Do you have a picky eater in your family? Do mealtimes cause you stress? Have you ever been frustrated when, after slaving over a healthy meal, your child turns up his or her nose yet again?
We have had several picky eaters in our house – some of whom are just picky, and some of whom meet diagnostic criteria for disorders characterized by avoidant and restrictive behavior, anxiety, and negative responses in social situations. It’s incredibly frustrating to try and cook healthy meals for your family, only to have that food go untouched.
When one of my daughters was a toddler, I literally had to leave the house and go for a walk because I was so triggered by her refusal to eat what I had made. And even with my clinical knowledge about what is going on developmentally, it’s taken me several years to better understand and respond to my own frustration when my kids are picky. I’m right there with you, parents.
We all know that friends and family have advice for parents about how to eliminate picky eating, but there’s actually a successful, research-based model that’s easy to implement and follow: The Ellyn Satter “Division of Responsibility.” (Click the link to be directed to the Ellyn Satter Institute and learn more.) Before I lay out how this division of responsibility works, however, I want to make two very important points. Unless you accept these points wholeheartedly, the Satter model won’t work very well for you.
1) YOU cannot change your child; you can only model what you want them to learn.
You cannot physically force your child to eat, and you should not use punishment, threats, emotional manipulation, or withholding of favorite foods to coerce your child to eat.
Your child is an individual under your care until they are an adult, not a mini-you for which you have all control. You cannot erase a child’s anxiety, but can teach them how to respond to it. You cannot chose the foods your child likes or dislikes, but can provide them with opportunities to add variety to their palate.
“When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a “mini me,” but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. For this reason, it’s important to separate who you are from who each of your children is. Children aren’t ours to possess or own in any way. When we know this in the depths of our soul, we tailor our raising of them to their needs, rather than molding them to fit our needs.” ― Dr. Shefali Tsabary, “The Conscious Parent”
Your child’s picky eating is not your problem to fix, but their problem to work through. You, as their parent, only need to be a role model and guide for healthy choices and attitudes.
2) Measurable success may take weeks, months or years.
As much as we’d like to see change immediately, change only comes when your child starts making different decisions, and becomes willing to challenge their own anxiety. A quick fix rarely leads to long-lasting changes. Don’t rush the process, and trust that your children will ultimately be fine.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the Satter model.
You are in charge of when, where, and what.
Your only responsibility to your child is to provide healthy meals, and a healthy atmosphere within the home. You, as the parent, choose when meals and snacks will happen (no eating between meals and snacks), where they will happen (in front of the tv vs. at the table together), and what is served. That’s it. Case closed.
You don’t serve one meal for some family members, and another meal for a picky eater. This type of behavior only enables the picky eating. If no new food is ever served, there is no motivation to try anything new.
You don’t police the choices your child makes. You don’t make them try every food on their plate, nor do you make them “clean their plate” before leaving the table. You simply make healthy (and varied) food available.
You also don’t serve ONLY new food. Make a meal with some new foods, but also include something your know your child will eat – a side of dinner rolls, for example.
Model the behavior you want to see in your children. Make mealtime pleasant, try new foods yourself, only eat when you’re hungry, etc.
Your child is in charge of whether to eat, and how much to eat.
Once the mealtime has been decided, the location of meals has been determined, and you’ve decided what food is going on the table, it’s time to step away (figuratively). Your child’s responsibility is deciding whether or not to eat the foods presented to them, and how much of those foods they will eat.
If they want to ignore all food besides bread, or applesauce, or some other staple, that is their choice. If they try a new food, but only take one bite, that is their choice. They are in charge of what goes into their body.
If your child chooses not to eat at all, that is fine. Because you are in charge of mealtimes, they will have to wait until more food is served. And it’s okay for them to feel hungry (they will NOT starve, and YOU are not starving them). The goal of the model is to teach your child that anxiety should not dictate what they eat. When they are hungry and waiting for the next meal, their anxiety will have less and less power over them.
Sounds simple, right? You’d be surprised, however, how difficult it is to resist making your kids TRY all the food on their plate, or to keep your mouth closed as they only reach for the side of dinner rolls you included in the meal. But keep your chin up, parents! Give up control of what Ellen Satter defines as your child’s responsibility, and begin enjoying mealtimes again. Remember, the best thing you can do for your child is to model a healthy relationship with food that includes a variety of tastes and textures. You may not see improvement in your child’s picky eating right away, but Ellen Satter’s model is a research-backed way to make things better – if you’ll follow it.