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Picky eaters

Ask Sarah: How do I Banish Food Battles?

Parenting expert Sarah Rosensweet shares a proven strategy for making meals as a family feel stress-free.

Ask Sarah: How do I Banish Food Battles?

Struggling with tantrums, bedtime boundaries, or simply wondering how to raise happy, confident kids? Sarah Rosensweet offers peaceful parenting advice to help families find balance.

Have a question for Sarah? Send us an email at editors@todaysparent.com.

Q: How do I create and hold a boundary with my child and acknowledge their feelings, but also know where to draw the line as the parent? Food battles are a big one, I want them to listen to and trust their body but they are refusing meals and then they ask for a snack later instead.

- Mom of two, ages 4 and almost 2

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mom feeding baby food sitting at a table

A: This is a tough one! We want our littles to learn to listen to their hunger and satiety cues AND we don’t want to be short-order cooks.

Note: This advice is for children who are growing well and do not have sensory, motor, or other challenges that complicate their ability to eat. 

I recommend that you follow the Division of Responsibility in Feeding approach, developed by dietician Ellyn Satter. Parents decide what, when and where children eat. Children decide if they eat and how much. 

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Satter recommends that meals are served family-style (each person serves themselves from bowls or platters on the table) and that with each meal there is a ‘safe’ food that you know your child doesn’t find completely offensive (and will usually eat.)

She also recommends providing regular snacks instead of waiting for kids to say that they are hungry. If you serve dessert, it should be served at the same time as dinner and ‘sometimes’ foods, such as ice cream or chips, should be offered occasionally as snacks. 

What the research shows is that when parents put pressure on kids to eat or to try new foods, they end up being worse eaters in the future. Power struggles are no fun, they don't make kids more adventurous eaters and they will only take you further from your goal of raising kids who listen to their bodies.

Take a deep breath and commit to the Division of Responsibility. Remind yourself that it won’t be a power struggle if you let go of your agenda of trying to get them to eat. 

What the Division of Responsibility might look like in action

  • You serve the family meal, with at least one thing that you know your children will eat, such as fruit or rice, etc., and invite them to help themselves to the other things if they wish. 
  • You do NOT ask them to try the food or take “just one bite.” 

You and your partner, if you have one, can focus on enjoying your food and creating a warm atmosphere at the table with no pressure to eat. Keep in mind that at ages 2 and 4, a reasonable expectation to stay at the table may only be about 10 minutes. 

child sitting at a table with a bowl of vegetables holding up broccoli

If your children don’t eat? 

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A scheduled snack should only be an hour to a few hours away if you are following the Division of Responsibility. If they say, “But I’m hungry!”, you can respond with so much empathy, “I hear you! It’s not time to eat right now. Don’t worry. We’ll be having a snack in one hour.” (Or whenever it is.)

For snacks, especially at bedtime, I suggest either leftover dinner or something that is nutritious, low in sugar and not too exciting so that kids don’t “hold out” for a more exciting option than dinner. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be hungry for a little while. Many nutritionists that I follow actually say that it’s a problem that children today don’t get a chance to be hungry. 

Resist the urge to say, “If you had eaten dinner you wouldn’t be hungry right now.” Your children are smart and they will be able to figure this out. Any “I told you so,” even if it’s well-meaning will keep the power struggles going. If you have strong-willed children and they get the idea that if they eat, you win, they won’t eat dinner even if they are hungry and they like the food. 

It may take a few days—and a few meltdowns—before your child believes that you won’t be doing the short-order-cook-24-hour-snack thing anymore. If you hold this limit with compassion and follow the Division of Responsibility, you can say goodbye to power struggles and let your children follow the cues from their own bodies.

Need support with other parenting challenges? Our Ask Sarah series covers topics like how to help with anxiety and build confidence, how to reduce bedtime struggles and how to prepare for playdates.

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Author:

Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and her 15- and 18-year-old kids. Her 22-year-old son has launched.

Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to “we’ve got this!”

Sarah offers a free course, How To Stop Yelling At Your Kids, so that you can be the parent you want to be.

Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com  or listen to her top-rated parenting podcast, The Peaceful Parenting Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts!

This article was originally published on Feb 15, 2023

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