When you and your partner don’t agree on how to handle the everyday decisions and dilemmas about feeding your kids, especially when it comes to picky eating, it can make things tense and frustrating for everyone. It’s an issue I hear about almost every time I talk with a group of parents about feeding kids! So I asked Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin, authors of the new book Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, for their expert take on solving this tricky problem.
by Katja Rowell, MD, and Jenny McGlothlin, MS, SLP
What To Do When Parents Disagree About How to Handle Picky Eating
Feeding children from a united front is work enough, but what about when parents don’t agree? As experts working with parents of children with extreme picky eating, we see this come up a lot. Enlisting the help of a family therapist is always an option, but these strategies can help you come to a mutual understanding around the table:
1. Figure out where you’re both coming from and why.
What do you remember from your own childhood? Do you want to do what worked for you even if it’s not working for your kids? (“I turned out ok!”) Were you forced to sit through formal meals at the table, hating every minute, so you let your kids eat whatever, whenever? Are your decisions a reaction to your own childhood experiences?
This is about “getting to the values”, as described by Dawn Friedman, MSEd LPC-CR family therapist and writer. “If Mom is saying, ‘Let’s stop battling over food’ and Dad is saying, ‘No, she needs to eat her vegetables’, talking about values can help them realize that they both want the same thing—healthy kids. Getting to the values piece helps direct the conversation to be supportive of both parents’ goals instead of arguing about something else entirely, like trying to convince Dad about dessert when that’s really not what his concern is at all.”
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2. Examine where you are right now.
What have you tried so far, and is it helping? What is going well, and what isn’t? Identifying strengths and building on those is important. If snacks are going well, what is it about snacks that’s different than meals?
Also consider your worries. Are you scared he’s too small, or not getting good nutrition? Do you feel judged? Don’t want a “spoiled” child? You want to “win?” Learn about your specific concerns. If you worry about nutrition, do a little research or consult a registered dietitian. For example, parents worry about children getting enough protein. Almost universally, children we see get more than enough! If you wonder about your child’s chewing abilities, find an SLP (speech-language pathologist) skilled in feeding. Parents can feed from a place of confidence when their worries are addressed.
3. Redefine goals & learn about appropriate expectations.
Think of short and long-term goals. Using the example of extreme picky eating, short-term goals might be:
- Decreased anxiety
- Better mood at the table
- Working on making time for meals together
- Serving meals family-style
- Not bribing with dessert
As the short-term goals of improved mood and decreased anxiety are met, the long-term goals come next: children’s skills around eating based on internal cues of hunger and fullness emerge and variety improves.
Talk about and agree on goals. Friedman explains, “Mom may be trying to build independence in eating, so a new approach makes more sense to her, but Dad is thinking more about obedience, so not enforcing bite rules looks like ‘giving in.’ If that’s the case, we talk about other ways to support Dad in his parenting goals, like focusing on what the family feels is polite behavior.”
Agree on absolutes: no force feeding, no bribes, stopping whatever is happening that may be behind a child gagging or vomiting or becoming upset. Start having family meals on a weekend, or agree to try family-style. Maybe Dad handles weekend snacks his way while Mom is out. There are ways to work together and compromise.
4. Share progress!
This is critical. Track progress, keep a journal, and share those little victories that build faith in the process.
And if you just can’t agree, agree to disagree. Find a feeding therapist, dietitian, or a family therapist to help you have the discussions. Read a book together or a few blog posts. Sometimes, families find success when they allow one parent to “drive the bus” for six months and then re-evaluate.
That’s what happened with Marianne and Paul (not their real names). Their disagreements about feeding were making mealtimes miserable and causing significant strain in their relationship. Paul wanted to make all three of their kids eat two bites of everything before they could have dessert, but Marianne thought that wasn’t helping and wanted to serve dessert with the meal. Paul reluctantly agreed to stop bribing and serve dessert with meals. They immediately noticed less fighting at the table and within a few days, their two youngest were eating more of the other foods without any pressure.
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Katja Rowell, MD, is a family doctor and childhood feeding specialist and the author of Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More. Jenny McGlothlin, SLP, is a certified speech-language pathologist specializing in pediatric feeding disorders.