Creating Mealtime Peace with Little Picky Eaters

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

Listen to this episode here.

As busy moms of young children, feelings of frustration, guilt, pressure or overwhelm can frequently be found as unwelcome guests at our kitchen and dining room tables. Today, I am joined by Registered Dietitian Ahuva Magder Hershkop, and she is teaching us about intentionally creating an environment in our homes that inspires intuitive eating within our kids, and melts mealtime stress. Ahuva shares simple strategies and insights about our roles and goals when it comes to feeding our children. So, ready to kiss those aforementioned, unwelcome dinner guests goodbye? Come on, mama, it's time to go from mealtime stress to success!

In today's episode, we discuss:

  • Shifting our expectations and re-calibrating our mindset around mealtime as parents

  • Raising healthy, intuitive eaters by introducing the 'division of responsibility' framework into your household

  • Relieving the pressure to persuade your kids to eat, and how to create an environment that honors hunger cues

  • Healthy mealtime conversation: what it is, and what it isn't

  • Strategies for helping and encouraging your little picky eater

  • When it comes to feeding our children, why bigger is not better

  • Ahuva's parting words of wisdom

Shifting Our Expectations and Re-Calibrating Our Mindset Around Mealtime as Parents

For many families with young children, the nighttime routine consists of dinner then bath then bed. When dinnertime goes completely sideways night after night, this is often the final, lasting impression that we as parents are left with of our day, and depending on our mindset and perspective, it can leave us feeling like a failure as a mother.

First and foremost, we as moms are all doing the best that we can, and our mindsets need to reflect this truth. We need to be able to end our day saying, "I did the best I could, and I am the best mom for my kids." From here, we need to increase our awareness around how we believe mealtime defines us as parents: how do we measure our value or score our performance as parents based on what and/or how much our children eat?

The strategies we explore below can require a significant mindset shift for parents. These concepts often go against the way many of us were raised to interact with and engage with food, and to view mealtime.

Raising Healthy, Intuitive Eaters by Introducing the 'Division of Responsibility' Framework into Your Household

This framework is like a contract of responsibilities between us and our kids at mealtime, outlining what everyone is responsible for so that we all are clear on our jobs. A lot of the mealtime stress that happens is a result of a breakdown of these responsibilities and roles...

Parents' Mealtime Responsibility:

As parents, our job is to ensure that we serve relatively nutritious, reasonably balanced foods to our children at regular intervals. We need to decide what, when, and how:

  1. What are we going to serve for meals,

  2. When will meals be served, and

  3. How are meals going to happen in our family (i.e., will they be served family style, will everyone serve themselves, will they be plated, etc.)

At the beginning of the meal as you are serving the food, before anyone has taken a bite, ask yourself, "did I do my job?" Pat yourself on the back acknowledging that, yes, you have completed your responsibilities. You do not need to, nor should you, wait until the end of the meal to see how much your child eats in order to then judge your performance. So much of the stress we experience as parents during meals is around how much our kids eat, and feeling like if they did not eat 'enough,' then we didn't do our job. The fact of the matter remains, deciding the amount of food our children do or do not eat is not our job.

Children's Mealtime Decision:

Your children get to decide:

  1. Whether they want to eat the food you have presented, and

  2. If the answer to the above question is 'yes,' how much they want to eat

An Example of Confused Responsibilities:

If you say, "We are having X for dinner," and your child protests and is given Y to appease him, he has ultimately made the decision about what is being served for dinner. Regardless of how nutritious Y is, this negotiation is out of alignment with the optimal division of responsibility; in other words, your child has taken over a responsibility that ideally is meant to be yours, and this creates confusion and tension. The question is not whether the alternative food they have requested or selected is healthy; the question is, who has ultimately made the decision about what is being served. As the parent, it needs to be you.

Relieving the Pressure to Persuade Your Kids to Eat, and How to Create an Environment that Honors Hunger Cues

The promise of reward or punishment during mealtime does not change your child's hunger; rather, it causes them to override their hunger cues.

Kids are allowed not to eat (of course, if they are going for days on end without eating, this is the time to book an appointment with a dietitian or bring it up with your child's physician). But remember, for toddlers especially, there is a lot of variability around portions day to day and meal to meal - and this is both normal and okay.

Children, when placed in an environment to do so, are naturally intuitive when it comes to eating. So it is actually really hard to underfeed or overfeed a child if we are presenting food in a healthful environment. Often times, parents are saying well, you MUST be hungry now because it is dinner time, without taking into account what else happened that day (i.e., did they have a larger than normal afternoon snack, did they have a really big lunch, etc.). Being your child's mother does not endow you with the innate ability to know how hungry she is: the only thing that affords that ability is by observing and ultimately accepting the amount of food she lets you know she needs in the moment.

Healthy Mealtime Conversation: What It Is, and What It Isn't

Ideally, at mealtime, there should actually be very little talk about eating - especially if it is a topic that has been emotionally charged in your family. If you are already a family who is experiencing some mealtime stress at the table, it very easy for things we say as parents - while we mean them in the most supportive way possible - to be received by our children as pressure. At mealtime, there should be very little, if any, talk about food. Ideally, we should primarily stick to conversation about the day.

Healthy ways to talk about the food we are eating (especially when a new food is being introduced):

  • When you are serving, you can put two different sizes of spoons in the bowl and ask if they want a little spoonful or a big spoonful

  • Talk about the colors or shapes of food

  • Discuss the sounds that different types of food make as it's being chewed

The best question you can ask your child before, during and after mealtime:

Introduce the habit of recognizing and giving voice to how your child's tummy feels (be it happy or sad, full or needing more). When your child stops eating, ask them, "Is your tummy telling you that it is done? Or does your tummy feel like it needs more?" Then, when they finish and say they are done, you can say, "That was a great job listening to your tummy!" or, "Thanks for listening to your tummy, good job!" (This is a good practice for school lunches, too, when the inclination is to look and assess what your kids ate and left, and then to question those choices). As you are asking these questions, remember that the meaning of 'happy' or 'full' will change day to day.

Our mealtime goal:

Our goal is simply to get to the place where our kids can have the opportunity to listen to their tummies and decide for themselves when they are hungry and when they are ready to stop.

Strategies for Helping and Encouraging Your Little Picky Eater

Strategy #1: Think about your child's intake over the course of a week or month, rather than a single day.

Strategy #2: Really embrace and own the fact that you can only control what you serve.

Strategy #3: For picky eaters especially, exposure is massive - so pat yourself on the back if your child saw something new, because that is often a really important step to kids being willing to eat new foods. Our children simply seeing new foods is something for which we should really be congratulating ourselves!

Strategy #4: The colors of fruit often reflect a similar nutrition and antioxidant profile in a similarly colored vegetable. If vegetables are a struggle, serve green grapes, avocado, green apples, or kiwi.

Strategy #5: Make sure they see on their plate whatever the family is having for dinner every night. It often works well for dinner to be the meal where our kids are exposed to something new, and for breakfast and lunch to consist of familiar foods. In other words, breakfast and lunch can prioritize volume, and dinnertime can prioritize variety (because we already know they have been given the opportunity to eat as much as they want of the things that they enjoy throughout the day).

Bigger Is Not Better: A Principle for Introducing New Foods

  1. Bigger is never better when it comes to introducing new foods to our kids. Putting a ton on their plate is not going to motivate them to eat more; in fact, children can easily become overwhelmed and shut down with large portions. The tinier the portion, the more likely our kids will eat it, and the less we have invested in them eating it because we have not given exorbitant amounts of time, money and energy to prepare and serve it.

  2. If you are planning an elaborate dish, ask yourself why you are going above and beyond with this meal. Is it for your enjoyment? Or is it purely for your child? For parents who don't love cooking, it can be incredibly hurtful and taken really personally if you work specifically for your picky eater and then they choose not to eat it. If you say to yourself "this recipe is going to take four hours, and hopefully my picky eater will eat it," do a quick check in and ask yourself, "What if they don't? Would I still want to eat this for dinner, or would I prefer to eat something else, or would I rather make something that is only going to take 15 minutes?" If we have a lot of time, money and/or energy invested into the preparation of the meal for a reason other than our enjoyment, suddenly we have a lot riding on our children choosing to eat it. And, again, this is a decision that is not within our jurisdiction as parents. In this scenario, pressure will be high immediately at the start of the meal as you anxiously await your children's response to your lovingly created masterpiece. We want to minimize this pressure.

Parting Words of Wisdom from Ahuva

We are fortunate to live in a day and age in which we have lots of convenient options available, lots of easy meals we can make, and lots of technology we can use. Ahuva encourages us to remember that social media makes it really easy to feel like we are not doing enough as moms, but remember that dinnertime is no different than any other time when we are parenting: we can only do our best. Whether or not your picky eater ate at a meal, whether dinner looked gourmet or it was peanut butter on toast (which, by the way, is a pretty balanced meal), does not reflect your worth or value as a parent. Also, if you are looking to make any changes to mealtime, start as small as possible: consistency is infinitely more important than the magnitude of our first step.

Go to another episode about nutrition.

Go to another episode about parenting.

About Ahuva

Ahuva Magder Hershkop is a mother of almost three year old twins, a Registered Dietitian and online course creator. She runs a pediatric based nutrition practice in Toronto focused on working with families to reduce mealtime stress, support positive family mealtimes and support mothers in reducing the mental load of feeding their families. Ahuva believes in the immense power of a successful family meal.

Here's where you can connect with Ahuva:

Listen to this episode here.

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