Picky eating can be so overwhelming! It doesn’t have to be with this one simple strategy.
I have to admit that I have been delaying this post for quite some time. The information I’m going to share is going to be surprising to some of you and I’m sure others will disagree. I hope that at this point you can trust me when it comes to picky eating. If you’re new here, click on the article index in the menu bar to find 40+ posts covering picky eating. I have been remiss in not sharing what is probably the most valuable strategy parents can implement to improve picky eating. I’m going to end that today and brace myself for the naysayers.
So are you ready for a full on, detailed explanation of this complicated picky eater strategy? Well, not today! Although I feel this is the first step to managing picky eating, it is also the most simple. This mysterious and often unknown strategy is: NOT PRESSURING YOUR KID TO EAT.
Let that sink in a minute. I am saying as a pediatric occupational therapist that has helped hundreds of kids with eating difficulties, and a mom to three young children (one of whom has had his own feeding issues) that the single BEST thing you can do to help your picky eater start eating more foods is to STOP pressuring them to eat. Sometimes parents report seeing changes almost over night, others say a few weeks or a few months. Of course, this may not be the only strategy you need (it could be though!), but I do believe it is the FIRST, even for more severe picky eaters. I have found it to be a critical step to progress in eating challenges.
I know some of you are feeling confused right now because you think if you don’t pressure them to eat then they won’t or they will only eat crackers. And I know others are thinking this is total crap. I know on the surface it may appear that way, but let me explain a little more to win you over. First, we need to talk about why pressuring is so harmful to kids eating habits, then I’ll tell you all the hidden ways we pressure our kids during meals, and what you can do instead.
Why is Pressuring Kids to Eat so Bad Anyways
Before we get into the nitty gritty here, as always, I want to remind you that I respect and encourage parents to make decisions for their child based on their gut, knowledge of different techniques, and their child’s individual temperament. I REALLY do feel like this is one of those super important strategies that works across the board, but some parents won’t be comfortable with it and that is okay. I hope you can take this information and apply it in a way that works for you and your child. Again, I’m acknowledging that up front so hopefully the negative comments can be kept to a minimum!
So here’s the thing, when some kids (often picky eaters) feel pressured to eat they often feel they need to protect themselves further and close themselves off from being open to new or different foods. For a variety of reasons, they have already decided that eating some foods is not for them, the pressure factor for parents and other well-meaning adults builds their brick wall up further and further. This leads them to be intimidated or they may feel they are going to react the wrong way when they actually do want to try something. It creates an environment that closes off the opportunity for exploring new foods, the opposite of what most parents want.
Imagine a food you REALLY don’t like, we all have at least one. For me it is olives. Now, think about having a plate of that food in front of you and someone you love and trust getting really angry or upset that you don’t want to eat it. Or, maybe they don’t get upset, but beg you to try a bite? Would that work, would you want to eat it then? Maybe, they even throw in a treat, “If you have three olives, I’ll give you a cookie?” How would you feel? Motivated or aggravated? Depending on your child’s temperament, they may oblige and maybe you would too, but some of us would get aggravated and defiant as a result. Some of us would feel that they really wanted the cookie but just couldn’t eat olives even though they wanted to anyways.
Even if your child isn’t a picky eater, or they do give in to the pressuring tactics and it seems successful, as parents we are teaching our kids to ignore their own internal cues for appetite. This leads to over-eating, under-eating, and/or an unhealthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime. In fact, most of my generation was brought up on pressuring tactics. We had the clean plate club or weren’t allowed to leave the table until the food was gone. We were given dessert as a reward for a dinner well eaten, and many of us now look to food to console us when we are bored or have just had a bad day. Get out the pint of ice-cream, you deserve it, right? Listen, I’m not trying to blame our parents, and I’m not trying to throw them under the bus. I’m just saying that we are sending a big message to our kids when we pressure them to eat, and those messages will shape their relationship with food throughout their whole life.
What Does Pressure Look Like
Well, pressuring kids to eat comes in many forms. One of my favorite feeding books, (affiliate link) Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, talks about this extensively. If you are interested in an easy read geared towards parents that fully explains the loads of research that support not pressuring kids to eat, I highly recommend this book. I’m not going to go into as much detail, but let me share some examples:
- “Broccoli is good for you, just have a bite.”
- “I just made this whole dinner for the last two hours, the least you could do is eat some.”
- “Take three licks of the carrots and then you can have more chicken nuggets.”
- “Take a bite of the pot roast, and I’ll put a sticker on your chart for that new toy you want.”
- “I’ll let you watch the iPAD if you eat your dinner.”
- “If you just eat the rest of your potatoes, you can have a cookie for dessert.”
- “Oh, YAY!!!!!!!!! You had a bite of apple!!! Whoop! Whoop!”
These are just a few examples, but I think you are starting to get the idea. If you are bribing, rewarding, distracting, begging, shaming, coaxing, or even praising your child to get them to eat, then you are pressuring them.
What to do Instead (and actually helps discourage picky eating)
See, I told you this was hard, simple but hard. There is a lot to wrap your head around to stop pressuring. It goes against what our parents did, and the advice of many family members. If you decide to go this route, you will likely have people think that you are being a push-over. But, not pressuring your child to eat doesn’t mean that you don’t provide structure, routine, and some rules around meals.
Ellyn Satter, who has completed a TON of research on this topic says, “The parent is responsible for what, when, and where [the child eats]. The child is responsible for how much and whether.” Meaning, we decide when and what our kids eat, and they decide if they are going to eat it or not. That can lead us into a ton of different posts! If you aren’t sure where to start with schedules, structure, and routine, click here or see the eating basics tab in the menu bar. To follow this strategy it is imperative that your child be on a feeding schedule (as I outline in the previous link), and that at least one food be given they prefer at each meal. It is not fair to put a plate of lasagna in front of your kid and say your choice if you eat or not, if they have never had it or refused it many times.
I love this post from Idealist Mom, too, which has more info on pressuring kids to eat. Plus, Satter has a famous one page document called the Division of Responsibility, that clearly lays out the roles of parents and children in eating. I encourage you to take a look!
Truthfully, I have a lot more to say on this topic, and I bet you have lots of questions. Feel free to leave a comment that isn’t negative. I’m thinking there is going to need to be a part 2 for this one!
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