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 Picky Eater (10)


The Problem of Playing Power Ball

Control around food is almost always expressed as if it's a ball being thrown around.

First the parents have the power ball: "You will eat the meatloaf I made or no dessert and no tv."

Then, the kids have the power ball: "No, I want chicken nuggets. I'd rather starve than eat anything else."

Some parents think they're not playing ball at all. But, if you always make your children's favorite foods before they demand them your kids own the ball. And they're not sharing.

Power was the underlying theme of my last post, Kid-Approved Meals. Here we're going to address it directly because power struggles underlie a lot of your food struggles.

If you've read any parenting literature you're probably familiar with the four parenting styles. 

  • Authoritarian: Children are expected to follow the strict rules established by the parents, and the children aren't given much if any input.
  • Authoritative: Parents establish a strong, but compassionate structure. Children are engaged.
  • Permissive: Often associated with indulgent. Very warm and compassionate with little or no structure.
  • Uninvolved or Neglectful:

Parents often get stuck going back and forth being authoritarian and being permissive because they (mistakenly) believe that these are the only choices they have.

You start with the style you're most comfortable with. When it doesn't work, though, most parents flip to the other style. When that approach doesn't work any better—their kids still arent' trying new foods, and still aren't eating more vegetables—parents ultimately end up reverting to their original position. Back and forth they go.

Sound familiar?

(Note to public health professionals: It's not like parents aren't trying!)

The solution is to find the middle ground: authoritative parenting.

Authoritative parents are successful because they create an eating structure that is firm but flexible. And that's the winning ticket.

1) Set some guidelines to form a structure: I recommend you consider using the Rotation Rule and establish regular times for eating and for no-eating. I call these Eating Zones.

2) Offer your children choices within that structure. This produces shared control.

3) Engage in Sensory Education.

4) Stop looking for the "perfect" food. It doesn't exist. What kids will eat has more to do with their brains than their taste buds. Read You Can't Feed Your Way Out of a Picky Eating Problem.

5) Recognize that taste preferences are formed more than they're found. This is how Indian kids end up liking Indian food and Mexican kids end up liking Mexican food. Read Food Culture and What it Means to be "Child-Friendly."

6) Remember, young kids don't have stable taste preferences, so what they like actually can change from day-to-day. Expect some bumps in the road.

For more on this, read The Goldlocks Approach.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Kid-Approved Meals

What an idea: Kid-Approved Meals.

Ever been encouraged to provide kid-approved bed times? Or Kid-approved tooth-brushing methods? I doubt it. Then why do we think meals should be kid-approved?

Striving to provide "kid-approved" meals reverses the parent/child relationship.

Instead of children responding to parents, parents are responding to children. (In other words, the inmates are running the asylum.)

I understand how this role reversal happens. It feels like we have no other choice. 

  1. Parents need kids to eat. (It is, after all, our job to keep them alive.)
  2. Children have strong opinions about what they will and will not eat.
  3. And, there's no good way to make kids eat anything they don't want to eat.

Giving away your parental power won't solve a thing. In fact, it will entrench the problem even further. 

  • The more you feed to your children's taste preferences the less open they'll be to other tastes and textures.
  • The more your children see food/eating as an arena to gain control, they more they'll flex those muscles. 

No matter what it seems like, your kids want guidance. They crave structure. They don't want to be in charge!

I know that it's almost impossible to expect children to eat food they don't like. It helps to remember that children don't really know what they like.

Kids don't have what researchers call stable taste preferences. That's because their taste preferences are just developing. Read You Can't Feed Your Way Out of a Picky Eating Problem.

Children use the language of "like" because those are the words we've given them. "Just taste it and if you don't like it you don't have to eat it." Sound familiar? But if we taught kids a different set of words they would use those words: "That looks gross." "I was hoping to eat something different tonight." Read What 'I don't like it' Really Means.

I say: Reclaim Your Power!

This doesn't mean you have to become a hard you-know-what. It does mean you have to set direction and tone. 

  • Decide what food you will provide. Take your child's preferences into consideration but don't let them dictate every decision.
  • Make sure you provide something at each meal and snack that your child will eat. Don't make that item a preferred food every time. Just make it an acceptable food.
  • Contain snacking to a single session (no grazing) that gives your child ample time to get hungry before meals or to stay hungry after meals if he has chosen not to eat or chosen not to eat enough. (Expect your child to get this wrong in the beginning. Think of these times as learning moments.)

Teach some important lessons!

These include:

  • You can't eat your favorite foods every night.
  • You can survive a meal you think of as a clunker.
  • You have to share menu planning with others in the family.
  • Your parents love you but they won't necessarily "fold" when you are upset.  

Parents: I threw that last lesson in for you!

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~ 


Kid Eats Q&A: Is Picky Eating Contagious for Siblings?

How do you make sure that your picky eater's eating pattern doesn't rub off on siblings?

Got more than one kid? Changes are you've got a "good" eater and a "not-so-good" eater.  

And you know how sibilings are: Sometimes they want to differentiate themselves; sometimes they want to be the same.  Either way, siblings are always influencing each other.  (And when it comes to making YOUR life more difficult, siblings are always a team.)

That's why I was thrilled to get this question from Lily.  Lily has 2 children, ages 4 and 18-months.  Lily says the 4 year old is pretty picky.  The 18-month old?  Not picky...yet.  But she's picking up the vibe.  "Yuk."  "Eww" "Gross."

Lily writes:

How do we allow one child the freedom to express how she feels about certain foods without setting up the younger child to have the same negative thoughts about those foods? The younger child is starting to become very particular herself. I'm not sure if she is picking up those signals from the older child or if she happens to feel the same way.

The answer is, forget about the food and forget about free expression!  Here are 3 lessons I recommend you teach your kids instead.

1) Be Polite

Parents are inclined to give their picky eaters a pass on what they say about food, but I say, Don't Do It.

Opinions?  Fine.  Outbursts?  Not fine.  A simple, "No thanks," will do.

Being polite at the table isn't just considerate to the chef, it's courteous to other diners.

"I'm sure you didn't mean to hurt my feelings but I worked hard on cooking this. If you don't want to eat it you don't have to, but let's be polite.  And remember, other people at the table are enjoying their food. Let's not make them feel bad about eating it."

Learning this lesson won't just help innoculate younger kids against the contagion effect, it'll help ensure your kids get invited to eat with others when they're older. Manners matter.

2) Difference Rocks

This isn't a food focused lesson; it's a life lesson. We look different. We have different ideas. We wear different clothes, enjoy different sports, and yes, eat different foods.

Point out food preferences that no one can feel bad about: "I like chocolate ice cream. You like vanilla." 

Empowering difference empowers kids.

3) This is Just a Stage.

 "You just have not tasted it enough times yet" is a great way to frame food preferences for young children.

"I didn't like rice when I was young. Now I love it. That's why it's important to keep tasting."

Encourage pea-sized samplings of everything, and instead of asking for a thumbs up or a thumbs down review, ask your children to compare different foods: 

  • "Is this chicken as spicy as the chicken we had last week?" 
  • "Do you think this apple is as crunchy as the pear?"
  • "Does this smell like your dad's old sneakers or the flowers in the garden?" 

It doesn't even matter what the questions are. The goal is to engage your children's curiosity (and train them for scientific inquiry).  If tasting is too much, engage the other senses first.

Read Nix the NegativityUnleash Your Toddler's Inner Food Critic! and Teach Your Way Out of a Picky Eating Problem with Sensory Education.

Finally, don't take your kids' likes and dislikes too seriously.

Don't be held hostage by your kids' taste buds (or their assessment of their own taste buds).  

As long as you provide something at every meal that you can reasonably expect your kids to eat (i.e. they happily ate it two days ago) feel free to cook what you want to cook. It's not selfish. It's the only way you can give your children the time they need to roll the idea of eating something new around in their minds.  Read Let Your Kids Sit with Their Own Struggles.

Remember, kids don't have stable taste preferences.  They don't always know what they like. What they do know is what they're willing to eat. And you can shape that...not by focusing on food, but by focusing on habits.

Read What "I don't like it" Really Means and The Easy Way to Solve Your Toddler's Decision to Suddenly Refuse Certain Foods.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~