Who’s in charge when we have a picky eater?
There are many times when I am debating an issue with my teen or tween and start to wonder who is actually in charge!!
We have raised these fabulous children full of independent thoughts, intelligence and the ability to analyse and argue a point. Then they take those skills and turn them on us 😊
What if we have a picky eater?
When we have a child that is a picky eater and especially when they are little, in age or weight or stature, this can become an area where we gradually start to give over control. It often happens without us even realising it and is always done with the best of intentions.
Our child finds food uncomfortable and we want to make it easy for them. We’re also worried, often on a daily basis about what they’re eating so want to make sure they get enough food.
We blink and suddenly they seem to be in charge of eating.
This can be really challenging, especially if we want to make changes because *cough*, hello, who is in charge?
Who should be in charge – and where and why?:
1. I am in charge of what I buy. My boys are absolutely allowed input but final decision – yep, me! The choice as to what gets eaten really can start this early in the process.
2. I plan what is on the menu and again I am really happy with suggestions, but control is in my court. Even with a super fussy eater in the house, it is still important that we are deciding what gets dished up. I know from my experience working with families, day in, day out, that parents planning the meals for the week is important.
3. I serve what I feel is a balanced meal, but I also consider everyone’s tastes.
It is important that everyone comes to the table happily so there have to be foods they enjoy.
Within a meal we can usually tick boxes for everyone, even very picky eaters. Maybe that is having some plain pasta, rice or bread, alongside the mains and sides.
4. My family decides what to eat from what I serve. Yep, I am in charge here too, but this is in a far more subtle way. Once I have made sure there is something everyone can manage on the table, I am able to step back and focus on the meal.
5. No requesting things other than what is on the table. Refer to point three, what is served is what is served. As in, if I have served pasta, chicken and stir fry veg, I will not be bringing out a hot dog as well, on demand 😊 Especially not on demand!
6. I decide what time meals are. Obviously, as the boys get older this becomes more open to discussion but maintaining structure around food is a key way we can support our child to eat well, happily and over time in a balanced way.
This is just as important for older children as they do start to seek independence.
What can you do?
Changing how we respond to complaints, or even reducing those complaints to begin with is supportive. Using positive language around food is always a win.
I find that creating family guidelines around meals is really helpful. Following the points above these could look like:
1. I am doing the buying. Studies done in the UK have found that parents who buy less snacky items and more fruit and vegetables for their toddlers, do end up with children that eat more greens.
I appreciate that there are children who have limited diets but even then, what we eat will have a huge long-term impact on what they do. The more we model, the more likely they are to follow.
2. I am deciding on the menu. I know that often it seems easier to just ask what a child wants to eat and to give them that, especially when faced with children who repeatedly refuse what we serve. But long term (or even short term) this leads to more restrictive eating.
A better strategy is to have a consistently rotating menu. Even with a child that really struggles with variety it is important to serve alternating options.
3. I am deciding on what is being served.
Let us go back to point’s one and two though, this does not have to be a favourite food, just one that is manageable. We are not cooking to make sure it is one of the top three favourite foods for every meal. It is providing foods that are within the comfort zone and some of those may not be top of the list.
In a busy family we cannot expect our favourite every night. If we do eat like this, we will also find that over time those choices start to lose their appeal. They may even be dropped as an option.
4. My family decides what to eat from what I serve.
I am of course, still able to exert control here but not in so overt a way, because I am in charge of serving and therefore how much of everything lands on the table. If I do not want my boys to scoff 10 rolls, I won’t serve that many! I learned this very early on and funnily enough it was not the young males in the family who were the worst offenders!
5. Once it is on the table, that is all there is. Having a firm rule around that really helps to prevent swaps at the table, or wanting more of the favourite food at the expense of everything else at the table.
6. I decide what times meals are. Having regular meals is a really easy way to encourage better eating habits. It also brings family members together – even if that is not everyone, it is encouraging communal eating, which over time does support better eating.
Where to from here?
If you do have a child who is more in charge than you would like, pick one thing from the list and start to make the decisions again!
Let me know how you go. Is it easy to do or are you coming up against resistance and complaints?
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Judith is also mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/