Gentle Parenting Tips: 56+ Magic Phrases to End Food Battles with Picky Eaters, and the Science Behind Trusting Kids to Eat What they Need

There is a special kind of heartbreak a parent feels when the meal they have cooked is described as ‘yucky,’ or refused altogether.

If you are struggling with the stress, sadness and discouragement of battling with picky eaters (of whatever age!), this post is here to reassure you and help you and your family relax and enjoy eating together.

Or not eating together, as the case may be.

 

56+ magic phrases to end food battles with picky eaters - and the science behind the magic words! | Sacraparental.com

 

Why picky eating winds us up

Feeding children is a whole lot of work

Is there anything more discouraging about day-to-day family life than spending hours feeding your family and seeing the food go to waste?

Here’s the effort most parents (or half of most parents?) and full-time caregivers put into feeding their families:

  • Reading and researching recipes, on and offline
  • Thinking about the week’s meal plan, whether loose or structured
  • Shopping for food, often at more than one location each week
  • Putting shopping away (why is this my most hated part of the process?)
  • Managing the pantry, fridge and freezer contents: what needs to be used first, what to use up to make space for something else
  • Deciding what to serve for three to six meals a day, taking into account preferences and dietary needs, and considering what else family members have been eating through the day
  • The actual food preparation, everything from making several rounds of toast or cereal at breakfast time, to cooking a full hot meal most days of the week
  • Serving the meal, supervising small people eating or not eating it
  • Putting away left-overs and planning how to use them later
  • Cleaning and washing up after cooking and eating (times a million).

That’s a lot of time, effort and emotional energy that family cooks spend on nourishing people they love. And seeing it go in the rubbish, half-eaten? Many a parent has cried over that, or at least complained on Facebook.

Of course, plenty of us parents have our own deeply-felt difficulties with food and eating. Wanting the best for our kids can tip over into desperation that they not repeat our ‘mistakes’ or have the same troubles we struggle with. Feeding our children can trigger our own stuff.

This is even worse if you spend much of your mealtime policing the eating of small people who don’t want to eat what’s in front of them, for whatever reason.

Hands up who dreads dinner time?

If that’s you, I really think this could change your life. Read on, friends!

Feeding children is important work!

As well as being a task that takes enormous time and energy, feeding our children is, of course, just about the most important responsibility we have.

There are deep-seated, primal drives to make sure kids are eating enough to thrive. There’s no worry like the worry of a parent about their child’s health.

This is not a specialist article about helping children with serious difficulties develop a healthy relationship with food. I hope if your kids are in that kind of situation that your doctor is able to refer you for specialist help, and I don’t want to pretend that this post will necessarily apply to your situation. Please do feel free to ignore any or all of it!

I also hope that anyone who has clicked through to this post, whatever your situation, might find the odd thing in here that does resonate with you, so you might be able to relax a tiny bit. All the very best to you.

Happy eating with kids: let them choose whether or not to eat

We decided very early on in our family life that we never wanted to make food a battle. Long before we started on solids, we had a clear plan: we would offer good food to our children, and never make them eat it.

As it turned out, it’s one of the few principles that has lasted the distance as we’ve grown and changed and discovered new ways of parenting along the way.

I have found great freedom in the mantra that it is my job to provide an appropriate range of food for my kids, and their job to decide what and how much they will choose to eat.

I’m not suggesting that our family is a scientific study on this approach (n = 2), but I will still say that we have a five-year-old who is thriving, eats a good range of fruit and vegetables, and plenty of spicy food, can order his own food from the adult menu at a restaurant and is willing to try anything (including fried insects!); and a two-year-old who just asked me to get spinach out of the fridge for her.

Our five-year-old knows he doesn’t have to eat anything in particular – though he doesn’t know that this is unusual, or what the alternative feels like.

He will try anything because there’s no reason not to, and no one is making a big deal out of his choices. If it’s too spicy or he doesn’t like it, he knows that you just have some plain rice or bread or a drink of water, so there’s no huge risk.

I know plenty of parents who have exactly the same approach who, as it turns out, have much fussier eaters, so I’m not saying there’s magic in this approach, or that parents can be blamed for their children’s food preferences.

It’s also true that things can get more complicated when we’re not talking about ordinary childhood fussiness but something a bit more exceptional. If you are parenting a child with real difficulties eating enough, please don’t take any of this post as an indictment on what you’re doing. Have a skim through and see if there might be things that apply to your situation, and move on if not.

But I can say, along with many families who work like this: we have never once fought about our children’s food intake. The dinner table is never a battleground. Eating as a family is sometimes a bit annoying, sometimes a pleasure, and seldom a source of real stress.

If this is what you want, try using some of these phrases at the dinner table whenever someone starts getting negative about what’s on offer.

Use them in a calm, light tone of voice if at all possible, even if you’re feeling anything but calm inside!

  • It’s up to you.
  • You’re the boss of your body.
  • It’s your choice.
  • You get to decide which of these you want to eat.
  • No problem!
  • No big deal.
  • You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.
  • Your body, your choice.

 

I'm the boss of my body | Sacraparental | 56+ magic phrases to end food battles with picky eaters

 

Kids are the best people to control their eating: the reassuring nutritional science

Long before I had kids, I read about a study of 2-year-olds’ eating habits in an edition of the Healthy Food Guide magazine. It found that if toddlers were allowed to choose all their own food, from an appropriate range, then over the course of a two-week cycle, they would meet their nutritional needs. They might eat only bread rolls one day, and only milk and carrots another day, but over the course of a fortnight, they got everything they needed.

Doesn’t that just make you sigh with relief? If they don’t eat any broccoli tonight, or in fact anything but plain spaghetti, this one dinner time doesn’t mean anything bad will happen.

I’m afraid even with the power of Google I haven’t been able to track down that study, but there are several others that show that toddlers regulate their calorie intake over the course of a day or week.

More than that: generally speaking, when parents try to control their kids’ food intake, they are more likely to become poorer eaters in the long run, with worse health outcomes.

Of course we mean well! All of these things:

You have to at least try everything.

Clear your plate.

Three more bites, just for me.

No pudding unless you finish your dinner.

They come from a good place! We all only want the best for our kids.

And we have good biological reasons for feeling desperate to get food into our children, as this fantastic scientific review of everything we know about feeding kids says:

For nearly all of human history, the major threats to child health have been food scarcity and infectious disease. Feeding practices developed to address these threats have been passed from one generation to the next, and have become traditional practices routinely used by parents without question. However, in today’s environment, we must ask, “Are these child feeding practices, evolved to address the threats posed by food scarcity and infectious disease, effective in dealing with the current threats to child health posed by too much food, obesity, and its comorbidities?” The simple answer to this question is “no.”

Traditional feeding practices used with infants and young children include feeding children frequently and quickly in response to distress, offering foods designed especially for infants and young children, offering preferred foods if possible, and encouraging children to eat as much as possible when food is available, often involving the use of coercion and force feeding.

[Read more of the article: Parental Influence on Eating Behavior.]

So if you’ve ever tried to cajole a child into eating more, you’re following millenia of humans before you, all trying to get enough calories into their kids to survive the next famine or winter.

But those of us who now live in an age and place of plenty need to rethink those age-old strategies. It turns out that they don’t do what we want them to.

So we are well and truly off the hook! Our kids will do best in this new world if we just leave them to it. As this article sums the research findings up:

Parents should be encouraged to provide healthy mealtimes for children: they should decide when and what to eat, while children decide how much and whether to eat. This division of responsibility provides parents with the level of control needed to provide the right foods to children and develop a meal, while ensuring that children have opportunities to develop their ability to self-regulate food intake.

[Read more at Gerber (my emphasis).]

Is this freaky-deaky or what?

If this is new to you, why not just relax and give it a go?

We’re all always learning, so it’s no biggie if you want to change your approach – you can even explain it to your kids:

You know, sweetie, I’ve been reading about how our bodies work, and I have a new idea. I’m going to be responsible for what to buy, grow and cook, and you are going to be responsible for whether you eat it and how much. Okay? Let’s give it a try for the next week.

Or a month :)

Maya Angelou quote: Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. | Sacraparental.com | 56+ magic phrases for ending food battles and helping your kids thrive.

One model of this kind of thing is called the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which you can read more about here.

Try just putting the good food in front of your kids. Do your best to make it appetising (there are some great tips here for presenting food so it’s appealing to littlies), model healthy eating and pleasant company – and then leave the rest up to them.

A reminder of how you can pepper your mealtime conversation with reassurance (for all parties) of this division of responsibilities:

  • It’s up to you.
  • You’re the boss of your body.
  • It’s your choice.
  • You get to decide which of these you want to eat.
  • No problem!
  • No big deal.
  • You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.

Help kids to tune into their bodies’ hunger and fullness signals

If controlling kids’ eating suppresses their ability to self-regulate, what helps them learn it?

Just as we help toddlers to ‘listen to their bodies’ when it comes to knowing when they need to use the toilet, we can help them tune into when they are full and when they are hungry or thirsty, and to respond appropriately to those cues.

If children are given a plate filled by someone else and have to finish it, they are not given the opportunity to listen to their own body’s signals of fullness. Adults who have never learnt to do this can have a lot of trouble eating appropriate portions.

To help kids learn for themselves what their bodies need, the first thing they need is freedom to choose when to eat and drink.

Letting kids serve themselves, either from a platter of nibbles or from shared serving dishes, can be messy, but also gives them full control over how much goes on their plate.

Ask them useful questions to help them tune into their tummies:

  • Let’s ask your body. Are you feeling hungry, body?
  • How is your tummy feeling? Does it need some food in it?
  • Do you need some fuelling up? Do you need some more energy? Shall we eat something?
  • I’m feeling nicely full after that big sandwich. How are you feeling?
  • I think I’m going to stop eating now. I feel nicely full. What about you?
  • You look like you’re finishing up. Is that because your tummy is nicely full?

Equip kids with the information they need to make good decisions

Nutrition researchers agree that telling kids what they should eat, because it’s ‘good for you,’ is another thing that has the opposite result from what we’re after.

We’re big on information in our house. Our little lawyer loves hearing the reasons for things (mostly so he can work out a way around obstacles), in as much detail as we can bear to give.

So we make sure to tell him what each kind of food does in his body. I’m not talking about ‘eat your crusts so your hair will go curly’ or ‘spinach makes Popeye strong.’ But we definitely say things like:

  • Did you know that carrots are great for helping your eyes work well?
  • I don’t think having toast would be a great idea next, because it’s full of carbohydrates, and all the things you’ve eaten today are carbohydrates. It would be good to choose some protein or vegetables next.
  • You’ve eaten a lot of fruit today, and if you eat too much fruit, it can make your tummy sore. So how about we find something different to eat next?
  • Do you remember that broccoli is good for your heart and your kidneys?
  • If you can manage a few bites of salad, that will be good for your immune system.
  • What kind of food would give us good energy for going swimming today?

And our absolute favourite, something I say most days, tagged on to all of those phrases, is:

  • It’s good to eat a variety of foods.

That’s it: that’s definitely my biggest success. It’s a principle, not a rule, and it guides us all in making good choices, which is what we are trying to model and teach our kids, right?

  • It’s good to eat a variety of foods, so I think we should move on from fruit now and have some protein next time you’re hungry. Would you like hummus or tuna or chickpeas or peanut butter toast? They’re good protein snacks.
  • I wonder if that’s enough cranberries now. It’s good to eat a variety of foods.
  • It could be good to have some salad as well. It’s good to eat a variety of foods.

Help kids to keep an open mind

Here’s a fantastic concept, originally from Jane at Nothing By the Book, that has really stuck with our family discourse on food: taste buds can change. As in:

Kid: Mum! You know I don’t like tomatoes! Why did you put one on my plate?

Parent: No problem, I just put it there in case your taste buds had changed. You don’t have to eat it.

My little guy will often quite willingly re-try a food he hasn’t liked, to check and see if his taste buds have changed.

Knowing he doesn’t have to eat it makes him relaxed about trying it, and knowing that people do routinely change their minds about disliking foods gives him a reason to.

Try adding these into your conversations about food.

  • Have your taste buds changed yet? Would you like to try cabbage again?
  • When I was little, I didn’t like the taste of zucchini, but then my taste buds changed and now it’s one of my favourite vegetables!

Model the skill of eating something you don’t like much

Here’s something I’ve been noticing we do now with our five-year-old. He’s grown up with exactly the kind of approach I’m advocating here, and he’s an advertisement for it – though I’ll say again that that is luck as much as anything, and plenty of brilliantly-parented children will still be super-fussy eaters.

But our little guy, as it happens, has zero anxiety about food. He’s never been forced to eat anything, and he has a fairly healthy (from my adult perspective) attitude to food and nutrition.

This means that we can now have conversations about choosing to eat things you don’t really like, if you know that there’s a good reason to.

So as well as just offering non-favourite vegetables, for instance, we do now sometimes go a bit further and encourage him to eat a few bites in order to get the nutritional benefit.

Something like this:

Me: I’ve put some cauliflower there because it has some unique vitamins and minerals that you don’t get in other things.

Him: I don’t like cauliflower, remember?

Me: Yes, I know. You don’t have to eat it. I just thought you might decide to have a few bites because it will do good things for your body. I don’t much like it either, so I dip it in the sauce like this, and then have a drink of water. You could try that if you like.

He sometimes does, he sometimes doesn’t, and that’s okay.

When there truly is no sense of compulsion, I think we’re giving him some wise, adult skills in being able to choose to eat something that isn’t your very favourite, for sensible reasons, without panicking or gagging as kids tend to do when they are being cajoled or bribed into eating something they think they hate.

Here’s how you could start, if you think your kids are in the right head-space for this:

  • I’ve put this sauce here to make it easier to eat the zucchini, in case you decide to eat it to get its nutrients for your body.
  • If you do want to try the spinach, you could swallow it quite quickly and then drink some water.
  • Why don’t you mix the mushrooms with the rice, and then you’ll hardly notice them, but your body will still get all the goodness.
  • New foods often take a lot of getting used to. You could try sniffing or licking the carrot today if you like.

Offer a range of foods and then relax

It’s established behavioural science that children often take 10 or 20 exposures to a new food to accept it.

When you think about it, that’s just sensible caution when a human being doesn’t know what will poison them. So don’t worry when your kind offer of brussels sprouts is refused, over and over again. Remember: it’s your job to offer it, and your kids’ job to decide whether or not to eat it. But do keep serving it.

Don’t think of rejected food as ‘wasted’

To avoid too much discouragement (for the cook, I mean!), serve very small amounts of foods you’re not optimistic about. Budgeting for one floret of cauliflower per child is just fine. If by the time they’re eight, they take its presence for granted and eat some, you’re all winners, and you haven’t wasted too much.

In fact, you haven’t wasted anything.

If you serve a whole plate of kale every night and throw it out, every night, then yes, that’s a waste. But if you serve one forkful each night and it’s rejected, that kale has still served its purpose of exposing your child to this new food twenty times before they start getting interested. So well done you and that thrown-out kale!

Offer a range (and ninja some more for peace of mind)

Here’s my other top tip for helping us all relax. Offer small amounts of broccoli and spinach (or whatever else is unpopular in your house) regularly, and don’t worry if they never get eaten. Make sure your kids are exposed to them as normal parts of the meal, whether they eat them or not.

And then hide them like ninjas in everything you cook, so they’re getting them anyway. Best of both worlds.

This is not a purist trust-your-kids’-appetites approach, but it’s a middle ground I can live with.

Do you regularly cook anything like these dishes?:

  • Nachos/burritos/tacos
  • Chili
  • Casseroles/stews/tagines
  • Curries/dhal
  • Soup
  • Spaghetti bolognese or other pasta sauce
  • Smoothies

Take your normal recipe and see how many vegetables are in it. Probably onions, garlic, tomatoes, maybe one or two other things.

Now chop up a head of broccoli as finely as you can – or blitz it in a food processor. Add that to your sauce and watch it disappear.

Or stir in a pile of chopped spinach or cabbage and use a hand-held blender to make it disappear. This works for any vegetable you have on hand, and is particularly good for using up leftovers, or the last sad salad leaves left in the back corner of the vege bin. Thrifty, healthy and sneaky, all in one go.

Our five-year-old is actually okay with this practice, so it isn’t even a sneaky thing with us anymore – though I don’t have anything against sneaking in this context.

He was a bit suspicious when he first noticed what I was doing, but I explained that it was a good way of all of us getting more things that would help our bodies to work well, even if we didn’t much like the taste right now. And he was good with that. He just asked me not to tell him when I was doing it!

Last tip: I discovered these wonderful cans of ratatouille a while ago. It’s a savoury tomato sauce with peppers, aubergine and zucchini. I blend two cans and add them to anything that calls for tomato puree, passata or even for vegetable stock – how’s that for increasing everyone’s vege intake? For a super-easy dinner you can even just blend them up and serve them over pasta and you have a vegetarian ninja feast everyone will enjoy.

For more vegetable ninja tricks, check these out:

Sophie Gray the Destitute Gourmet’s tips for increasing kids’ vegetable intake

Ninja smoothies (add a cube of spinach and no one’s the wiser).

My ninja chickpea cookies and high-protein chocolate bean cake.

But what if they really won’t eat anything I cook? The back-up meal solution

An idea I remember as coming from my friends Lucy and Jody, though I can’t find an online source, is to have one very basic back-up meal that you know your kids will eat, that’s super easy for you to supply if it becomes necessary.

So you have made a meal you think will work out fine, and a child says they don’t want to eat it. How can you respect their autonomy, let them control their own food intake, and remain calm if they won’t eat a thing?

Lots of parents would say a version of ‘Well, this is what’s available. Eat it or don’t eat it, but there’s nothing else.’

That’s pretty common, and I understand where it comes from.

My own approach for everything I do with kids is to treat them with the same respect I would an adult guest (or try to, at least).

If an adult guest said they didn’t like anything on the table, what would you do?

 

Quote from Parenting for Social Change by Teresa Brett | Sacraparental.com | Gentle parenting tips for fussy eaters!

 

Now, let’s make this a sustainable solution, so you’re not acting as a sous-chef every night of the week, making five different ‘acceptable’ meals, if you’re going through a bad patch.

Here’s an alternative. The back-up meal.

Pick something super easy, but vaguely meal-like, that you know your kids will ordinarily eat. You have probably already visualised the meal I’m talking about, but if you’re a bit stuck, I’m thinking:

  • plain rice and peas
  • plain pasta with a can of tuna
  • an egg on toast
  • baked beans on toast
  • hummus and crackers
  • a sandwich
  • some substantial breakfast cereal

We’re talking something that takes about three minutes to organise and contains some kind of basic nutrition. For older kids, making it something they can get themselves is a bonus.

If it appeals, you might even manage to freeze single servings of their favourite even-more-nutritious meal that you can quickly heat up. If they have a vegetable-rich spaghetti bolognese every night of their childhood, there’s nothing much wrong with that if it’s fast for you to prepare.

Pick something, and have that as your back-up meal – the only one, if that’s all you have energy for.

If a child, even after talking it through, really refuses to eat anything you’ve prepared, you can say, with a fake smile (possibly my best tip from this post):

  • No problem. You don’t have to eat it. Shall I make you an egg on toast instead?
  • Feel free to make yourself a sandwich.
  • I’ve used up a lot of energy making this, but I could definitely manage getting you some crackers and hummus instead if you really don’t want this.
  • Thanks for telling me you aren’t a fan of spaghetti these days. I didn’t realise that, so it’s what I’ve cooked for dinner tonight. But I could get you some baked beans instead if you like.
  • I’m sorry you don’t like tonight’s dinner. I can’t manage to cook something else right now, but muesli and yoghurt is always available.

The hardest bit: what to do about ‘junk food’?

Even the pioneer researcher Clara Davis acknowledged that all her toddler subjects who were successfully creating their own healthy diets – and thriving – were choosing from a selection of healthy foods. She didn’t know what would happen if they also had junk food on offer.

Studies on restricting ‘treat’ foods suggest that putting limits on them might stop kids consuming them, but it doesn’t help them make good choices about consuming them – they have no practice. So whether we have no treat foods in the house, or just keep them out of sight and bring them out occasionally, we’re not letting our kids learn how to self-regulate in the modern environment of plentiful calories.

I find this the hardest bit when it comes to trusting kids, and I don’t think I’ve got it all right. I can’t quite bring myself to have an absolutely open door on the pantry, and just see what happens. Where I have settled is this:

  • We don’t call any food ‘unhealthy’ or ‘treat food’ or ‘special’ in any way.
  • We talk honestly about the nutritional content of food.
  • We talk honestly about the deliciousness of food (both chocolate cake and fresh raspberries will have us in raptures).
  • We share treats freely when they come our way and don’t talk about them being guilty pleasures or ‘just for sometimes’.
  • We also don’t have food in the house that’s highly processed or sugary very often or regularly.
  • We talk about what we want our bodies to be able to do – fight off infection, have enough energy for having fun, and how different foods will help that.
  • When we do place a restriction on a food, we don’t make a big deal out of it, and just talk about the golden phrase: it’s good to eat a variety of foods.
  • We never, ever talk about food making us fat.

So here are some phrases you might want to incorporate into household conversation about chips, sweets and ice-cream:

  • ‘Yum, chippies! They are so delicious!’ and also, ‘I love eating crunchy apples!’
  • ‘Okay, it’s good to eat a variety of foods, so let’s put the chocolate away and move on to fruit.’
  • ‘Wow, you’re being offered cake! Enjoy!’
  • ‘Our bodies can’t handle big amounts of sugar. So let’s be kind to our livers and kidneys and finish there. Do you want to do a puzzle?’
  • ‘Cranberries are great for our bladders and digestive tracts. And they’re so yummy! We only need a few each day, though, so what else would you like to eat next?’
  • ‘I’d love to give you more ice-cream, but we’ve eaten it all!’

What about allergies, illness, medicines and other food safety rules?

Just to round out the picture of our seemingly free-range, laissez-faire food regime, I should tell you that my husband has a life-threatening allergy to dairy products, and our kids, while thankfully not apparently allergic to anything, have had some strict dietary restrictions as they grew, as we followed the advice of our immunologist on introducing foods in a staggered way.

With each of our kids (now five and two), we’ve also kept them entirely dairy-free growing up so they wouldn’t accidentally contaminate their father. Can you imagine a toddler eating yoghurt and then clambering over an allergic parent? Even if we cleaned her up thoroughly, she could still end up vomiting milk all over him a few hours later.

So our kids have had to contend with a hard, unbending line on whether they’re allowed to eat a whole list of foods, whenever we’re out and about or at someone else’s house.

I’m really glad to say they’ve been totally fine about it. I don’t claim to have any magic method, but it does seem to me that the combination of broad freedom and control over what they eat, and a specific, never-bent rule about dairy has worked pretty well.

We had to start this rule long before they could understand allergies, of course, so it started with the simple phrases:

  • Not for you, honey.
  • That’s milky, so it’s not for you.
  • Let’s look for the dairy-free options.
  • No, I’m sorry, that’s milky, so let’s have this one instead.

Our now five-year-old has been one hundred per cent self-policing on this. From an early age, he would ask people if what they were offering was dairy-free. Endearingly, this also meant wandering to someone’s delicious looking breakfast plate and asking nonchalantly, ‘Is this dairy-free?’

This is part of a much bigger topic, of course, but I just wanted to encourage those of you who have particular food needs in your family that you can still give your kids important skills of self-control with food, around those specific restrictions or needs.

A few links if you are starting to think about this stuff:

Teach your kids the allergy safety rules

How to teach young children about their food allergies

Tips for giving medicine to children

Giving medicine to babies and young children

For those of you who need to make sure children do eat specific foods or medicines, for serious health reasons, perhaps it would be worth considering a dual system, like we have.

You could divide food into one group of food choices where the parents are in charge (no dairy products, or taking your medicine with meals), and everything else, where the child has full autonomy, in the way we’re talking about here. Kids are great with rules and exceptions, remember – they can keep track of this kind of nuance better than we sometimes think.

You might like to think of it a bit like how many of us will give our children bodily autonomy over almost everything, but insist on, or resort to bribery and all sorts of extreme persuasion for things like teeth-brushing or injections.

There’s more on that in my piece on feminist parenting, if you want to think more about this. And there are lots of ideas (based on the issue of teeth-brushing) for encouraging without forcing in this post from Justine Holly.

Other relaxed ways to encourage kids to eat healthy food

There are plenty of good tips from child nutrition experts on how to make vegetables (and so on) appealing to children, from gardening, shopping and cooking with children, to presenting food in kid-friendly ways.

If you’d like some fresh ideas, take a look here:

Healthy Food Guide’s 15 ways to make fruit and veges fun

Dr Sears’ 17 tips for helping kids eat well

And some magic words for you for getting kids involved in food preparation and choosing:

  • What would you like to plant in our garden?
  • Let’s make the shopping list together. What vegetables shall we buy this week?
  • What would you like to make with me? (thanks to KE for this one!)
  • Would you like the banana peeled or unpeeled?
  • Shall we steam or boil the broccoli tonight?
  • Would you prefer rice or pasta with the curry?

But remember – it’s your job to try this stuff, and their job to take you up on all your fabulous offers. If they don’t, try not to sweat it too much!

Do some food science with your kids

We like science in our family.

(As an aside, if building a love for science into your kids is a new but appealing idea for you, there are great kids’ TV shows these days that introduce the foundations of scientific thinking: start with Dinosaur Train or Guess with Jess, perhaps.)

We’ve had reasonable success with encouraging our little guy to approach new or not-much-liked foods with a scientific mindset.

So as well as chatting about where a food fits in the nutritional scheme of things, we’ve also done ‘scientific’ experiments on what way of cooking or serving the food makes it most tasty or appealing to him.

Broccoli used to be his go-to green vegetable. He even told people for a while that it was actually his favourite food. I don’t believe that was true, but it didn’t stop me putting it on Facebook.

When one day he said he didn’t like it, I panicked inside!

Trying not to let my horror show, I suggested we try an experiment. Why not try cooking broccoli in different ways and he could decide which tasted the best? We steamed some, roasted some, stir-fried some, and had some raw. He helped in all the stages of preparation and cooking, and did the final taste-test. He declared a winner (I can’t remember the result) and the novelty of the process got us through the next few months of broccoli eating.

Here are your magic words:

  • Shall we do an experiment?
  • Let’s do some science on this!
  • Maybe we need to test that idea.

What about mealtime manners?

There’s no surer way to make meals miserable than to spend all your time correcting your children’s table manners.

Just like when people say to co-sleeping families ‘but you can’t have a fourteen-year-old in your bed with you!’ I think it’s important to remember that if our goal is to have teenagers who are a) in their own bedrooms and b) able to use a cutlery in a culturally appropriate way, that doesn’t mean they need to master this stuff by the time they’re two or even seven.

They’ll get there! There’s plenty of time.

If this stuff winds you up, have a good think about why. What are you worried about? Whose voice is in your head when you freak out about your kid eating with his fingers or jumping on her chair?

I encourage you to take the long view. If you want happy, healthy children who grow into happy, healthy adults with a good attitude to food, nutrition, and eating in company, you’ll need to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Here are some things that you might want to consider relaxing about. Perhaps you could decide some of these are okay for most normal mealtimes at your home, especially for young children:

  • Eating with your fingers
  • Standing on your chair
  • Sitting on a parent’s knee
  • Taking a break to play half-way through, and coming back to the table later
  • Making a bit of a mess along the way
  • Singing
  • Chewing with your mouth open
  • Using cutlery in an unorthodox way

Remember that children are actually very good at following different rules for different settings. You can have this kind of relaxed mealtime at home, and still say:

  • ‘When we go to Grandma’s/eat at a restaurant/have friends over for dinner we stay at the table until everyone’s finished/use our knives and forks/sit nicely on our chairs.’

We are extremely laissez-faire at home about all of this stuff, and it doesn’t mean that our little guy is terrible at other people’s houses: just the contrary. Because we don’t make arbitrary rules (like you must always sit down on your chair to eat, or you can’t come back once you’ve left the table), when we are somewhere else, and we say, that’s not how we do things at this house/at a café, that seems much more reasonable to him. He seems quite okay with the idea that we do things differently in different contexts – which of course is just how real life is. You and I eat differently on a first date or the first dinner with the prospective in-laws, or at a work function, than we do at home. Most kids can manage those distinctions too, I reckon.

Here are some ways to take the focus off ‘good manners’ and enjoy eating together:

  • We love having your company at the table. It would be great if you could stay here and chat with us while we finish.
  • If you hold your spoon like this, you might find it easier to keep the food on it.
  • Don’t worry about the spill. Here’s a cloth.
  • Do you need to have a bit of a run-around before you eat more?

The only mealtime etiquette I insist on

My kids are strongly discouraged from ever saying a food is ‘yucky’.

This is probably just my own hang-up, and I’m not suggesting you need to take it on! But my hope is that it helps build empathy for the many people who can be hurt by that kind of response, and also helps keep the door open for them to change their mind about liking a food later.

Instead, we encourage them to say ‘It’s not my favourite.’

Here are your magic words if you want to incorporate this, for your sake or anyone else’s:

  • That’s not my favourite.
  • We don’t ever call food yucky. That would make the people who cooked it sad. And food is so precious – someone had to grow it and get it to the supermarket and we had to pay money for it. So we don’t call it yucky. We just say ‘it’s not my favourite.’ And that’s fine – you never have to eat anything you don’t want to.
  • Yucky isn’t a kind word. It’s just not your favourite.

Perhaps in a similar vein (or coming from my own similar hang-ups!), we focus pretty consistently on encouraging our kids to express thanks to the cooks. Often we now just prompt them by saying:

  • ‘Who do you think cooked tonight?’

That helps them think for themselves about the work someone else has put into the meal, and decide to respond with thanking them.

Do you ‘say grace’?

If you’re a household that likes to say some kind of formal thanks before eating together, religious or otherwise, here are some ideas (some of this originally appeared in my column at Kiwi Families).

In our family we have a handful of different ways of saying thanks for the food. We can say grace just by talking and we can sing or chant.

It provides an extra element of ritual to the meal. It says in capital letters that we are deliberately present with each other, sharing this food together.

For our family it is also an expression of gratitude to God and a way of weaving our Christian spirituality into everyday life.

For other families, it might be a spiritual act in a different way, where the family’s awareness is drawn to something bigger and outside us – like the sun, rain and earth that have provided the food, and the many hands from farm to table that have prepared it for us.

Our kids gets to choose each night what kind of grace we’ll say or sing – which is great for a small people who have limited control over what happens in their lives.

If you have more than one child, the privilege of choosing what grace to do could go to the person who helped set the table or make the dinner – or be on a roster along with those kinds of jobs.

Here are some of the different graces in our repertoire that you might like to add to yours. Ask your kids what they like best.

Banquet Earth Grace (or just ‘Chapati’ as we call it)

This satisfying chant by Linnea Good is done (in our house) with clicking fingers and finishes with a big clap, so anyone who is visiting can join in whether they know the words or not.

It also doesn’t mention actually God, so could be used by families with any kind of spirituality who want to build some gratitude into family mealtimes.

The words are below. Just click your fingers and chant.

Chapati! Chapati! Puri and rice!
Burrito, taquito, spaghetti and spice!
Dim sum, egg foo yung
Two all-beef patties, special sauce on a bun!

Hands across the table,
Hands across the sea,
Sharing in the banquet of the Earth!
Thanks!

Thank you, Lord, for giving us food

Probably most churchy people in New Zealand – and elsewhere – know this simple song. It’s repetitive and easy to learn, so guests are able to join in almost immediately.

Our boy could sing most of it before he was two, so it’s definitely a good one for littlies.

Thank you, Lord, for giving us food
Thank you, Lord, for giving us food
Thank you, Lord, for giving us food
Right where we are
Amen

(Optional second verse)

Hallelujah, praise the Lord
Hallelujah, praise the Lord
Hallelujah, praise the Lord
Right where we are
Amen

A secular version from Angela

Angela introduced us to this version, to the same tune, at an unschooling retreat earlier this year. It was very popular.

Thank you earth for growing our food
Thank you rain for watering our food
Thank you hands that prepared our food
Right here and now

We are grateful, yes we are
We are grateful, yes we are
We are grateful, yes we are
Right here and now

To the tune of ‘O for a Thousand Tongues’

The classic grace words:

For life and health and daily food
We give thee thanks, O Lord
For fellowship and all things good
We praise thy name, O Lord

can be said, of course, as my Grandma always did, but also sung to the tune of the old hymn, ‘O for a Thousand Tongues.’

This was a favourite at our weekly young adult Sunday lunches when I was a youth pastor, so it’s not just for the grandies. If you have people around your table who love singing, this is a great one to learn. It even splits into two parts (traditionally sung by the men and the women) at the end, so it’s fun and dramatic.

I used to think of this as a grace for older kids, but toddlers love hearing it, too, so give it a go if you’re musically inclined.

Brian and Shirley’s Graces

My mentor when I was at theological college was Brian Smith. He and his wife had been ministers and missionaries, and Brian had translated the New Testament into an Indian language before becoming a lecturer and then Principal of my college.

It was a joy to find, when I was at their home for dinner one night, that they had written their own family graces to try and build some thoughtful words into family prayers that would be meaningful and helpful as their kids grew.

With their permission, I’m sharing three of their family graces here:

Our Father in heaven:
You make the sun to shine on all people good and bad,
You give rain to those who do right and those who do wrong.
For this food provided by sun and rain on your earth,
We thank you and pray that we may learn to be kind
as you are kind.
Amen.

Our Father in heaven,
For this food,
The earth to grow it
Electricity* to cook it
And our sense of taste to enjoy it,
We thank you.
Amen.          

*Or whatever fuel is used

Our Father in heaven,
The kowhai and the tui remind us that you
care for your children without their worrying.
As we thank you for this food
help us to set our hearts on your
kingdom and your goodness.
Amen

Brian is also the author of one of the best books I know for exploring theology with children, Who Made God? which you can order as a PDF here.

Thanks

When he was little, some nights our boy would just elect to say:

Tantoo God for the yummy food.
Amen

And that was fine by us.

 

What works for you?

What are your best tips to share? How do you navigate these difficult waters?

I’d love to have your input, so please do leave a comment below.

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14 comments on “Gentle Parenting Tips: 56+ Magic Phrases to End Food Battles with Picky Eaters, and the Science Behind Trusting Kids to Eat What they Need”

  1. Spaghetti Reply

    Fantastic post :) Another tip is to not worry (too much) about how long it takes your child to eat their dinner. I was a VERY slow eater as a child, so my parents would let me stay at the table as long as I needed to to finish my meal (within reason). It must’ve driven them mad, but it meant I didn’t feel I had to stop eating before I was full. We even had a *rule* on my birthday that everyone had to stay at the table until I was finished :)

  2. Liz Reply

    Hi – thanks for this post (have saved the link for future use) Any tips on how to do this for a pre-verbal child. I try to offer my 11 month a variety of foods each meal but inevitably he always chooses the carbs (e.g. crackers) and leaves everything else. Will sometimes accept me feeding him fruit, but very rarely veg, meat or cheese. Tried for a week just letting him feed himself and it gave him the runs. Feel like I’ve already screwed up his relationship to food and meal times. Help!

    • thaliakr Reply

      Hi Liz!
      It sounds like you are doing a great job and your little guy is lucky to have you.
      It’s definitely not too late!
      Perhaps you could try offering him the range of food one or two at a time throughout the day rather than all at once? So he has a choice between meat and cheese at 10am, for instance, and between carrots and potatoes at 11am.
      Remember it’s fine if he doesn’t take you up on your kind offers, but just keep calmly offering a range, with the things he is most likely to choose interspersed with the others.
      All the best and let’s keep chatting!

      • Liz Reply

        Thanks for replying :) and for the suggestions – will give them a go.
        I think the other thing that happens is that my little one gets bored of eating quite quickly. Typically he’ll eat a few mouthfuls and then refuse any more unless I can distract him with a toy, and then he’ll quite happily let me feed him some more. But is this just another version of “just three more bites”, do you think?
        Last night, I tried stopping dinner when he ‘told’ me he’d had enough… But he slept really badly and I feel fairly certain it was because he was hungry again. *sigh*
        Sorry for the moan! Just feeling rather stressed and tired ! x

        • thaliakr Reply

          Ah, it is so hard sometimes!
          It sounds like you’re doing great.
          I think the problem with ‘three more bites’ is you’re overruling a person expressing their hunger level. I reckon a bit of distraction to help a kid focus a bit more is slightly different, so I’d be more comfortable with using that technique as part of your portfolio of things to try.
          The other thing to bear in mind is just how tiny little stomachs are, so children can be genuinely ‘full’ and still need to eat again in an hour’s time, so if you can think about offering food *really* often, that might help. So dinner might be over, but supper is still to come! (Think like a hobbit!)

  3. Sarah Reply

    Great post, love the comments about eating a variety of foods, it’s not my favourite and taste buds change. We generally don’t insist our kids eat unless we get to dinnertime and they haven’t eaten much and aren’t eating and we can see an even more disrupted night ahead (we are still up nearly every 2 hours between the three of them and it is painful). Then we bargain, you can eat the potato or the baked beans, or, you can choose which half to eat. As well as offering toast or something else very easy. Most of my poor parenting choices during the day come down to tiredness so I don’t feel bad about this! I read it’s normal for little kids to eat one larger meal a day and the rest small so I don’t worry about dinner if breakfast was a big meal for them. I do insist on serving a tiny amount of everything on their plates, with unwanted food just left to the side, which my four year old accepts as practice for eating considerately at other people’s houses. And I make a lot of tiny, simple chopped “salads” like cooked green beans with sliced orange segments and olives, or broccoli with tomato and chickpeas, dressed with a splash of olive oil. That way, I hope that they will get a tiny taste every now and then of the things they won’t outright try!

  4. Analilí Burrows Reply

    Thank you for your post. My kids (13, 8, 4, 2) are often called “good eaters.” My husband has always had the “variety of foods” approach and we don’t call food “yucky.” But I haven’t always been nice about it… so now I learned that taste buds change! And that it’s O.K. to be full and walk about before finishing what’s on the plate!

  5. Joanna Paul Reply

    Thank you so much for this post! I have a 14 month old, and have come into parenthood without previously having thought through my ‘parenting approach’. So far, it’s been rather trial and error, discovering as I go, but now that she’s a little bit older I’m becoming so aware of what a huge responsibility it is to raise a child in the way they should go and I am wanting to be more intentional about my parenting approach. Reading through this, it was encouraging to realise that unintentionally, and only to a partial extent, I have been aligning with this approach to food, and this is a fabulous resource to cement the approach properly! I have only recently discovered this blog, but the few articles I’ve read have challenged me as an adult/human in my own personal growth and ways of thinking, and have hugely inspired me as a parent. I just want to sit down and read everything but unfortunately there aren’t enough hours in the day. Thank you so much!

  6. Miriam Reply

    What a wealth of information! Much appreciate the collation. Fwiw, I read about the back up meal idea in a book called “it’s not about the broccoli,” and the author whose name I forget also wrote about it online somewhere, that I also forget… But I remember the principles being very helpful, her theory was that the back up should be something nutritious, easy to prepare, and most importantly something they *like* but don’t *love*, so that they don’t choose it in preference to what’s on offer every single time. I think her suggestion was a single item like cottage cheese or yoghurt. We go for toast and/or a squeeze fruit/veg pouch.
    Let me see if I can find the link…

  7. Pat the Mum Reply

    So much info. I’ll have to try some of these. We’ve real problems with our eldest (now four), who doesn’t want to sit down and eat anything, except his breakfast, whereas his little sister happily sits in her high chair and wolfs down everything. :)

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