When my daughter turned one and started displaying signs of very selective eating, I was left scratching my head. Where did I do wrong? I’m a nutrition expert, for goodness sake. I thought that meant I am omitted from this crap. So naive I was…
If you too find yourself with a picky eater, the first step is understanding that you didn’t do anything wrong! Although not everyone will face this challenge and there are many techniques we can use to minimize pickiness in our kids, release the idea that any of it is your fault. It’s a very common and normal developmental phase for a toddler to experience.
When faced with the challenge, like many parents, I began the work of turning my picky eater into a food explorer. This work is not for the faint of heart and it definitely resembles more of a marathon than a sprint. I have been working diligently on this for two years and am now starting to see the fruits of my labour (and it’s glorious!). If I wrote one post on picky eating, we’d be here for hours. There is so much to unpack, countless individual circumstances, and many shifts that may need to take place in the home around meal time. So, today I’m going to focus on one of my favourite strategies to encourage food exploration that anyone can try.
For many parents, during meal time, they will get the plates out for each family member and then serve each portion before bringing the plates to the table. They put their child’s dish down and say, “Dinner is ready!”. The child (maybe) comes up to the table, only to see exactly what has been provided to them and how much of it. With this method, we are telling our children, indirectly, exactly what we expect them to eat, taking a significant amount of power and choice away from them.
Now, if you’ve parented a young child, you know power struggles are REAL. How we’ve all made it through this stage of parenting is beyond me. Developmentally, a toddler is working to exercise their autonomy. They know they are an individual person with their own thoughts and opinions (oh, so many opinions) and they work very hard to exercise them. Feeling “in control” is extremely important to them, and that’s where a very delicate dance between parent and child begins.
One way to minimize meal time stress while giving some of that power and control back to your child is to offer your meals family style. Rather than plating their dinner for them, place each menu item on the table in a dish and let them decide what they would like to eat from said menu. They can either serve themselves, or if they aren’t quite old enough for this yet, you can invite them to tell you what they would like on their plate today, and how much. Now, you have to be prepared that they may take lots of one item and none of another, but to this I say… who cares? You have vetted each menu item and can feel good about your child eating whatever they choose, and know that this may just be the gateway you have been looking for to encourage a broader palette (more on that to come). You can let go of the frustration of putting food on their plate, only to watch them, once again, push it around with a fork, whine about wanting something else, or ignore it completely.
And this brings me to my bonus point, and what may just be a parent’s most powerful mindset shift when it comes to picky eaters. Are you ready for it? It’s called The Division of Responsibility. If you haven’t heard of this before, lean it, because this simple phrase has the potential to significantly reduce and possibly even remove meal time stress.
When it comes to meals, it’s your job to decide what to serve your child; it is their job to decide if and how much of it they will eat. That’s it. Now, let those words sink in. Then, apply them to your next dinner time. Whatever you decide to offer your child, your job ends there. This understanding alone can create a monumental shift in your family meal experience. Suddenly, you aren’t watching your child’s every move or encouraging them to try something else, or saying, “Just one more bite.” You’ve released that and, instead, are focusing on connection. “What did Liam bring for Show and Share today?”, “It rained a lot this afternoon. Do you want to put on our rain boots after dinner and jump in the puddles?”, “You’ll never guess who I saw when I was out for a walk today!”
Doesn’t the energy of the scenario sound more enjoyable?
And here’s the thing about family style meals: because you are transferring so much of the power back into your child’s hands, many parents find that their kids will reach for foods they never would have considered before! It’s truly remarkable what this power transfer can inspire. Perhaps they see the roasted carrots on the table, and since they aren’t being told (directly or indirectly) that they should be eating them, they feel more empowered by the idea that it’s their choice to put them on their plate and not someone else’s. It encourages them to exercise curiosity, exploration and decision making.
If you struggle with picky eating in your family, try the technique of family style meals for a few weeks (yes, weeks--give it time), and watch the shift begin from stressful dinners to nourished connection.