Three times this week I’ve found myself in conversations with moms struggling with young kids with eating problems. One child refuses vegetables altogether and another only eats things in the “white food group” (bread, rice, cereal). The last, a busy 3-year-old girl, is well below her ideal weight because she won’t sit still long enough to eat.
Coincidentally, my 2-year old’s eating patterns changed seemingly overnight. A few months ago he had a great appetite and would eat practically anything. Now, he only wants to eat a few favorite things and regularly skips meals if he doesn’t like them. Worse, he signals the end of his meal by flinging his plate across the room. Fun times!
At my wits end with my own rebellious toddler, I re-read the one book I knew had the answers – Ellyn Satter’s How to Get Your Eat… But Not Too Much. Her simple advice reminds me that eating with kids does not have to be a battleground. Within days, our mealtimes are already much more enjoyable again.
I first read Ellyn Satter’s book back in 2012 when my daughter was 9 months old. At that point, my husband and I were filling her highchair with toys and books during mealtimes. We also did funny voices and that whirling airplane game just to get her to eat a bite of puree. I don’t know how we got there, but I knew that I didn’t want to work that hard to get a baby to eat a spoonful of peas! And I damn sure didn’t want to raise a picky eater who didn’t like vegetables. Thankfully, Ellyn Satter’s book delivered all of the answers.
Ellyn Satter is a registered dietician and family therapist. First published in 1987, the advice in this book is timeless. I love it because you can easily skim it to get the big ideas or find those specific to your child’s problem(s). Be forewarned, though, Satter gives her advice straight with no chaser. Also know that that most of her focus is on helping you as the parent fix your behavior and expectations towards your kids eating habits, rather than changing your child. Once you change your attitude toward meal times, your child’s will follow.
The ideas below were all gleaned from this book. There is a lot more advice in the book, but these are some of the biggest points that worked for our family.
10 Tips for Better Eating and Less Stressful Mealtimes
- Your job as parent is to provide your child with an appetizing plate of diverse foods at predictable meal times. Your child’s job is to eat it. Don’t confuse the two roles. As Satter says, “You are responsible for what, when, and where. Your child is responsible for how much and whether.” You cannot attempt to get him to do his job by bribing, spoon-feeding (unless he’s a baby) or otherwise coercing him to eat. If he chooses not to eat at this meal, he’ll be hungrier for the next one. More detail on Satter’s Division of Responsibility model here.
- Don’t make mealtime a power struggle. You cannot make a child eat something he doesn’t want. Period. Attempts to force (or bribe, punish or coerce) him to automatically introduces a power struggle. If you “win”, the only thing you’ve succeeded in doing is demonstrating that you have more power than your child. Since your goal is to raise a child with lifetime good eating habits, you have to play the long game instead. It requires a different approach, outlined in the points below.
- Avoid commenting on your child’s food or eating habits. This can be oh-so-hard, but squelch the urge to point out what or how much he’s eaten (or not eaten, as the case may be). This includes all of the common tactics parents use to encourage eating (“just two more bits of broccoli and you’re done” or “no dessert until you eat some casserole”). Policing what a child eats only adds to the power/struggle dynamic in point #2 above.
- Don’t offer substitutions or alternative meals. You’re not a short order cook and this isn’t a restaurant! Giving your child autonomy over her food choices doesn’t mean letting her eat whatever she wants. If she chooses not to eat the lunch you provide, that’s fine. But don’t give her anything else until the next scheduled meal/snack time. This includes “filler” beverages, like milk. I promise, she won’t starve if she misses one meal, and chances are, she’ll come to the next meal hungrier and ready to eat.
- Kids may need to try a food 10+ times before they will accept the taste/texture/smell as “ok”, and many more before they begin to like a new food. Neophobia is the fear of new things, and it is keenly apparent in toddlers, especially when it comes to food. Pushing a new food, or one your child has already decided she doesn’t like, will only make your child suspicious of it.
- Instead, consider letting your child sample, but spit out, a food if he doesn’t like it. It can seem like a no-win situation at first. How can your child learn to like tomatoes if she won’t even try one? Some parents encourage “sample bites”. This is the idea that you try a tiny bite of every food on your plate. But think of a food you really dislike (mine is grits). Now imagine if someone asked you to swallow that food once a week at dinner. Gross, right? Satter suggests instead gently encouraging the child to take a bite but allowing him to discreetly spit it in a napkin if he really doesn’t like it. This method accomplishes two things: 1) it exposes the child’s taste buds to new foods while 2) keeping his or her authority over his body intact.
- Make sure all caregivers are singing from the same hymn book. As with all aspects of parenting, consistency is key. If you insist your pre-teen come to the table for family mealtime, but your spouse allows her to eat in her room, you’re sending a mixed message. She’ll understand that eating together is not a shared family value and will likely attempt to undermine this non-united front.
- Accept that kids vary in the amount they eat. Some children eat more or less relative to their peers. Some have a “good appetite” while other “eat like a bird”. Some eat a ton of new foods readily, while others are skeptical about trying new things. All kids vary day-to-day and year-to-year with how much they eat. Did you know that around age 2, children have a natural dip in the amount of food they require and may start eating less? I didn’t, which is why I momentarily freaked out over my little guy’s eating. Trust that your child’s body can self-regulate hunger and food consumption.
- Examine your own relationship with food before you attempt to “fix” your child’s eating habits. Are you from a family that believed in eating everything on your plate before you could leave the table? Are you over or underweight? Do you crave and/or overeat unhealthy foods? Are you a finicky eater yourself? Whatever the case, your own feelings toward food can influence how you attempt to govern your child’s eating, especially if your food issues are unresolved.
- Model good eating behavior yourself. Kids will do 50% of what you say and 100% of what you do. If you want them to have a good relationship with food, then you have to do the same.
I guess it goes without saying, but my last tip is to check out Ellyn Satter’s book!
Note: All of the ideas above apply to children with a healthy body weight and normal development. They should not be used in place of advice from a medical professional. It is important to contact a medical professional if you are concerned your child is over/underweight or has any concerning relationships with food.
Anyone else struggling with an eating behavior issue with their child? What’s the issue and how old is your child?