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A dietitian (and mom)'s key phrases to end food battles quickly

Updated: Mar 5

Woman looking at boy while eating

Mealtime with young children can often resemble a battlefield with parents waging war on picky eating habits and how much/whether or not a child eats. However, turning mealtime into a power struggle is not the solution. Instead, fostering a positive and relaxed atmosphere around food can set the stage for healthy eating habits and positive associations.

Oftentimes, parents we work with need some help navigating how to respond and what to say in the midst of a power struggle. In this blog post, we'll explore effective phrases for avoiding food battles with young children and creating a feeding environment with less stress and more joy for the entire family. Here's 5 scenarios you might come across in your own family and how to navigate them.

Scenario 1

When Your Child Says: "That's yucky! I don't like that!"

Options to Try:

"You don't have to eat it."

"It's okay if you're not ready to try that."

"You're still learning to like that food, and that's okay."

Reasoning: Keeping our response calm while reassuring them that they get to decide what goes in their body helps bring down barriers making a child more likely to try something new.

Scenario 2

When Your Child Says: "I don't want pasta for dinner. I want chicken nuggets!"

Options to Try:

"Chicken nuggets aren't available today, but we can put those on the menu for tomorrow."

"I hear you really wanted nuggets for dinner. Why don't we plan a day this week to have them."

Reasoning: We want to stay confident in our leadership while also acknowledging a child's food preferences. We are saying "no" (that's not available) while also saying "yes" (but we can have it soon) which can reduce power struggles.

Scenario 3

When Your Child Says: "I'm done eating." (when they've barely touched their plate)

Options to Try:

"Check in with your tummy. Has it had enough?"

"If you're done eating, that's okay. Remember we won't eat again until breakfast tomorrow, so make sure you've had enough."

Reasoning: A child's appetite fluctuates from meal-to-meal and day-to-day. It's not our job to tell them how much to eat, but it is appropriate to remind them when their next eating opportunity will be (and then stick to it).

Scenario 4

When Your Child Says: "I didn't want my banana sliced. I wanted it whole!"

Options to Try:

"I hear that you didn't want me to slice your banana. Next time we have bananas, we can have it whole."

OR before slicing the banana: "Would you like your banana sliced or whole?"

Reasoning: Giving guided choices can help prevent this. When kids are involved in the decision making process, they feel empowered and are more likely to try foods. We do want to challenge them by changing up how we serve foods (fruit sliced vs. whole, a sandwich sliced diagonally vs. straight). However, it's okay to adjust if it's an easy fix and your child requests it. Example: I serve a banana whole > They request it be sliced > "Sure, I can slice that for you."

Scenario 5

When Your Child Says: "I need a snack!" (outside of designated meal/snack times)

Options to Try:

"It's not snack time just yet, but we will have snack as soon as we get home from the park."

"Dinner will be ready in 15 minutes. We will eat then."

"If you're feeling extra hungry, you can have some apple slices while I prepare dinner."

Reasoning: Providing structure around when food is served helps a child regulate their appetite and increases their appetite for nutritious foods when they are available. However, sometimes we get hungry outside of these times. It's okay to offer something nutritious (and somewhat boring) if needed on days they need something to hold them over until the next meal or snack. Trust your gut on this one.

As parents to young children ourselves, we know power struggles can't always be avoided entirely. And these scenarios don't always play out the way we'd hope. However, having a plan before these power struggles arise can help us to stay calm and confident in our approach which is only helpful for both parent and child. If you're struggling with constant food battles, we're here to help! Schedule a FREE discovery call to see if we're a good fit for your family.



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