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09th Jul 2019

These 5 magic words may just transform your picky eater (yes, really)

You got to beat them at their own game, mama.

Trine Jensen-Burke


Toddlers are like walking, talking examples of Murphy’s Law, aren’t they?

The longer they stay up at night, the earlier they will wake the next morning. The smaller the issue, the bigger the tantrum. The longer time you have spent cooking up the most nutritious gloop known to man, the less likely they are to eat any of it.

Which, you know, is all sorts of infuriating considering you trawled the shops for organic this and in-season that, then slaved over your pots and food processor for what seems like eternity, only to be met with stony and utter reluctance to try even One. Little. Bit.


But fear not if the above scenario sounds all to common, mamas. Now experts are claiming that the secret to happy mealtimes can be found in this book: Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter.

The solution, you may ask? Six little words that apparently hold a lot of power:

You don’t have to eat it.

That’s it. Sounds simple enough, no?

According to Satter, they must be spoken ‘in a mild tone, without rancor’ and the idea is to give the choice to the eater.

As in; beat them at their own game with some good aul’ reversed psychology. Not convinced? I have tried it at home with my notoriously fruit-shy toddler, and I can tell you this much: It works.

Here is how it should go down: When they refuse something, do not fix an alternative meal. Unless there’s a serious medical or behavioral issue, your child is not intentionally going to starve him or herself. Really. Toddlers love food just as much as the rest of us.

Just imagine this for a moment: You are two years old. You’ve recently learned how to express your likes and dislikes. You’re smart, and you are just beginning to figure out that you can exert control over the world around you—including your parents. You also know that cookies taste better than most things. (Like; we all know that!)

What you don’t know yet, is that if you skip the broccoli, potatoes and chicken so you’ll have room for more cookies in your tummy, you won’t get the nutrition your growing body needs. As far as you’re concerned, mum and dad simply don’t understand that you don’t want this yucky broccoli, you want cookies.

Trust me; toddlers are intelligent, adorable little sociopaths.

And so you need to stick with the six words with all your might. Say them. Believe them. And explain the consequences of not eating properly. “This is what we’re having for dinner (or lunch). There is no second choice waiting. You don’t have to eat this, but if you don’t, you’re going to be hungry.”

Be as calm and matter-of-fact as possible, and leave it there. Give your child this choice at every meal and watch how quickly he decides which option is better.

There will be times when he will choose not to eat – and that is his prerogative. He will sit there and watch the rest of you enjoy your lovely dinner, and will learn the hard way that leaving the table hungry is not a nice feeling, and he will earn from this experience. YOU have to stay strong though, because the urge to feed him something else, jsut so he eats anything will be there, but Satter argues that by doing this, you are only teaching him that manipulative behavior works.  Which, I think we all agree, it should not. For the sake of your own sanity if nothing else.

Satter’s book recommendation also includes:

  • A ‘division of responsibility’ for meals – the parent decides when to eat, what to serve, and where to serve it, and the child decides whether and how much to eat.
  • Include something on the table that you know your child likes – rice, fruit or bread. Any new foods are paired with safe, familiar foods. (This one is important, I think)
  • Don’t pressure your child to ‘just taste’ anything or order he eats a certain amount.
  • Avoid bribing with dessert, or withholding it if the meal is not finished.
  • Aim for family meals, with children seeing parents eating a variety of foods. (Again, so important!)

Note; while the “take it or leave it” approach may seem cruel, it actually empowers your child by allowing him or her to learn the concepts of choice and consequences. If he  complains of hunger an hour or so after the meal, offer the uneaten meal again. (Reheat it, making someone eat cold food is just cruel!). And of course, if it’s something you truly believe your child really dislikes, try an acceptable—but not too yummy—swap.

(But no cookies. Keep those for yourself, mamas!)