It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.

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Entries in Control (38)


Do Parents Produce Picky Eaters?

NO. Parents do not produce picky eaters.

Let the guilt go.

Having said that...

You can’t change how your children eat until you figure out how you benefit from the current eating system.

I know it doesn’t seem like you benefit from the current state of affairs (unless you count hair-pulling as a low-cost way to get a haircut), but you do.  Because, let’s face it, your kids wouldn’t eat the way they do if it didn’t somehow work for you.

That’s not the same thing as saying that the way your kids eat is your fault, because it’s not.  (Let me repeat: it’s not your fault.) But, if the current system didn’t work for you somehow

  1. You would have reacted to your kids’ eating foibles differently
  2. In turn, your kids would have reacted to you differently. 
  3. Instead of being exactly where you are with your kids’ eating, you would be in a totally different spot.  (It wouldn’t necessarily be a better spot, but it would be a different one.)

Makes sense, right? Don’t you know other parents who reacted to their kids’ eating in a different way than you did and then ended up with different results?

If you’re a normal parent, you engage in a delicate balancing act when you feed your kids: on one hand you try to meet your children’s nutritional and emotional needs and on the other hand you try to take care of your own feelings too.

Sometimes, though, taking care of your feelings produces counterproductive results.

For instance, research shows …

  • Parents who describe their children as picky eaters are more likely to pressure their kids into eating, even though pressuring has been shown to make kids more negative about the food they’re pressured to eat (thereby perpetuating the cycle of resistance).
  • Also, parents who are concerned that their children might be underweight are more likely to pressure their kids to eat even though pressuring kids to eat has been shown to reduce their food consumption.
  • Alternatively, parents who are concerned that their kids might be overweight are more likely to restrict their children’s access to certain foods, even though restriction has been linked to an increased intake of those foods once the restriction is lifted (such as when kids are visiting their grandparents).

Parents I talk to recognize that sometimes the tactics they use don’t work.  Still, using these tactics makes them feel better.  And feeling better is important.

In fact, taking care of ourselves might be the best outcome of the strategies we sometimes choose.

Research shows that we parents aren’t very good at assessing our children’s weight accurately, don’t know how much food our children need to consume, are often wrong about what our kids will and will not eat, often use food to transmit more than nutrition (i.e. to express our love), and the list goes on.

For more on these ideas read Cookie Love. and Hiding Our Heads in the Sand.

The solution isn’t to ignore whatever issue makes you nuts; it’s to take care of yourself in a way that affects the system differently.

There is a host of issues that are particularly poignant for parents.  Some parents find themselves obsessing about nutrition, others will do anything to avoid a conflict, go out of their way to make sure their kids are never hungry, or worry their kids won’t feel loved without treats.

Everyone suffers from some mix of these issues — we all want our kids to eat nutritiously for instance — but some of us are gripped by these concerns more than others.  And when you’re gripped, you can’t even begin to think of alternative tactics.  Read What’s Holding You Hostage?

1) If you have a mealtime script that plays out repeatedly — you do A, your child does B — you know you’re using a tactic that doesn’t work.  (If you and your kids weren't stuck in a rut the script would change.)

2) Ask yourself if the way you are interacting with your children around food could be making things worse.

3) Identify what feelings or fears you have. One way to do this is to imagine that someone has told you to change your tactics — for example, if instead of asking your children to eat two more bites you were told to let your children eat as much as they wanted to — and see what you would say after the word but.  (“But then Sally wouldn’t eat enough. “)

4) Address your worries in a way that helps you break out of a bad system.  For instance...

  • If nutrition is big for you, consider giving your child a vitamin pill. It might calm your nutrition-nerves and allow you to experiment with other ways to get to eat the way you want. Dealin’ with the Devil

 ~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~



Gregory, J. E., S. J. Paxton, and A. M. Brozovic. 2010. “Pressure to Eat and Restriction Are Associated With Child Eating Behaviors and Maternal Concern About Child Weight, But Not Child Body Mass Index, in 2-4-Year-Old Children.” Appetite 54: 550-56. 


Choices, Choices, Choices

"I try to get my child to eat something different, but every time I ask her what she wants to eat, she chooses the same thing."

Sound familiar? I hear this a lot: "I try..." 

Especially when parents decide to implement The Rotation Rule.

"I try..." is usually a sign that parents are using choices incorrectly.

Parents typically have to change what their children eat in order to implement proportion and variety, two of the three habits that translate everything you need to know about nutrition into behavior. (Moderation is the third habit.) And, as most people know, it's good to give children choices.

Here's the problem:

Unstructured choices are ineffective.

  • An unstructured choice: What do you want for breakfast?
  • A structured choice: Would you like eggs or cereal for breakfast?

Here's why unstructure choices don't work.

  1. Your kids choose the same thing every single time, usually because that's the only choice they can think of. Then...
  2. You try to convince them to make another choice.
  3. They stick to their guns.
  4. You feel lousy. Then...
  5. You either fight with your child, impose your will, or give up.

This dynamic reinforces an arbitrary eating environment. Arbitrary encourages fighting. Read You Can't Make Me Eat It!

To understand the problem of unstructured choices take this little test:

  1. What's wrong with giving children choices?
  2. Is it better to give children an open-ended choice or a choice between two options?

Isn't it more difficult to answer question #1 than it is to answer question #2?

  • With Question #1 you have to dream up an answer. What popped into your head?
  • Question #2 directs your attention to the set of issues I want you to consider.

The same thing happens when you give children choices about what to eat.

Structured choices set the parameters of acceptable answers.

Any choice your child makes is acceptable. Happy days!

Authoritative Parenting—the style that has been shown to be most effective—is a combination of structure and compassion.

  • Setting the parameters of the choices is the structure.
  • Allowing your child to make the actual choice is the compassion.

Do children sometimes choose a "third" choice?

Absolutely. Especially if they're unfamiliar with structured choices. The "third" choice is an opportunity for parents to reinforce the structure.

  • "Do you want eggs or cereal for breakfast?"
  • "I want pancakes."
  • "You can have pancakes tomorrow. But today you can choose between choices eggs and cereal."

When children insist on the third choice they are testing the strength of the structure. You can't let the structure crumble. Children accept solid structures and fight weak ones.

Testing that turns into a tantrum is a sign that the situation has changed from a food issue to a behavioral issue. Respond the way you would to any behavioral problem.

For more on adopting an authoritative parenting style read:

I discuss all these ideas in It's Not About the Broccoli.


 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~



The Power of the Imperfect Pretzel

Imperfect pretzels are so powerful they can turn normal kids into "crazies." But they can also turn your kids into empowered eaters.

But there's a twist: if you want to empower your kids you can't give in to their demands to be presented only with perfect pretzels. (I know, not giving in goes against the grain. Stick with me for a minute here.)

Some kids go absolutely nuts in the presence of Imperfect Pretzels.

"Ahhhhh. Take them away. Take them away!" 

You know what I'm talking about: Imperfect pretzels are cracked, not whole. As a result, they're totally offensive.

  • Maybe your "imperfect pretzel" is a waffle that hasn't been cut correctly.
  • Or it's a sandwich served with the crusts on. The horror!

It seems so easy to satisfy your child's eating idiosyncracies, and perhaps it feels a tad coercive not to. But serving only perfect pretzels teaches the wrong lessons.

Serving imperfect pretzels teaches kids that they're in charge of their own eating.

It's an effective way of saying, "You can choose whether or not to eat the pretzels."

Empowering kids by serving imperfect pretzels is counterintuitive.

It feels like giving in to your child's demands will empower her, but it doesn't. It simply reinforces a control struggle. It sends the message that you need her to eat. Therefore, you will provide food in whatever way she wishes.

In the process, it also limits your child by reinforcing the idea that he can (and should) only eat foods when they're presented in a certain way.

Think about how liberating choices are to children.

  • You can choose to eat only the whole pretzels if that's what you want to do.
  • You can tear the crusts off the sandwich, eat around them, or eat them. The choice is yours.
  • You can pick the mushrooms out of the stew, if you would like.

You can do this. You are able to do this. You are competent to do this.

Imperfect pretzels teach another very valuable lesson: foods that look different often taste the same.

Serving imperfect pretzels reduces the control struggle by setting a reasonable and appropriate boundary.

And it enables parents to be warm and compassionate at the same time.

Boundaries+compassion=authoritative parenting. Authoritative parenting has been shown over and over to produce kids with healthy eating habits.

Does this mean you should never serve perfect pretzels? 

Absolutely not. Sometimes serving perfect pretzels— because you know your child likes them— is a great way to show respect. It's the difference between wanting to and having to.

For more on this topic read Cutting Toast Triangles & Cucumber Squares?


I discuss all these ideas in It's Not About the Broccoli.

 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~