It is frustrating enough when your child doesn’t like a wide variety of foods, however, sometimes well meaning remarks or advice are just better left unsaid to parents going through this time with their children. I’ve compiled a list of 9 things not to say to a parent of a fussy eater, explained why they are unhelpful (from my feeding therapy experience) and what you can say in reply if you happen to unfortunately be on the receiving end of these comments.
Don’t worry about it
If there is anything that I have learnt more than anything else from children in the past few years, it has been to see how anxiety works. Children are so much more upfront with what makes them anxious and how they respond to anxiety. It has really had me thinking that we do need to sweat the small stuff. Yet, not in a counter productive, worry kind of way. We need to challenge the feeling and find the root cause. For example when I see a child worried about the honey from the pancake making their hands sticky, if I said “don’t worry about it” they would feel like their worries were insignificant to me. They wouldn’t want to tell me about those worries again. AND they would simply not touch it (again). If I said “I see that the honey is going to make our hands sticky. Here I have a wet cloth for us to use when it makes us feel uncomfortable” and I modeled eating, getting messy and getting clean. I have helped the child sweat their “small stuff” with a process and a safe opt-out from their anxiety trigger. They are now enabled to help themselves go on with the learning experience of honey pancakes. Learning to go through the small stuff with someone is important.
You can say: If someone says “don’t worry about it” to you, ask them about the process that they find best to help them not worry about similar situations. Maybe they have experience that they can expand on for you and thus, they can share their “wet cloth” (aka learnings) with you? If they don’t have a process, it may just be a way to help them understand your situation a little bit better. Their experience may not resonate with you but it keeps the conversation open. “Don’t worry about it” is a conversation closer, so we can be savvy and use it to pry open that door. If it’s not worth having this conversation with this person, then it’s ok to not worry about their original comment.
They will grow out of it
For some red flags like sensory issues, medical conditions, allergies, pain associated with eating and anxiety related to new foods, waiting until they just “grow out of it” is not likely to be a winning parenting strategy. Plus, parents have a huge desire to get in and help. So, dismissive comments that don’t address the root cause are not helpful. Each child goes on a different journey to eat and knowing what is problematic feeding is important.
This article here by Dr Kay Toomey shows the key differences between fussy eating and problem feeding. I have summarized some here:
You should also add to this list parental anxiety. Parental anxiety around children eating is another trigger to seek additional help. As you can see, there are more red flags than simply meeting growth chart milestones. If these red flags are present for your child, additional assistance may be required.
Yet, why do so many people report that children “grow out of it”? As a typically developing child becomes more independent at about 18mth – 2 years (PS. there are more cognitive leaps that can cause fussy eating later at 5-7yrs and then again at 11-13yrs) they can typically experience some fussy eating behaviours. There are a few forces at play here. Their sensory systems are learning to cope with a higher amount of inputs. Their inbuilt wariness of new experiences kicks in. Environmental aspects like screens / technology, packed agendas, day care, decreased physical movement etc all play big roles in the child’s ability to be receptive to new tasks. Thus, typically developing children will experience varying levels of food refusals. As they get older, after being in the right environment and having continued learning experiences with new foods, children will master the processes they need to learn and eat new foods. So, yes they can grow out of it. However, remember that someone saying this may or may not have been aware of the complexities involved in eating and how each child takes this journey differently. It is a frustrating journey for many parents, but expecting it and having strategies on hand for dealing with it yourself and for your child will help immensely.
You can say: It’s amazing how many sensory systems are involved in learning to eat. Did you know eating new foods is nearly the hardest thing we have to process from a sensory point of view? Some kids take a while to process new inputs and some don’t. Typically many kids experience some fear of new foods. It takes supported learning, variety in foods being offered, allowances for their taste preferences (as well as their individual oral motor, sensory and motor planning skills) and, in some cases, specialist assistance to help children through this journey to eat.
They will eat when they are hungry
This is true for about 94-96% of the pediatric population according to Dr Kay Toomey (SOS Approach to Feeding). For the other 4-6% of the pediatric population who have feeding problems (see above list of red flags), they will be able to “starve” themselves. They won’t get the right amount of calories to function and they learn to turn off their internal understanding of being full and hungry. For the majority of children with feeding problems, eating doesn’t work and/or it hurts, and no amount of hunger is going to overcome that fact. For children, you need to walk in their shoes: If it hurts, don’t do it. If it doesn’t work, avoid the situation by crying or running away.
You can say: For much of the population this is true, yet, eating is not that simple for some children. We are working on ways to make new foods OK for our child.
Let me feed them, you’re probably doing it wrong
Ummm… No. I firmly believe that you are the best person at feeding your child. You have possibly been overwhelmed and need this little reminder:
The best advice I have for parents when they start to feel overwhelmed is to take a step back, look at their own eating journey, map out what they would like to have happen at mealtimes and work on their strategies one at a time. This is why I kick start the Happy Mealtimes eCourse by delving into your own eating competency (I wrote about the Ellyn Satter eating competency model here). This shapes your own approach to feeding your family. I also then like to focus on what the parent can do within their own realms of responsibility. Parents provide the what, the when and the where of meals. Children (once they are toddlers and beyond) are responsible for the whether and how much food to eat. Drawing these responsibility lines can be hard if the roles in your family have been muddled up for a while. So, start with when, move to where and then work on the what. This guide by the Ellyn Satter institute is perfect for getting started with family meals.
You can say: No Thankyou
Just hide the vegetables and meat so they can’t find them
I like to call this one deception. Whilst I totally agree with making vegetables or meat more portable so that they can be offered as much as possible to make it easier to reach our recommended daily intakes of these foods. I write exclusively about this here. I don’t believe in breeding distrust of homemade foods. This will even further elevate how much more “safe” a limited variety of foods are in your child’s mind. The problem with a limited variety of safe foods is that this leads to food jagging and subsequently burn-out. You are better off with a learning approach to the foods. If you and your child are comfortable with the fact that it takes multiple, non-pressured offerings of a food for them to learn about them, the easier it is for you to accept that their learning process will include a manner poking, prodding, a tiny kiss, spitting foods out or just holding it in their hand for a little while. I heartily endorse #embracemess. Mess is how kids learn about foods! If you are concerned about nutrition in the short-term, while they are learning about a range of foods, we cover this in our 1 hour “feeding toddler boys” video – it is applicable to any child that has a small repertoire of foods and you are looking for ways to encourage them to learn about new foods without pressure.
You can say: Sometimes I like to make vegetables and meat portable in pies, muffins, sausage rolls etc. Mixed texture foods can be confronting for kids. We like to let them explore the ingredients so they know what is in their food and trust it.
They will eat anything while they watch TV / play iPad
I like to call this mindless eating. It is a short term strategy that seems to “work” for many households. In fact, the American Speech-Language-Hearing association conducted a poll in 2015 and found that 24% of children at the age of 2 were using technology at the dinner table. Moreover, at the age of 8 the figure rises to 45%. This is one time of the day where children need to be fully engaged to learn about the foods they are eating, especially fussy eaters. Screen time cuts down that engagement level significantly. It also cuts down on family engagement. It’s definitely not to say that sometimes a family dinner with a movie every now and then isn’t OK. However, if screens are consistently replacing valuable interactions with food and with family members, this is a slippery path to only ever choosing foods that are sensorily easier to eat (or to motor plan) as you can eat them very “mindlessly”. That is this is the path to the chicken nugget, chips and sauce only diet for low sensory engagment foods. For low motor planning skills you could be looking at prolonged spoon-feeding in front of the screen. If you want to learn more about strategies to avoid screen dinners, see our video event here. (More on the ASLH statistics are in Dr Kristy’s book, “Raising your child in a digital world“)
You can say: That is an interesting strategy. It could have a place in our family for a special treat.
Send them to their room (or to bed) hungry
If your child is overwhelmed by the meal in front of them at the table, we have a choice:
1) We can help them with it (eg. re-modulate their body, serve from the middle of the table (family meal), set routine and boundaries)
2) We can overstep the boundary of what our mealtime responsibilities are and start dictating to them on their responsibilities on whether / what they are going to eat. This always results in a win/lose battle. If you win, your child loses. If you lose / your child wins. Ultimately, it is actually “lose/lose” if you pit yourself against your child.
3) We can all “escape” from our responsibilities – by sending them away from the meal or to bed hungry.
Sending them to bed or to their room hungry are just two things we think are “punishing” them for not eating. However, when you take a look carefully at this parenting strategy, it actually reinforces the behaviour we do not want. They get to leave the situation that they were loathing, they become less in tune with their body’s internal hunger and full cues, they build more negative associations with food and the language used in these situations can often exacerbate the problem for next time.
Here are my 7 questions to ask yourself, before deciding to send a child to bed hungry (and this audio post deep dives into these questions):
You can say: That is an interesting strategy. I can see it would be valid in some instances depending on a few variables like stress levels, the day we’ve all had and what happened at the table.
Make them sit at the table until they eat it (or offer it again for the next meal until they eat it)
This strategy delivers a very poor message to children about food, understanding their own body and it also encroaches on their mealtime responsibility (deciding whether to and how much to eat). It is often a strategy that parents tell me was inflicted upon them with unhappy results. It often means that children are not happily engaged in the eating process, their dislike of this food is heightened and they are left at the table without role modeled eating behaviour. If you are sitting at the table with them for this whole time, I can’t imagine you are still eating. Instead, instigating a well timed clean-up procedure is recommended, bearing in mind the above 7 questions have been answered. The child is able to opt-out of eating after they clean-up. A good clean-up routine helps the child have one last interaction with the food and it signifies that the kitchen is shut. Remind them of when the next meal opportunity is too. How long you sit at the meal before you instigate clean-up time depends on your child, their day and your family dynamic.
You can say: That’s an interesting strategy.
Well , my kids eat EVERYTHING
This video! This is why that statement is SO horrendously unhelpful. This shows a major lack of empathy for the person you are talking to. Empathy is absolutely vital for you to flourish as a human being. And it is important for you to have empathy for your fussy child too. You need to be shown empathy and you need to give empathy. This video highlights our need to take sentences starting with “At least ….” out of our vocabulary in situations where we want to help. Great empathy sentence starters include: “I’m so glad you told me ….” or “I am thankful that you trusted me with this” or “I’m here for you”.
You can say: That is delightful for you.
I hope this is helpful for you and please share it around! If you have any other “helpful” advice you’d like me to tackle in a blog post – please leave me a comment!