Once I Discovered the "Golden Rule" of Feeding Picky Eaters, Mealtimes Became 100% Less Stressful

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POPSUGAR Photography | Evan Kheraj
POPSUGAR Photography | Evan Kheraj

For nearly two years, having dinner with my youngest kid looked something like this:

We'd set a plate filled with a variety of nutritious foods in front of her. She'd refuse. We'd prod. "You have to eat your dinner." She'd fuss. She'd nibble on a roll but refuse to touch her roasted veggies. We'd barter. "If you eat three bites of carrots, you can have more bread." She'd negotiate. "Ketchup!" We'd raise our hopes. "OK, you can have some with your chicken! But don't just dip your fingers into the ketchup, OK?" She'd stall. We'd grab her tiny fork and attempt the airplane-coming-in-for-a-landing maneuver. She'd swat our hand away. Food would splatter. We'd lose our cool.

It was the same every evening, and it got to the point that I dreaded dinnertime and felt defeated before I even started cooking.

I commiserated with friends, most of whom shared my sentiments: that dinner was a never-ending power struggle with our toddlers, and yet no one was winning. Or, at least, it definitely wasn't us parents.

Dinner was a never-ending power struggle with our toddler, and yet no one was winning. Or, at least, it definitely wasn't us.

One friend, however, must have made a mental note of what I'd said, because the next time I saw her, she handed me an old book, How to Get Your Kid to Eat by Ellyn Satter. It was written in the '80s and had a hokey picture of a boy side-eyeing a floret of broccoli on the cover, and I let it sit on my nightstand for weeks before I gave it a shot. Just 14 pages in, I landed on a simple discovery that changed my entire way of thinking about feeding my kid.

In a section called "The Division of Responsibility in Feeding," the author shared what I've come to consider the golden rule of mealtime:

Parents are responsible for what, when, and where.
The child is responsible for how much and whether.

As expected, it's the parents' job to choose and prepare the food and to provide it during regular mealtimes at a consistent location. All that felt obvious. But according to Satter, it was also a fundamental role of parents to trust their children to determine how much they eat or even whether to eat at all.

"When parents do their jobs with feeding," she wrote, "children do their jobs with eating."

In just a few sentences, Satter made me realize all the things I was doing wrong.

I was making mealtimes a battleground, yet being completely lax with snacks all other hours of the day. I'd allow her to have a handful of raisins to keep her from whining while I was trying to cook, and after dinner, I wouldn't say no to her request for apple slices or an orange. I was failing at the what and when.

Satter also cued me into the things I was taking responsibility for that I shouldn't. It was not my job, for instance, to force my child to eat her vegetables — or to eat anything, for that matter.

They were hard habits to break, but I trained myself to stop saying things like, "eat one more bite" or "you can't go play until you finish your plate," or "Won't you please just try this? I made it especially for you!"

Here's how she breaks it down even further:

Parents' feeding jobs:

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of children's lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.

Children's feeding jobs:

  • Children will eat.
  • They will eat the amount they need.
  • They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
  • They will grow predictably.
  • They will learn to behave well at mealtime.

As strikingly simple as the concept is, I'll admit it's been a complicated process trying to stay true to the division of labor. It's meant being stricter than I had been about snacks and more flexible than I had been about meals. But it's worked. On the days I've been able to do my part — control what they eat and when they eat it — my kid does hers. On the days in which I haven't allowed her free range over the pantry all afternoon and have made a point to plan a meal with promising foods the whole family might enjoy, she just so happens to eat it.

Since employing this strategy, there have still been many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners primed for a power struggle. But when I set down her plate and she flicks the food around and barely takes a bite? I no longer stress out about it. I don't react, and I definitely don't negotiate. "That's fine," I'll simply say. "You don't have to eat it."

Because Satter's point is that, if I keep holding up my end of the bargain, my kid will learn to hold up hers. Until then, she's still what most would consider a "picky eater," but, hey, that's not my responsibility.