I get a lot of questions from parents about how to deal with their picky eating kids. “Little Johnny won’t eat his veggies!”, they proclaim, “he’s so picky!”; or, “Little Sally doesn’t like ANYTHING!”. On seeing their plate, the toddler cries “I don’t like it” or “don’t want it”, though they haven’t even eaten the food but simply the sight of it is offensive enough to deem it unacceptable. And so begins the battle of wills between parents and child, and in the end, no one wins.
Toddlers, preschoolers, and even grade school children have so little control over most things in their lives, but food is one area that they KNOW they can control. This often manifests as what we adults consider to be pickiness – including food selectivity or “food jags” (eating only a very small number of “safe” foods), refusing to eat the foods that parents most want them to eat (veggies and proteins, usually), throwing food on the floor, leaving the table before even touching anything, etc, etc, etc. While there is a level of “pickiness” that creates legitimate nutritional concerns (such as that related to sensory processing disorders or physiological concerns), for the most part, pickiness is a completely normal developmental stage as children try to exert control and test boundaries.
One of the most common things that they may say (before throwing the plate down to the dog or leaving the table…) is “I don’t like it”, “I don’t want it”, or some variation on that theme. To which we, as well-meaning parents, usually respond with lots of potential phrases:
- you liked it last time!
- sure you do, it’s so tasty, look at me eating all the things! nom nom nom nom!
- I don’t care that you don’t like it, you HAVE TO EAT IT
- It’s good for you!
- blah blah blah blah boring blah blah blah (<– this is what your kid hears)
Inevitably this will not lead to the result you are hoping for. Your kid isn’t going to be like “Oh yeah, broccoli IS good for me! Thanks for the reminder :)!”
I have one simple phrase for you to try the next time your child throws the “I don’t like it” phrase at you. Six simple words.
“You don’t have to eat it”
And then you say nothing else.
At first your child is going to look at you like you’re from space. This is new for them – they were expecting a battle that they were going to win, testing all the boundaries and getting ALL THE CONTROL! Which is great, because this phrase gives them what they want – all the control. They are now in charge of what happens next.
No pressure, no coercion, no sneaky tactics. Just keep on eating your own meal, modelling the eating behaviours that you want to instill in them (good manners, eating veggies yourself, enjoying a positive mealtime atmosphere and conversation with others at the table).
When I did this with my daughter she repeated herself a few more times. “Mommy!”, she exclaimed, “I don’t WANT it!”. “Ok”, I said, and repeated, “you don’t have to eat it”. And then I went back to my own dinner and chatted with her about her day at school.
Can you guess what happened later that same meal?
With no pressure to eat the thing she apparently “didn’t like”, she decided that she was willing to try it later on. And liked it. And ate it all.
Had I made a big stink about her not wanting it, I would have invited all the toddler drama and tears and made our dinner table an unpleasant place to be. By letting her choose her own adventure on her plate, she eventually came to her own conclusions.
I’m not saying this will make your kid eat everything on their plate. There have been many other times that she “didn’t like it” and therefore didn’t eat it. That’s cool, it’s her prerogative, but there was no need to incite drama and put parental pressure on top of her. Other times, when I’ve served literally the exact same meal, she ate it all. Sometimes “I don’t like/want it” simply means “I don’t want this today, but maybe I’ll try it another time”- which is why repeated (pressure-free) exposures are so important!
Will you try these six magic words at your table? How do you think your child will respond?