This post is sponsored by FunBites.
A few weeks ago I published a post about the best picky eating strategy I can give you, to not pressure your kid to actually eat. If you missed that, head over there first and then come on back! I knew it was going to be a hot button issue, but even I was surprised at the response. So, thank you for your patience, many of you have been asking for details on how to actually make the no-pressure meal time work in your home. I am back today with specific guidelines and solutions to really help you put the no-pressure tactic into effect so that you can watch the, often amazing, results unfold. As a pediatric OT and mom that practices this picky eating strategy, I really do believe it is the BEST solution in most instances.
Since there were so many questions on facebook and in the comments of the last post, I want to answer them all here, Q and A style. This should cover all those burning questions, but if I missed anything or you need more clarification, please leave a comment. I love hearing from you guys and your comments really help each other. Having a child that is an extreme picky eater often feels very isolating. Of course, I know how many kids and their families are struggling, but many reading don’t know that. Your story or questions will likely help someone else, so please feel free to share! Also, as I said in the last post, I know some of you may have strong feelings against this approach. I completely welcome constructive comments, but please refrain from negative or rude comments.
Before we get into the questions, I have to give a BIG thanks to our wonderful sponsor, FunBites. They have been a generous supporter of Your Kid’s Table and help keep the content coming to parents and professionals that need it. My kids and I love FunBites because they cut everything neatly,and quickly into fun shapes that are really motivating for the kids. Picky eaters respond really well to uniform shapes, and setting up pictures or scenes gets them interacting with (and even eating) foods they may have refused in the past. See the end of the post for a coupon code.
Let’s get to the questions…
1. Okay, so, I just put the food in front of her, what if she ignores it or refuses?
Here’s the thing, although I’m suggesting that you don’t pressure your child to eat, I am not saying that means that meal time is a free for all. In fact, quite the opposite. The last thing I would want is for your child to eat when, where, and what they want. Deciding those terms is the job of the parent. The child’s job is to decide if they are going to eat it or not.
In my eating basics tab, I run through all of the important elements to having an important structure and routine, but I want to run through some of them quickly here, too. Not pressuring your child to eat doesn’t work too well without mealtime structure. As the parent, you must determine what is being served for the meal, ensuring at least one preferred food is available. If your child comes to the table and sees a plate of lasagna (which they have never eaten) it really isn’t fair to just say, “Your choice if you eat or not.” But, if you serve that lasagna with some bread (which they love) and maybe a side of fruit, then it is totally fair.
It is also critically important that your child is on a schedule. They should eat every 2.5-3 hours with nothing in between but water. If they have access to food whenever they want it, they will not eat anyways.
Eating at a table, and ideally eating together, will have a big impact on their success at meals. Grazing and eating in front of the TV regularly, also sabotage this strategy.
If you are able to put this structure in place and they then refuse to eat, then, yes, you allow that. Honestly, there isn’t much you can do about it anyways, but spin your wheels, cause major anxiety, and power struggles.
2. What if my feeding therapist gave me the opposite advice? I’ve been using a behavioral approach, should I stop doing that?
While it is becoming less popular, it is true that many therapists use a behavioral approach (i.e. take a bite of this and then you can have this candy/video/preferred food). I can appreciate the value in this approach and some families feel this is the right approach for their child, I totally respect that. These posts are not meant to shame or guilt you into a different approach. If you have concerns, discuss them with your therapist, leave a comment here, or consider seeking out other opinions.
3. At what age can you start implementing this? My toddler isn’t going to understand.
This concept can be difficult with young toddlers, and I think there is some leeway, but you’ll want to refer back to that structure I discussed in question 1. That all applies for them too, and in some ways it is even more important. Keep in mind that toddlers are notoriously inconsistent eaters, this comes with the territory. Your job is not to freak out (I know easier said than done) and trust that they are following their internal cues. By the time your child is 18 months to 2 years old, you should be able to totally follow this approach completely without having to maybe grab something extra part-way into the meal if they aren’t eating.
4. What is the difference with praise and pressuring?
In the last post, I quickly ran through some example of how we pressure kids to eat. One of those ways is through praise. This often surprises parents the most, and I didn’t have time to get into it in the last post, so I’ll elaborate here. Research shows us that kids usually feel pressured when they are praised because it is either putting the spotlight on them which most kids don’t like, or it’s setting an expectation that they have a hard time living up to. If you really want to acknowledge what you child has done, try to wait to end of the meal and make a comment in passing. Although we want to give them the praise, they actually don’t need it when it comes to eating. Instead, we want to teach them to be intrinsically motivated.
5. My gut is telling me this is the way to go, but I’m scared, what if my son doesn’t eat anything?
This is a valid point, and there are some instances when this is a genuine concern, and in these cases the child should be in the care of a team with a specific feeding plan in place. If your child is growing on a curve, then they are probably eating enough. We tend to over analyze what our kids eat, and their caloric needs are significantly less than ours. It can be hard to let go of the control or worry, but I encourage families to try this for a month and see what the results are.
6. Do I keep giving them more of the preferred food or do I tell them they need to eat more of their other foods first?
Ellyn Satter would say yes, give them as much preferred food as they want, and that would be truly following the Division of Responsibility. I know this is hard for a lot of parents, and I personally feel there is some gray area here, but parents need to tread very cautiously because putting any restrictions on food is a quick slip into pressuring. With my oldest, that doesn’t have any eating issues, and eats a wide variety, I will occasionally give a prompt for him to eat some more of his food before he just has more bread. I know he eats these foods, I don’t give a specific quantity or make a big deal about it. I’m also careful to not turn this into a reward, but technically I am pressuring a bit. However, I don’t get into power struggles over this or monitor his intake closely. At the same time, if he or my selective eating child have things on their plate they don’t typically eat, I don’t make the comment. I will use other strategies like, changing up the food they are refusing by cutting it into a different size or shape or by giving a dip.
7. Does the no pressure apply to eating desirable quantities of food in general, especially if my son only eats a small amount?
Yes! Building on what I just said there is a bit of wiggle room, but you’ll definitely want to avoid specific quantity suggestions, bartering, etc.
Please know that I totally appreciate how difficult making these changes may be and the daily struggle it is living with a child that has a limited diet. It is overwhelming, exhausting, and parents tend to unnecessarily blame themselves. Join Your Kid’s Table email subscription to keep the support coming. You aren’t alone! See the sign up box in the sidebar so you have the latest post in your inbox, not missing a thing. I only post a few times a month, so I won’t be flooding your inbox.
Don’t forget to thank our sponsor, FunBites, by heading over to check out their fun cutters – perfect for Easter baskets.
What if we have a habit of eating snacks on the way home from daycare? My kids are always really hungry after school and I hate to make them wait to eat until dinner is cooked. They get their last snack around 3 p.m. and I usually pick them up around 5 p.m. I have a 17 month old and a 3.5 year old. My oldest used to eat everything but has become pickier the past 6 months or so and my youngest is picky too. I hate to cook for them separately from my husband and I. It has been a struggle.
If you have to have the snack in the car, I’d try to keep it light, so they are not ruining their appetite as much. However if you can space dinner later so that they can get more hungry that would be helpful as well.
I have a 4 year old who has his favorite foods and gags or refuses anything new. He panics and gets into an anxiety over the idea of changing his foods or routine of eating. This weekend I implemented the idea of putting one thing on his plate that I know he will eat, and tiny portions of what the family was eating. He freaked out because something was on his plate that he didn’t want and was really anxious and upset and crying. He said he was scared and refused to eat even the food that he does like. So now I just put him to bed without lunch or dinner, and no snacks in between. I’m not sure what we should do at this point.
Thanks for reaching out, we understand how hard this can be to work through. Sounds like that was too big of a jump for him with all the non-preferred foods on his plate. You can try starting with one (possibly one that he chooses) and it can be even 1 pea. With then his preferred food. You can also have him try to help serve others as a start so he is interacting with the foods. We do have a free workshop that is a really good place to start as well. You can save your seat here
I just want to say thank you. I had a rough dinner tonight with my 5 year old daughter and knew intuitively I have been doing everything surrounding food incorrectly. But I had no idea what to do. In tears, I found the 1st of these articles and then this one. I feel equipped now. I just want to help and I have been feeling like a relentless, annoying mom. Sorry you had naysayers, I wish people could disagree with something and move on. Thanks again!!!
I have 5 children and several of them have ADHD, in fact eating therapy was the first place they mentioned that my son might have ADHD because he couldn’t stay in his seat. We struggle with a lot of serious picky eating. I’ve read the Satter book How To Get Your Kid To Eat But Not Too Much and I love the division of responsibility, but how much can I rely on that when my kids struggle to stay at the table long enough to eat because they are so easily distracted? It helps when I have dinner earlier so medication is still in effect and we always have a bedtime snack (something like a Carnation Instant Breakfast). I’ve tried rearranging seating to make it harder for them to escape to another room but my husband and I are outnumbered and need to eat at some point too. I feel like bad habits rub off quickly on the younger children and dinner quickly becomes a farce.
You are doing a great job with what you are thinking with changing the seating, etc. The other thing I would add is to make sure you are doing some proprioceptive activities prior to mealtimes as hitting that sensory and getting some calming activities can help them sit for a longer period of time. This will be trial and error to see what works best for activities. You can find a list of ideas HERE
My son is 10, I purchased but never completed Mealtime Works. You may cover this question, but I thought I’d see if there is a quick answer. Should I allow him to fix his own meal, if he doesn’t want the meal we are eating? He is capable of making frozen waffle, bowl of cereal etc. He will often ask “can I make
This is a longer answer that I’d suggest working through Module 1 and 2 (foundations for how Mealtime Works is set up). We do recommend that everyone eats food together, but providing a preferred food for your picky eater as part of the meal!
my kids will try to manipulate me into feeding them something in the time between after dinner and before bed. They wont eat what I make r just the one thing that is preferred and so they are obviously still hungry before bed. should I just say to bad and stick to I’m not a short order cook and to bad you can eat in the morning? or what do I do? I am a push over so I will mostly just give in unless you thing holding out to that’s dinner and that’s it.
Hi thank you so, so much for this and all of your articles and education. I’ve long known that my 10 year old son refuses to eat properly as a control issue. He only started his picky eating after we moved towns, and I went through a traumatic adjustment (he adjusted just fine- ironically). In any event, we try very hard to completely back off and just let him eat the 1-2 things at the dinner table that he will eat. But honestly, when we do, he fills his body 100% with simple carbs- bread, cereal, fruits, rice, etc. He only eats protein and vegetables when told to (and reluctantly, but he will usually eat about 1/4 of the serving). I want him to want to feed himself nutritionally, but when left to his own devices, he simply never, ever does. He does drink tons of milk, so I know he gets protein. Should I just continue to let him choose to eat this way, knowing it is just simple carbs, and milk for protein (and a multi-vit for minerals)? He just seems too old to still be such a ‘simple’ eater and it worries me. He has stayed very consistent on his growth charts though- to our huge relief. Any advice would be sooo appreciated!!
I totally get your concern, this is a personal call. For me, I don’t want to pressure or force because I believe the long terms gains are so worth it. There are also other ways to encourage veggies without pressuring. Check out this post on how to get your kid to eat vegetables!
Great advice, we are going to have a real crack at implementing this.
My question is what about bed time food if they haven’t eaten their dinner? My 6 yr old will hold out until he’s in bed to ask for food and get a piece of fruit or carrot each night. Should I keep his dinner until then?
The waiting until bed time to ask for food has created its own problem I so as disrupting bed time, but I can send him to bed with an empty stomach.
Oh I love to hear that Kris!! I don’t ever reserve meals, when it’s over, it’s over. If appropriate, it could show up as leftovers a few days later though. You could do a scheduled bedtime snack to avoid this bedtime tactic, or if you’re eating late, just let him go to bed. I know this is a tough call, but I’d trust your gut on how to handle it in your situation. And, always check with your dr. if you aren’t sure.
What age can I start implementing this? I have a 10 month old I just started on finger foods and it’s a fight every night. She is drinking less and less formula but isn’t all into food either. I know you mentioned the no milk or snacks in between meals but how do you handle a schedule for a 10 mo. old?
It’s definitely different for a baby! Check out this post for a sample schedule for her age. I would start with the no pressuring thing for babies as well:)
What can i do if my son stuffs all the pieces in his mouth of the food he likes? I just place small bites on his tray an de let him eat before giving more. How could I in introduce more foods with this problem? I can’t lay a full plate in front of him. He said a picky eater and I’ve been pressuring him and have to stop.
It’s likely going to take a lot of repetition in telling him, “too much”. Also, giving him some stimulation in his mouth a couple of times a day or even in the middle of a meal with a toothbrush (brush the sides and top of tongue) is a feeding trick that can help decrease the urge too, as weird as it sounds!
I just wanted to thank you so much for taking the initiative and time to do this! It is thanks entirely to you & the dedicated people like you, who have filled the internet with helpful information, ideas, links, recipes, etc….to help kids (& no longer kids!) I literally (& ACCURATELY) diagnosed my first grandson from Pinterest (where I also found you) as having Childhood Apraxia of Speech, Sensory Processing Disorder & ADHD for starters. I have used all these sources repeatedly to find tweeks & tid bits to help on this long journey over the past 5 yrs and am absolutely grateful for every thing you do! I can’t wait to take my first webinar here today! Thanks again.
Oh that’s so wonderful! Thank you so much and I hope you enjoyed the webinar!
I have a similar issue to Tracey. My son who is now 21 months old, used to eat everything under the sun. Then around 17-18 months he just decided he didn’t want to eat most things that he used to love. He now eats most fruit, yogurt, cheese, peanut butter sandwiches, bread, pizza, waffles and any kind of cake/sweets. He also of course loves crackers, and also kids snacks (cereal puffs, etc.). The only way I can get him to eat veggies are in those snack pack things. Sometimes he’ll eat the occasional chicken nugget. It is beyond frustrating, because the list of “approved” items is shrinking. He loved macaroni and cheese, and also sweet potatoes, but now won’t even touch them. It doesn’t matter what shape the food is in, he just will refuse. I am running out of ideas of what to feed him. It is so frustrating. What do I do? Do I cave as I do most dinner times, and just give him the squeeze pack and fruit?
I know it can be frustrating Aubrey! Have you signed up for the Free Picky Eating Workshop? In that workshop, you are going to learn my top strategies for turning picky eating around. You’ll learn more about this in the workshop, but it’s important serve them one food at every meal that they are likely to eat.
This is a great article. I’m struggling a bit with my 3 year old daughter. She’s growing just fine and usually eats different foods (loves sushi, for example). But it’s hard to get her to try things that have a lot of ingredients in them, like stews, sauces other than tomato and bolognese, and she won’t eat sandwiches (she’ll just pick them apart). And lately, she asks for different plates for different foods (just like her daddy did when he was little!). The other problem I have is that she is extremely independent and loves to open the fridge and even get up on a chair to grab food out of the cupboards. Some people have told me to lock the fridge, but that seems so wrong. She gets really angry if I tell her to wait until dinner to have a snack, and will not listen, so my alternative is to physically grab something she is eating from her hand, and that also feels wrong. If she opens the fridge, she’ll usually go for fruit or bread, so it’s not like she’s filling up on total junk. But I still feel a bit powerless about this. We do sit at the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner (except if we’re at the park) and as a treat, I will ocassionally have breakfast in bed or on the sofa with her. Any suggestions? Sorry for the very long post!
My 21 month old has just started to become a picky eater. He transitioned from breast milk to pureee food fabulously and ate everything I gave him and did the same when we introduced solids as finger food again eating everything we put in front of him. He’s learnt how to use a spoon and a fork but recently he’s started to reject all vegetables and has started eating with his fingers again. I’m a Type A mum and haven’t really let him get messy which I plan to change from now on after reading your posts, I hope it’s not to late. But I’m getting very frustrated that he won’t eat things he used to eat. I try not to pressure him and eat what he doesn’t want off his plate saying “hmmm it’s yummy”, is that pressuring? It’s difficult for us to eat at the same time as him because of my work time table for lunch and here in Spain we have dinner at 9pm so he’s already had his dinner and is in bed. He won’t try any new things or one day he’ll try it and eat it all and the next time we cook it he won’t eat it. It’s so frustrating and I hate to throw away food. I’ve continued to put the vegetables on his plate but it’s been about a month now and no change. I do try not to pressure and just suggest “why don’t you eat some peas, they’re yummy” and just shakes his head at me. (He’s not speaking much yet with learning 3 languages, but he understands most things).
I’ve just read your 5 reasons why kids refuse to eat and I think there are few indications it might be sensory. He doesn’t like food that isn’t cut into a proper shape. What I mean is that if there’s anything “hanging off” it or it’s not a determined shape i.e. square, he won’t eat it. And if his undesired food does make it into his mouth (peas for example, he used to love but now won’t touch) he’ll spit it out with his tongue, in a urggg face motion ?. Another thing is that he doesn’t chew much. I have to tell him to chew more because if not he’ll swallow big chunks of meat. It doesn’t seem to bother him and doesn’t vomit but he does prefer either big chunks or things like rice that he doesn’t even chew! He’s only got his first molars and his canines are only just coming through so I don’t know if that could affect his eating?
Oops! Tracy, not Teacy!
The teeth doesn’t affect eating, unless he’s teething and in pain, but if this has been a long term problem then likely not the cause:) It does sound sensory based! Did you see the post on sensory strategies?
It’s not major pressure but it is pressure:) Think of it this way, if you’re saying or doing something to get them to eat than its probably pressure. Did you see the free workshop? The link was broken yesterday but its back up again! yourkidstable.com/free I think that will be really helpful for you!
Anyways is not a word. 😉
Thanks for the info!
I don’t like the word either, but prescription isn’t very popular in linguistics these days…