I wish my child would eat more (fill in the blank). You are not alone. This sentiment is echoed by many parents. More than 50% of parents report having a selective eater. This is most often defined by a narrow range of foods. What is a parent to do?
Forcing, bargaining and encouragement are recipes for mealtime battles. This leads to anxiety for parents and stress. Sound familiar? You may be thinking, but I’ve tried every approach to get my child to try new foods. If I serve the foods I want my child to eat, he ignores or refuses them.
Traditional feeding dogma centers around the division of responsibility. As parents, we have a set of responsibilities including what foods are offered, when meals/snacks are served, and where the eating takes place. Our child has the responsibility to choose if he will eat, and how much. Further reading on this topic can be found at the Ellen Satter Institute.
The division of responsibility is central to helping your child develop independence with choosing foods that are enjoyed, and eating satisfying amounts. These are the hallmarks of a competent eater. While we want our child to choose a healthy diet, we must remember our responsibility in the feeding relationship.
Feeding principles are easier to read about than put into practice. Translating the concepts into actionable steps can be challenging. This is particularly true if your child has developed significant food selectivity or has challenges with sensory aspects of food.
Here are three ways to use this concept with your picky eater:
Offer Foods Most Likely to Be Accepted
Changing the conversation from foods you want your child to eat, to focusing on the foods that your child is most likely to accept is an approach you may not have attempted. While you may want your child to eat mashed potatoes, if he currently only accepts French fries, the most successful approach may be a gradual transition to this new food.
Using the food chaining technique, you might first offer different brands of French fries then move to tater tots, then hash browns, followed by homemade potato wedges and then finally mashed potatoes. At each step in the process, you would offer the “new” food several times and evaluate your child’s response. This information is used to determine how to proceed in the chain.
The goal is for the food to be accepted, not forcing your child to take a bite. This might mean that the first time you offer the food, it doesn’t even get placed on his plate. Over a few offerings, your child can explore the food via touching, smelling and licking.
This approach builds trust and develops your child’s confidence with trying new foods. If you insert pressure or expectation to try the food, the process is hindered. For support with developing and implementing a food chain, seek out professionals trained in feeding therapy.
Make Food Playful and Fun
If you are like most families with a picky eater, meal times have been a source of stress and often a battleground. This environment doesn’t support a playful and exploratory approach to foods. While you work on creating pressure-free and joyful meals, use opportunities outside of meals to explore new foods.
Remember that the goal of playing with foods doesn’t equate to eating the food. Your child may choose to smell or lick the food but avoid praising the behavior. The goal of play is to keep the experience no-pressure.
As with food chaining described above, choose foods that are likely to be accepted by your child. The goal is to create a supportive environment not create stress over a food that makes your child uncomfortable at the sight/smell. For support, seek a professional that offers play-based feeding therapy.
Communicate Expectations and Commit to Consistency
Making a change to how you approach mealtimes may be met with resistance and even skepticism. Implementing the division of responsibility isn’t going to transform your mealtimes overnight. Just like any change, it will take persistence and patience to reap rewards.
First, have a chat with your child. You can start by acknowledging your mistakes with pressuring him to eat and the feelings that might cause for your child. You can commit to not forcing your child to try new foods and that you will be offering both accepted and new foods at mealtime. Be sure to share any changes to the schedule of meals and how between meal snacks or location of meals will change.
Avoid surprising your child. Depending on the age of your child, embrace the opportunity to ask questions about this new approach. Once you set the stage with clear expectations, be consistent and persistent! Even when a meal feels like things may not be going well, maintain your responsibilities and let your child explore his new responsibilities of choosing if and how much to eat.
Pressuring your child to try new foods creates battles at mealtimes. When viewed through the lens of Ellen Satter’s division of responsibility, you can see how pressure fails to support your child developing independence and lifelong skills for successful eating. A competent eater (our goal) can choose foods they enjoy in amounts they find satisfying.
Traditional feeding dogma can fall short when dealing with extreme picky eating. Translating a theory into practical applications helps provide actionable steps.