to eat from the foods you’re offering?
How are you LETting your children feel in control of their bodies?
When children don’t have these opportunities around food, mealtimes can become a breeding ground for battles.
So many of the power struggles around feeding stems from your child’s need for autonomy. Because when children don’t feel like they have control over their own bodies, they’ll resist their caregivers’ efforts in any way possible.
You might see this at your mealtimes in various ways, including:
Your child protesting mealtimes or coming to the table
Your child refusing to eat
Power struggles at mealtimes
Resorting to rewards or consequences to influence your child’s eating behaviors
Your child engaging in tantrums, crying fits, or meltdowns when asked to do or eat something
While on the surface, these behaviors can feel offensive and be disruptive to your entire family, it’s important to look beyond them in order to understand what your child might be communicating to you.
Remember that your child’s behaviors are attempts to communicate needs with you, not them acting out, being disobedient or behaving badly.
These behaviors may be surfacing during mealtimes if your children don’t feel a sense of autonomy over their own bodies.
When children feel pressured to eat or to do something that feels counterintuitive to what their bodies need, they’re more likely to look for things they do have control over. This is where we can see kids resisting, in how they communicate and in their behaviors.
Your child’s resistance to eating at mealtimes can be their way of exerting control over a situation in which they feel they don’t have a say.
It’s not uncommon for parents to misinterpret a child’s resistance to eating at mealtimes as rebellion or a need to apply more pressure. Unfortunately, this reaction only intensifies a child’s resistance, which often festers into a power struggle around food.
Again, many of the power struggles you may be facing with your child around mealtimes may be stemming from your child’s need for autonomy.
The good news is that these power struggles can be reversed when children are given the opportunities to feel in control over their own bodies, especially at mealtimes. This is important, not just for their relationship with food and body confidence, but for autonomy in all other areas of their lives, too.
Your kids want to feel in control of their own bodies.
You can help them experience this by creating a safe space at mealtimes for your children to retain bodily control necessary for them to feel more positive about food and eating.
And I know what you might be thinking: How can I give my child control? How can I trust them to fully do the things I know they need to do? What does it look like to make the pivot from “get” to “let”?
Don’t worry, mama – I’ve got you covered with some practical steps you can take to begin implementing this in your home today.
Allow Your Children Control Over Their Bodies
So now that we’ve talked about the importance of allowing your children to have autonomy at mealtimes, what does this actually look like?
What does it mean to let your children have control over their bodies when it comes to food and eating?
First, let’s talk about what this doesn’t mean.
Allowing your children to have control over their bodies doesn’t mean:
Letting your children eat whatever they want whenever they want
Allowing your children to dictate what food you should or shouldn’t buy or what foods you’ll include as part of meals and snacks
Giving your children free rein access to the fridge and pantry
Leaving them to their own devices to figure out what and when to eat
This is important to clarify, especially as you navigate through what this might look like in your own home.
This approach would create chaos around food for our children, also making it hard for them to build trust around food and their caregivers. Remember that feeding our children is a relationship that should be established on trust and responsiveness. Our children need us to maintain leadership with food with respect to feeding.
The goal here is to make mealtimes feel safe and enjoyable – for your children, for yourself, and for any other family members partaking in eating times.
In order to achieve this, caregivers do need to take a leadership role with respect to feeding. This means providing stability and reliability with food.
One way you can do this is by offering predictable eating opportunities throughout the day in the form of regular meals and snacks. It means being an active participant in eating with your child and building a trusting feeding relationship with your kids
Leadership around food doesn’t mean authoritarian – dictating what or how much your kids should be eating. It doesn’t mean being permissive either – not caring what or when your kids eat during the course of the day.
It’s finding a middle ground, where you focus on your jobs with feeding and trust your kids to do their jobs with eating.
This is how we lay the framework for creating mealtimes that feel safe and enjoyable for your family, while also giving your children autonomy over their bodies, and the capacity to learn how to listen to their own bodies. Pivoting your mealtime perspective from “Get to Let” can happen as you focus on providing autonomy and safety at eating times.
Here are some ideas to help you implement this at home and during your mealtimes:
Lay the foundation:
To start, it’s critical to get clear on what your jobs are with feeding your children and what your children’s jobs are when it comes to eating. You and your kids have different roles at mealtimes, and knowing and respecting these roles will lay a foundation for more positive eating experiences in your home.
Part of your child’s responsibilities with eating is deciding 1) whether or not they want to eat at any given meal or snack time, and 2) What and how much they want to eat from the food that has been provided.
Respecting our child’s choice of deciding whether or not they want to eat and how much to eat from the food that’s been provided is an essential part of respecting their autonomy.
2. Let go of pressure:
Pressure kids to eat can rear its head in different forms, some more obvious than others. Coercing, encouraging or bribing a child to eat can all be forms of pressure that are ignoring a child’s bodily autonomy.
One way to move away from pressuring kids to eat is by respecting their food choices and giving them the power of saying no to any given food or eating time. This is easier said than done. It’s easy to react to our children when they say “NO” to something we’re offering or pushing them toward doing. In many ways, it can feel like rejection or denial, which can be a bitter sting for many parents and caregivers.
However, giving our children the power of saying no is absolutely necessary for them to build and have autonomy over their bodies. The key question to ask yourself here is how can you support and accept your child’s choice, regardless of the feelings it brings up for you?
Withdrawing from your child emotionally or pressuring your child to eat in response to their “NO” runs the risk of robbing them of their autonomy.
A couple ways you can support autonomy at mealtimes is by offering meals and snacks family style, where your children are allowed to pick and choose what foods they want to put on their plates from the foods you’ve made available.
Another way you can create this is by having a “no-thank you” plate at mealtimes: basically an empty plate on the table where your children can put anything they don’t want from their own plates.
This can help them learn and trust that they’re autonomous over their food choices while still having structure in place. Letting go of pressure in its many forms is essential for your child to build autonomy and trust in their own bodies.
3. Lean into Trust:
Respecting your child’s autonomy requires you to learn how to trust your child to eat what they need from the foods you’re providing. It means laying down your own hidden agendas to create space for your children to learn how to eat in a manner that is in alignment with what their bodies are needing.
Letting go of this facet of control and leaning into trust can often bring up a lot for parents and caregivers. Be aware of what comes up for you during mealtimes when your child is exerting autonomy, especially when it’s in a manner that differs from your own expectations of how or what they should be eating.
Keep in mind that children have the innate ability to regulate their food intake and grow consistently at a rate right for them, even if their appetites seem to vary or if they’re in a bigger or smaller body size. It’s not uncommon for children to vary in how much food they eat on a day to day basis and will get closer to what they need when caregivers are able to focus on their jobs with feeding and trust their kids to do their part with eating.
Put your trust in your child’s innate eating capabilities, not in your own expectations or desires for how or what they should be eating. Remember, the only person living inside your child’s body is your child; therefore, they can be trusted as the best expert of what they need, even when how or what they eat makes you feel uncomfortable.
4. Learn the Language:
How we converse and communicate with our children around food and their bodies can reinforce or diminish their bodily autonomy.
For example, if we are trying to trust our children to eat what they need from the foods we provide but we say things like, “Are you sure you’re still hungry?”, or, “Are you sure you should be eating more of that?”, these types of phrases can cause them to second guess their bodily cues.
Similarly, a certain choice of words can often communicate that we don’t trust our children to eat what they need, and pressuring children to eat can slip through our mouths with just a handful of words. Bottom line: If we’re second guessing our children with our words, this will send the message that we don’t trust them to eat.
Our children can’t learn to trust themselves if we’re communicating that we don’t have trust in them. So what are the right words to say? The safest response is to say nothing. About the food or how they’re eating that is. If you’re not sure how to respond to your child’s appetite or behaviors around food at mealtimes, try not saying anything. Instead, focus on connecting with your child and keeping the mealtimes positive.
Another tool to consider is to ask reflective questions: Ask your children how their bodies feel, or for younger children, you can ask, “How does your tummy feel?”. This allows a child to check in with their own body and learn to listen to what their body needs. This also reinforces their body autonomy. For more help with this, be sure to check out this post here: “End Mealtime Battles and Raise Intuitive Eaters With These Phrases.”
5. Lead by Example:
Creating an environment in which children feel safe in their bodies starts with us, as parents and caregivers. If you feel unable to trust yourself to eat, in your body or around food, it will be that much harder to extend trust in your child, especially around food.
If you have struggled with a challenging relationship with food and your body or had experiences around food as a child that didn’t uphold and respect your body autonomy, you may find it difficult to relinquish control to your child. The good news is that awareness about this and the potential feelings this brings up for you is a powerful first step in creating positive change, for yourself and your family.
Slowly, you can begin to examine your reactions at mealtimes in your interactions with your child around food to get curious about what’s coming up for you. Only then, can you start to heal and increase your confidence in your feeding relationship with your child, so that you both grow in trust in your bodies and around food.
Parental felt safety at mealtimes is also important in order for your children to feel safe and create positive associations around food. If your mealtime setting or how your child eats brings up anxiety and stress for you, your child is likely picking up on this. Kids absorb how their parents feel, especially at mealtimes.
It’s worth examining how you feel in order to help support an environment around food that is positive for both you and your children.
If you need more help navigating this and healing your relationship with food to better support your children, please connect with me today. Also, if you are a mother recovering from an eating disorder, check out our free virtual support group, LIft the Shame.
Make the Pivot to Create Positive Mealtimes
Making the pivot from “Get” to “Let” to support your child’s autonomy at mealtimes can seem like a small shift. In actuality, it can be monumental in transforming your mealtimes from a place of chaos to a more peaceful, inviting environment.
Watch how your children open up to their eating environment when they feel as though they have more autonomy and control, especially around food and their bodies.
I’ve seen this work in my own family and with my children, in addition to the hundreds of families I’ve worked with. I’m confident this shift can be helpful for your family too, making mealtimes something your whole family starts to look forward to.