If you have ever muttered these words, or anything similar, at the family table, this article is for you!
My husband and I were so proud of our adventurous toddler who devoured all the most exotic food. As she ate another olive, slurped some Thai soup, or took a spoonful of hummus, we gave each other sly high fives across the table. This, of course, felt like a direct correlation to our outstanding parenting skills.
And then it happened.
Our great eater became a picky preschooler, and our skills fell flat. She became infatuated with “special treats”, desserts, and anything sweet, and her list of acceptable foods became increasingly limited.
Looking back, it was a slow decline, but I knew we had hit rock bottom as I actually heard these words escape my mouth after an especially challenging mealtime: “just lick the broccoli and you can have some ice cream”.
At that moment, I knew the bribing, coercion, and attempts at hiding vegetables served no one. My daughter was not any closer to tolerating all of the foods her body needed to be healthy, and I was exhausted with the psychological games and special meals. So, I started looking for a better way and stumbled upon an actual, well-researched, approach towards feeding kids, and it seemed to align with our parenting style much better than the methods of bribery and pressure that we were using at the time.
The method that brought our family from mealtime chaos to peace was Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. If you are interested in learning more, there are so many resources on this model and I encourage you to read all of the research, but I will summarize what helped us with the transition the most below:
This concept provided me, as the primary “feeder” in the home, so much freedom. Once I completely embraced this idea, I truly felt the mealtime anxiety melt away. The simplified version of this principle states that the parent is responsible for the “What, When and Where” of family meals, and the child is responsible for “If (they will eat) and how much”.
This may seem very basic at first, but it meant I was no longer responsible for making sure my kids ate enough forkfuls of carrots to justify chocolate pudding, because that was not my job. My job was to provide nutritious, balanced meals in regular and consistent intervals throughout the day so that my kids developed internal hunger and satiety cues and learned important skills about eating along the way. Phew, the pressure is off!
This was a concept that made complete sense in theory, but something I had a harder time implementing in real life. I found, however, the more consistent our meal schedule was, the easier it was to enforce other mealtime structure, like always eating at the table and no snacking or sugary drinks in between meals. Also, this means that if we are serving dessert with a meal, it is set out at the same time as the other food. There are a few reasons for this, including not elevating any food item as “special” and modeling moderation and balance, which made a lot of sense to us.
One of the most valuable takeaways I had from researching this approach was the concept of the “safe” meal. A food item that you know your child will eat and enjoy is served at every meal. At first, at least in our home, our list of “safe” foods was small. It consisted mainly of mac-n-cheese and pizza, and there were times I felt crazy serving these food items multiple times a week, but slowly and surely our girls would sneak in vegetables between the mac-n-cheese bites, and at times even phased out their “safe” foods for other items that became familiar and comfortable as we went along.
The path towards mealtime peace was not always straight, or quick, but I am so thankful we found this different approach to eating. It has helped all of us learn to appreciate a variety of food in a whole new way.
Please note: We have found this new way of structuring our meals to be incredibly helpful for our family, but want to point out that some situations may require a different approach. If anyone in your home has struggled with food insecurity, neglect, or an eating disorder, please seek additional support from a dietician or mental health professional when making any changes to ways of eating.