How to Avoid Power Struggles With Kids Who Are Picky Eaters

An interview with Melanie Potock

Don't try to force feed your child if he's a picky eater.
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images

Mealtimes can be stressful for families with a child who is a picky eater. Convincing kids to try new foods and eat a healthy diet can be a challenge. You may worry your child isn't getting the right balance of vitamins and nutrients. Many parents feel frustrated and uncertain about what to do.

The best way to encourage kids to eat a healthy, well-rounded diet is by using positive discipline. Without a positive and well-planned approach, a child’s eating habits can get worse.

Melanie Potock, a pediatric speech language pathologist and owner of My Munch Bug, offers her best strategies for dealing with a fussy eater.

Why Are Some Kids Pickier About Food Than Others?

Many different factors can impact a child’s willingness to taste new foods and yes, some kids won’t even come near a new food, much less touch it! When I assess a child to determine why they have difficulty eating a variety of foods, I look closely at three factors: First, the child’s physiology.

If the child is experiencing any type of discomfort, especially at an early age, it can easily be associated with eating, and the child learns to stop eating certain foods due to the pain.

While typically gastrointestinal in nature, it may also be something as simple as a cavity, which the child then associated with crunchy foods, and begins to only eat soft foods.

It takes a bit of detective work! Included in the category of physiology is the sensory system and how the child is able to take in information through his senses and respond appropriately. For example, the texture of Stage 3 baby foods may provide too much sensory input for some babies, yet the smoother textures in the earlier stages were never a problem.

Second, I look closely at the child’s oral motor skills. Does he have the strength and stability in the oral structures to learn to chew more advanced foods? If not, he may stall at the “soft table foods” stage and appear picky when parents offer more advanced foods that require more chewing. He quickly learns that he cannot eat the more challenging textures and refuses them.

Third, I observe and identify the behaviors that he has learned in order to avoid eating. This includes behavior around food and family dynamics in general. Discovering why a child is a picky eater takes time and helping him to become a more adventurous eater requires patience and yes, more time!

The Rule That Says Kids Should Clean Their Plate

For the garden-variety picky eater, the “clean plate club” is not a strategy I recommend. It creates power struggles within the entire family and only leads to stressful mealtimes. For kids who are learning to chew and swallow a variety of tastes and textures in the structured course of feeding therapy, a treatment session may include eating all the bites on a plate, but those bites are few and manageable.

In that scenario, we are focusing on a specific skill that will eventually lead us to the joy of family mealtimes. At that point, I encourage following Ellyn Satter’s model known as the Division of Responsibility.

Simply put, it’s the parent’s responsibility to provide healthy food at the table and the child’s responsibility to listen to his own body’s cues and eat what he needs.

When parents tell kids to, "eat three more bites," does that help or can it cause more problems with picky eaters?

I try to help parents understand the difference between creating a power struggle and supporting a child in making healthy decisions. When parents say “eat three more bites” they are stating that is their decision on what the child should consume, not the child’s. Instead, try making it about tasting the food.

Create a family rule that encourages tasting foods: “In our family, we taste everything on our plate, so that our taste buds learn about new foods. Then, we can eat whatever our tummy tells us it needs.” If we want to raise adventurous, healthy eaters, it starts with a willingness to taste a food and not someone else telling us how many bites to take before we are done.

The key is to keep presenting that food many times over the course of a month or two and see if the child decides to take a few more bites on his own.

Research shows that a repeated exposure to the same food is the key to learning to eat new foods. And, exposure doesn't have to be eating the food—it can be helping to prepare it or simply having it on their plate.

When parents ask me how often to present the food, I say “Often enough that you as the parent don’t get sick of it. Then, you know you are offering it too much.”

What Are Some Good Rules for Parents to Have When It Comes to Food?

1. Take it step by step. If the best your child can do that day is help wash the Brussel sprouts, that’s terrific! Next time, they may be able to dish up everyone’s plates with those roly-poly Brussel sprouts. Perhaps the next time, they might eat one tiny leaf. Praise your child for each step — keep it positive and keep it fun!

2. Learning to try new foods never starts with the bite. It starts in the garden, in the produce aisle or at the Farmer’s Market. Get your kids involved in the process of growing and purchasing fresh food.

3. Family mealtimes are about family. Don’t focus on how many bites of broccoli your child ate that night. Focus on the joyful memories you are creating around the family table.

4. It’s fine to say “no thank you” but it’s a family rule that we don’t say “blech” or “oooh, peas are gross,” etc. when at the table. If you really loved a special food, would you want someone announcing how gross it is to eat that food in front of the entire family? It’s rude. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. That also applies to food and family dinner time.

5. It’s the child’s decision if they like a new food. What I suggest is that parents encourage children to taste foods. As long as kids learn the skill of tasting, their food repertoire will increase over time. The more tastes, the more they learn to like certain foods. That’s how we all learned to drink coffee in young adulthood.

Who really likes their first sip of black coffee? Consider those foods that might make even an adult think twice, such as raw oysters. I don’t know of one person on earth who looked at a raw oyster and said “Yum, that looks good!” yet millions of us eat them, especially if you grew up at the seaside, where you were exposed to oysters many, many times over the course of the summer.

Keep everything in perspective. Kids need time to learn to enjoy certain foods. A parent’s job is to create a supportive, positive atmosphere for tasting.

Rules That Backfire and Increase a Child's Picky Eating Habits

1.Finish all your ___ (insert undesired food here) and then you can have dessert. This implies that dessert is the reason we eat other things—so we can get to the sweet stuff! Serve dessert no matter what was or wasn't eaten at the meal or serve a portion with the meal.

2. You can sit here until you eat all your _____. For many kids, there is a lot of power in NOT eating and sitting there all night! Plus, for kids with sensory integration challenges or other physiological issues, they simply can’t do it.

3. Bribery: If you eat your ____ you can _____. Again, there is a lot of power in not giving in. Rule number two and number three set up power struggles that have nothing to do with eating. And, a child who is raised to believe that their relationship with their parent(s) is based on power will quickly learn to assert their own in the realm of becoming pickier and pickier.

How Should a Parent Respond If a Child Is Refusing to Eat Dinner?

Give it very little attention. What’s most important is that the child comes to the dinner table and is present for the entire meal. Keep the conversation positive and when the meal is over; be sure that everyone, even toddlers, takes their plates up to the counter to mark the end of the meal.

Marking the beginning of a meal with a prayer, a song or a family tradition, such as lighting candles, tells everyone that family meals are special. Marking the end of the meal communicates that the meal is over and that the next snack or meal will not occur again for at least 2 to 2 ½ hours later.

For family’s who mark the end of the meal, it is clear that the kitchen is closed and there will be no snacking in the kitchen afterward until it's snack time again.

Tips for How Parents Can Avoid Power Struggles With a Picky Eater

Resist the urge to say “See, I told you that you would like it!” after a child finally gives in and takes a bite. Well-meaning parents believe they are being supportive and don’t realize that it’s patronizing and not a helpful comment.

Instead, let the child make the decision to taste it at their own pace and pause, letting them tell you how they felt about it. If they don’t like the taste, you can praise them for trying it by saying “Wow, you are very brave! It’s not easy to try new things, but you did it!” or “I bet your taste buds are wondering what the next new food will be…you’re teaching your tongue about new foods! What a terrific teacher you are!”

Raising an adventurous eater means raising a child who feels confident in, and is given space to, make decisions about what goes into their body, what feels best, and what fuels them best for their day. When children are allowed to make their own informed decisions (with our guidance, much like authoritative parenting) about how much they eat and which foods feel good in their bodies, it reduces the chances of a power struggle and provides a healthier atmosphere in the family home.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.