When it comes to feeding children with feeding challenges or picky eating, it can feel like the only two options are for every mealtime to be a battle, or to give up entirely - handing control over to the little ones. Is there an alternative?
As part of my PhD research, I explored parents’ feeding goals. Many parents’ goal was to get their child to eat new foods or vegetables. Simultaneously, many parents wanted to have peaceful mealtimes and keep stress levels down. These two goals were framed as ‘competing’ goals - difficult to achieve at the same time. It seemed that for many parents there were just two alternatives:
- Try to get your child to eat - resulting in conflict, stress and dreaded mealtimes or
- Have peaceful conflict-free mealtimes - framed as ‘giving up’, ‘giving in’, or ‘letting go’
Some families prioritised the ‘getting children to eat’ goals - fighting and fighting for years until they said they “gave up”, “gave in” or “let go” because it was too stressful - handing control over to their child and letting their child eat on their own terms.
Other parents were juggling these two goals and switching between them day to day, or meal to meal. These parents would say “I let my child eat what they want for several days, and then I make them eat vegetables” or “I try to get them to eat what I have made, and then I just give in and cook them what they’ll eat”. This ends up as a constant cycle of conflict, giving in, negotiations, and confusing mixed messages where children do not know what to expect each day.
Is there an alternative to these two extremes - fighting about food and relinquishing control entirely?
Yes! The Responsive Feeding approach offers an alternative. It involves:
- Trusting that your child will eat to the best of their ability.
- Following the Satter Division of Responsibility - in which parents are responsible for what food is served, where it is served, and when. Children are responsible for how much they eat, and whether they eat.
- Making sure you include your child’s accepted foods at meals and snacks, while also exposing them to new and disliked foods in a zero-pressure way.
- Working on your child’s side, rather than against them.
- Providing the best structure and opportunities to support your child’s eating without ‘making’ them do anything.
- Giving your child autonomy in a helpful, purposeful and planned out way - rather than feeling like you are giving up and handing over control.
As Katja Rowell, MD puts it in her book Love Me Feed Me - “The Trust Model is an alternative to fighting or giving up”. This hugely resonated with my research and experience supporting parents. Parents do not want to fight with their children about food. Parents also do not want to ‘give up’ and feel they are losing control. Unfortunately, for too many parents - an alternative approach is difficult to see. Finding that alternative can be a huge relief!
Resources and references:
- Responsive Feeding: www.responsivefeedingtherapy.com
- Satter Division of Responsibility Model: www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/
- Rowell, K. (2012). Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent's Guide to Ending the Worry about Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles, and More. www.thefeedingdoctor.com/love-me-feed-me/
- Wolstenholme, H., Heary, C., & Kelly, C. (2019). Fussy eating behaviours: Response patterns in families of school-aged children. Appetite, 136, 93-102