There is a lot of advice out there about toddlers who are picky eaters. “My kids ate what I served them or starved!” Thanks, Internet stranger, that helps so much when my child is screaming at the table because a pea touched her rice. I’ll write that down after I’ve cleaned up the food she just threw on the floor and made her some chicken nuggets because she has to eat and I’m tired.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. You can’t make another person eat, sleep, or poop, so when we get into struggles around these issues, we feel powerless. Your kid HAS to eat, right? It’s neglect if you don’t feed them, but some days it’s like their entire purpose in life is to refuse to eat what you serve.
In my work as a health coach for adults, and in teaching classes about eating for infants and toddlers, I find that the issue isn’t actually our kids: it’s us.
How many of us as adults have a healthy relationship with food?
Do you eat vegetables, or were you taught early on that vegetables are a food you have to be bribed, convinced, or forced to eat? If that’s the only way you learned how to eat them, that’s the only way you know.
We also tend to see picky eating or dinnertime fights as bad behavior, which in turn triggers us. We were never allowed to refuse to eat vegetables at dinner! We’re sent straight back to feeling that powerlessness and conflict with our own parents as we sat staring down a plate of cold carrots (…just me?).
But a limited palate of familiar foods is actually biologically normal. Before Amazon Fresh, we had to forage for food. We introduced foods to babies as we ate them ourselves, so they were exposed to safe, nutritious foods. As they become toddlers and are more independent, it was possible for them to wander off into a berry patch. If they were willing to eat new foods, they could eat something poisonous by accident. Instead of seeing this as an evolutionary safety mechanism, we tend to see it as defiance. And that doesn’t help anyone.
Adults have food preferences, so why can’t kids? “But they haven’t even tried it,” people argue. Well, I’ve never tried crickets, and have no desire to. That carrot example above? It’s been 25 years, and I still don’t like the taste of carrots. I’ll eat them in things, but not alone. I eat plenty of other vegetables, though!
I plan our family meals, but I don’t buy or cook food that I won’t eat, so why do that to kids? I’m not suggesting making separate meals or only serving what your 2-year-old wants, but it’s not “caving in” to offer them food they’ll eat. It’s easy to get hung up on each meal (he didn’t eat any broccoli!) instead of taking a wider view (we had green smoothies for a snack and he had carrots with lunch).
The Division of Responsibility in Feeding
At our house, we follow what’s called The Division of Responsibility in Feeding, devised by Ellyn Satter. As parents, we are responsible for when, what, and where we offer healthy food. Our kids are responsible for if, and how much they will eat.
This looks slightly different at various ages, but the premise remains the same. This starts as feeding on cue from birth, then you gradually take over the “when.” Offering relatively consistent meal and snack times will teach your child to pace their food intake. Not forcing them to clean their plate, which overrides their natural satiety cues, teaches them how much food to put on their plates as they get older.
Taking a long-term view of meal times, not as a way to get nutrients into our kids, but as a place to eat and connect as a family while teaching our kids how to make choices that make their bodies feel good takes the pressure off us to “make” them do anything. By modeling that we, as adults, have food preferences and still choose to eat vegetables without incentives normalizes that behavior. By not forcing our kids to eat vegetables, even a bite, we don’t put ourselves on opposite teams where someone has to lose. By modeling patience, we show our kids that we trust them to listen to their bodies and not rely on external factors to tell them when or how much to eat.
What I do is try to keep my goal in mind: keep dinnertime focused on family and food, and get enough calories into my kids to stabilize their blood sugar. That’s it, even if they only eat cheese sometimes.
When we take the pressure off ourselves to “make” our kids eat particular foods, mealtimes become much less stressful. Simple, yes. Easy? Not always. But it’s a start. We’re all just doing the best we can with the resources we have at the time. I hope this resource adds to your parenting toolbox so dinner isn’t a battleground.