The Role of Nutrition in Child Development  

This post is sponsored by Healthy Height. All opinions are my own.


This mom shares:

I don’t know what to do about my son. He eats literally the same few things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day but that’s it. I used to try to feed him  what I was making for the rest of us, but he always refused. When he was 18 months old and small for his age, the pediatrician told me, “just get the calories in him...I don’t care if it’s with ice cream!” Ever since, I haven’t wanted to fight with him for each bite and just give him what I know he’ll eat so he gets the calories. But I am exhausted making separate meals and concerned over the quality of foods he chooses. I assumed as he  got older, things would be better. But it’s only gotten worse. His diet continues to be limited and he remains behind on his growth curve.

What do I do?

This week, I have partnered with Healthy Height to share with you the science, strategies, and solutions to helping nourish the growing child. I highlight how common this parent’s struggle is with nourishing a growing child, as well as some of the factors perpetuating such a problem. I also discuss some of the science behind how nutrition impacts growth in children and how not all calories nourish growing bodies the same. Then, I walk you through solutions for how to effectively nourish your growing child through healthier foods and feeding behaviors. To read more, visit the Healthy Height blog here.

What to do if your kids won’t eat learning it foods

Over the past few weeks, we have talked about both family style meals and how to handle when our children only eat their love it foods.

Still, many moms are likely wondering a question I hear echoed again and again. It goes like this:

Family style meals diffuse the battles for sure. But my picky eaters always tend to pick the same foods (fruit, bread, etc) so I wonder if it's still worth doing if they don't really try anything new. Know what I mean?

That’s why in this week’s post, I am going to dissect this simple and yet common question a bit more to get to the Achilles heel of this question:

...Is it still worth doing if they don’t really try anything new.

I think if there is one question that gets to the heart of my mission at Veggies & Virtue, it might be this.

As a health practitioner, it is my job to convince parents that yes - it is “worth it” to invest in our children’s health in this way, early on, through feeding them in ways that help them grow into being a competent eater. As a parent, however, I recognize firsthand how defeating it can be to feed kids who aren’t naturally adventurous eaters or inclined to try everything offered. So let’s take time this week to evaluate this underlying wonder so many of us parents have amidst the untouched meals.

In this post, we will:

  1. Redefine the definition of “worth” (in feeding/eating)

  2. Address a progress > perfection mindset shift

  3. Identify more than 25 ways to help your child learn to like new foods

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What to do if your kids won’t eat learning it foods

Note: This page includes affiliate links. All opinions are my own.

Our definition of “worth”

The reality is that for most of us parents, we use an objective measure of “worth” in the feeding relationship based on if/whether and how much our child ate of a given food.

It is understandable why we look at a meal and deem its success in that way. But I promise you, you are setting yourself up for failure, frustration, and disconnect in your feeding relationship with your child if we continue to consider you “wins” in such a way.

If you have ever followed my Food Win Wednesdays before, you know that I get about as granular as it gets.

That’s because whether it is in my own family or in working with clients, rarely ever are our most genuine wins big, overnight ones.

Instead, the success we see in raising healthy eaters tends to be small...really small. At to that it also being VERY slow, particularly with kids who are picky eaters, and it is no wonder why so many parents I work with feel like they are getting no where in trying to offer healthy options. This continual questioning of if progress is happening leads to a parent’s natural wonder of if all their time, all their energy, all the food that gets wasted is really even worth it.

So let’s redefine worth here.

Worth is NOT an objective measure of what is eaten (or not). If it was, then so many of us would have to reduce everything we do as part of our role in the Division of Responsibility in feeding as worthless.

But what if we re-evaluated worth in the context of feeding the same way we do in other areas of parenting?

  • Is it worth it to drive our kids 30 minutes each way for a 15 minute swim lesson that costs $35 per class when they still don’t even know how to swim? How long is it worth it to us to consistently show up and entertain this crazy song and dance when our kids still can’t swim?

  • Is it worth it to us to commit to singing the ABC’s 842 times before our kids ever echo it back? How long is it worth it to us to consistently show up and entertain practicing letters, uppercase and lowercase, sight words, and board books when our kids still can’t read?

  • Is it worth it to us to commit to reminding our kids 10,052 times as toddlers to be kind if they are going to steal toys and hit other kids anyways? How long is it worth it to us to consistently show up and entertain play dates where they practice how to play nicely and kindly treat others, outings where they learn how to act in public, and social situations where we face more meltdowns than make-mama-proud moments?

If we look at any of these common things we commit to doing with our kids as binary worth of swimmer or not, reader or not, respectable member of society or not, then a lot of us are still flat failing - myself included.

That’s because for most of us, we are still in the trenches. Our kids are still so little. And with that, their skills are still so immature. Sure we have invested A LOT into their eating and hopefully, their eating well. But for many of us, it is still really hard to see the worth.

So we can either decide, “this is worthless” and stop showing up to meal after meal and snack after snack. Or, we can decide that we are going to keep entertaining the idea that someday, down the road, this investment we are making in our small kids will all prove worth it…one small win at a time.

Just as our kids grow into capable swimmers, readers, and kind citizens of society, they too will grow into competent eaters. We just need to continue to show up, even when meals go untouched, and to zoom in our lens a bit closer. If we look close enough, we can begin to see this approach to feeding is worth it. The return on our investment just isn’t overnight.

Progress not perfection

This is kind of a cliche phrase and yet, for good reason particularly to us as parents.

Our kids eating perfection is not what we are after. What we do want, and how we will begin to redefine “worth” in the feeding relationship is by seeing gradual progress.

So what does that look like?

One resource that I love and think is not shared nearly enough in the feeding world is this diagram of the steps of eating.

Created by feeding experts from the SOS Approach, this visual puts to shame the often recited advice to “expose your kids to something 10-20 times.” This advice literally makes me cringe when I hear people say it. Even well-intended professionals say it ALL. THE. TIME.

The reason I rarely quote this piece of evidenced-based advice though is because I know firsthand how defeating it can be when you do offer a new food 10...11...12...20+ times and still, your kid doesn’t care. Then what? Are parents just supposed to stop offering it?

No. Parents should be encouraged to be look for signs of progress with that one food as well as in signs for progress in their child’s overall diet that are indicative of progress in other areas as well.

This diagram, in my opinion, does that.

It gets to the point that SO many pieces of advice on picky eating miss. That is, children may take years to learn to like new foods. If it is a nourishing food though, nutritionally, socially, spiritually, or physically, then we as parents are to continue to help them learn to like it in as many age-appropriate ways as possible for as long as possible until they learn to like it. We are all entitled to have foods we “don’t like.” However, when our children are still young and often have many more foods on their “don’t” versus “do” like lists, we set them better up for success in developing a lifelong healthy relationship with all foods when we evaluate progress in an ongoing manner.

That is, progress is made when a child moves from learning to like a new food to loving it by way of:

  • Tolerating it

  • Interacting with it

  • Smelling it

  • Touching it

  • Tasting it

  • Eating it

Identifying the 32 steps to eating that are actually required to move a child from offering to eating a new, “learning it” food can be a transformational thing for parents. In doing so, both “worth” and “progress” are quickly redefined into smaller, simpler acts of “eating” that don’t undermine the progress made even when no food is actually consumed.

Learning it foods

There is a reason why I never labeled this category, “Don’t like it” foods. That would quickly blacklist a lot of foods that we would like for our children to enjoy over the course of their childhood but ones that they might not instantly do so with or might enjoy for a time only to later reject. That’s because, like swimming, reading, and relating with others, our children have to LEARN these things. As infants, they have to learn how to eat. As toddlers and then throughout their childhood, they have to learn what to eat. So how do we help them do that?

Let’s evaluate some strategies for how to help a child who won’t eat any of their learning it foods.

What would you do if your kids wouldn’t eat any of the learning it foods?

Chances are, we are jumping too far ahead of ourselves and assuming our child to immediately tolerate and instantly eat a new food. Since we often hear it can take 10-20 exposures for a child to learn to like something, we often look for quick success or at least obvious progress. However, this may not be the case.

When we slow down the learning to like process to be more alike any other process we are familiar with helping our child grow and develop in, we begin to see strategies for smaller, every day successes. We begin to redefine “success” and the worth of our child’s efforts and our own, and we begin to recognize the progress by not focusing on perfection.

Instead, you can help your child learn to like new foods by helping them to:

Tolerate learning it foods

  • Parent can select the learning it food to put near child in the grocery cart

  • Parent can prepare the learning it food in the kitchen while child is present

  • Parent can eat the learning it food in front of child

  • Parent can serve the learning it food family style on the table near child

  • Parent can help pass the learning it food around child at the table

Favorite tool to help kids tolerate learning it foods: visual grocery lists like this one, family style meals

Interact with learning it foods

  • Child can help select the learning it food at the store and place it in cart

  • Child can help prepare the learning it food

  • Child can self-serve the learning it food from a family style meal

  • Child can help pass the learning it food to other family members at the table

  • Child can serve other the learning it food

Favorite tool to help kids interact with learning it foods: Foost first knives, crinkle cutters, apple spiralizer, cherry pitter, salad spinners, Little Partners Learning Tower, DIY sensory bin, tongs

Smell learning it foods

  • Child can smell the learning it food in a room

  • Child can smell the learning it food at the table

  • Child can smell the learning it food in front of them

  • Child can lean down and smell the learning it food

  • Child can pick up and smell the learning it food

Favorite tool to help kids smell learning it foods: lemon juicer, zester

Touch learning it foods

  • Child will poke the learning it food with one finger tip

  • Child will hold the learning it food in hand

  • Child will allow the learning it food to touch their face (chin, cheek, nose)

  • Child will touch the learning it food to their lips or teeth

  • Child will place the learning it food at the tip or on top of their tongue

Favorite tool to help kids touch learning it foods: nutridashe food picks, other pokers, muffin tin meals, cookie cutters, dylbug products (use code veggiesandvirtue for 10% off orders)

Taste learning it foods

  • Child licks the learning it food

  • Child bites off a piece of the learning it food and spits it out immediately

  • Child bites off a piece of the learning it food and spits it out after a number of seconds or chews

  • Child chews the learning it food, swallowing some and spitting out other

  • Child chews and swallows the learning it food with a drink and later without

Favorite tool to help kids taste learning it foods: Official taste tester card (in my Love it, Like it, Learning it Starter Kit)

Eat learning it foods

  • Child eats the learning it food independently!

In sharing a summary of the 32 steps to eating, I believe parents are better able to understand why children need to be given endless opportunities to learn to like learning it foods. With some foods, a child may progress from tolerating to eating rather quickly. With others, a child may need several exposures to even move from one category to the next. Other times, a child may be eating a food and regress back to the beginning of the process for some time. Whatever pathway a child takes in general, overall, or with a given food, parents can take heart that progress is taking place when they see their child initiate steps towards eating.

Next Steps

I challenge you, if you are struggling to know what to do with the long list of foods your child is still learning to like, do this.

  1. Print out my Love it, Like it, Learning it download. It includes 150 suggested foods and a Love it, Like it, Learning it template to plug each of these foods into for your child/family. You can do so by entering your email here.

2. Go through the foods you most want your child to learn to like. These might be because they’re commonplace in your family’s diet, have nutritional benefits lacking in your child’s diet, or are a food similar to a known love it food that you think your child could easily learn to like. Whatever the food, identify 5-10 foods you want to begin being more intentional about exposing your child to.

3. Start identifying where your child is at in their steps to eating towards each learning it food. Meet them where they are at and commit to allowing them to work through each step at their own pace, while also fostering a feeding environment that gently encourages them along in the process. Help them to find ways to tolerate, interact with, smell, touch, and taste these foods!

This process is not a quick fix but it does create lasting results. We can raise up children who eat what they are told OR children who learn to love the healthy options offered. By allowing our children the independence to self-feed learning it foods within the context of what, when, and where we offer them, can help them to lose their neophobia and gain a newfound freedom with new foods one sniff, touch, and taste at a time!

What do you when a child only wants to eat their "love it" food?

This Mom Asks:

My husband and I are struggling with our 4.5 year old at the moment. I love the concept of Division of Responsibility. I just finished reading It's Not About the Broccoli, and I've read lots of info on your site. The question that I can't seem to find the answer to (and maybe you've answered this before) is what do you do when a child only wants to eat their "love it" food and not the other foods served at the meal and then wants more of the "love it" food? Like if I served chicken (like it), pasta (love it), strawberries (like it), broccoli (learning it) and she only ate pasta and then wanted more, do we allow that? I'm assuming yes because the whole idea is to ease the pressure, but it goes against my inner mommy nutrition police!! Would love your take!

This is hands down the most popular question I get regarding my Love it, Like it, Learning it framework. Unfortunately until now, I haven’t had my answer in an easy place for parents to find.

That’s why I wanted to dedicate this week’s post to share my take. I will walk parents through how to think beyond the obvious answer to this question including some implications from each potential food parenting approach. Then, I will share what my recommended approach is with some practical tactics families can try. This will help parents maintain their job in the Division of Responsibility in feeding...and our kids don’t end up exclusively eating Goldfish crackers at every meal.

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Since I have gotten a question similar to the one above literally hundreds of times, I would say that in short, my answer is: YES. You allow them to choose if/whether they eat from all the foods offered and how much of each of those foods to consume (from what’s available). In order to stay consistent with the Division of Responsibility in feeding and “ease the pressure” (as this mom said so well), that’s the most basic answer.

I recognize how counter intuitive this seems to majority of parents though.

That’s because if we want our child to eat more of the other options that are offered (like the broccoli, strawberries, and chicken in the example above) and our aim is to promote a balanced diet for them, then wouldn’t it make more sense to limit “excessive” amounts of the preferred and often less nutrient-rich food option (like pasta in this example) and promote more of the healthier options offered?

Most parents, including many of my clients, would irrefutably say: yes, this makes perfect sense (which is why that’s exactly how parents tend to handle this scenario).

So let’s dissect this.

I have had to go against my own inner mommy nutrition police on this more than a time or two as well, and I want to share some important, evidenced-based insights to consider before we automatically default to acting on what feels intuitive here.

What do you do when a child only wants to eat their "love it" food and (and then wants more of it)?

Think beyond the obvious answer to this question

As a parent, it is so easy to react without ever stopping to think about why we do what we do or if it is even effective (let alone, evidenced-based). We often parent out of fear rather than from a place of trust and confidence in our children’s growing ability to make their own decisions, including around food and self-feeding.

What happens when we restrict

The question I usually ask clients when they want to restrict seconds or more “love it foods,” is this:

Can you withhold seconds (or thirds…) from your child WITHOUT practicing these behaviors in the process?

Rarely ever do a see a family that can.

That’s because when we restrict our children from deciding how much they want to eat (from what’s available), we often have to do so using behaviors that research again and again advises to avoid.

How do we learn to trust our children (in trusting themselves and their own appetites) when we override their requests for more or their decision that they’re done eating? More importantly, how do we equip our children to “listen to their bodies,” when we are the ones limiting their ability to have additional helpings or forcing them to eat more of foods they’ve already chosen not to eat? We don’t.

Instead, we begin to slowly override the mechanism for the internal regulation that they’re born with, deeming it “ineffective.”

Most kids are born to be good self-regulators. When offered enough nourishment, as infants, toddlers, and throughout their childhood, children know how much to consume for their unique body to grow and develop properly. In infancy, our babies were able to increase or decrease their intake of breastmilk or formula to adjust for their ever-changing needs and growth-spurts. Sometime after our children become toddlers though, we begin to assume that how much they eat is up to us...or surely, it should be because otherwise, they would fill up only on those less-nourishing love it foods that we as parents just don’t like.

The conflict is, the decision on if/whether and how much to eat is still up to them.

Sometimes, they may “fail.” They may over-indulge in a food we would have limited them from eating so much of. Even more challenging, they might do this again and again in a way that seems so far from nutritionally sound. But the goal here isn’t just on what they eat. It is just as much on how they learn to eat from what’s offered, which we do a disservice to when we restrict what they eat.

What happens when we restrict certain foods…

Instead of empowering our child to follow their intrinsic cues for hunger and fullness around all foods, a trap many families fall into is selectively choosing which foods are “okay” to have enough of and which ones aren’t. This negates the neutrality we need to approach foods with and assigns food with labels like “good” and “bad.”

We would never limit our child of broccoli, would we? But change that food item to pasta and parents change their approach to the idea of seconds or if their child really “needs” more of it.

The bottom line is, how we approach the concept of more should not shift based on the food item. Research shows how assigning certain foods as “good (for you)” and others as “bad (for you),” only makes children less inclined to eat the “good” food and more inclined to prefer, or elevate, the “bad” food.

What happens when we don’t restrict any foods…

When it comes to the Division of Responsibility in feeding, there is often the point made that once you have given your child their plate, your job is done.

That doesn’t mean you can’t help serve your child from a family style meal, discuss with them how meals are different than they once were, or help them learn to like new foods (next week’s blog post).

What it does imply though is that your job as the parent of deciding what foods will be offered, where to offer these foods, and when such eating opportunities occur has already been done. You have satisfied your job responsibilities for that meal or snack, so you can sit back, enjoy your own meal, and embrace that the hand off to your child has already been made.

When we approach meals like this, it literally transforms meal time dynamics. There is no power struggle over how many bites one must take, if seconds are allowed of one food but not another, or the constant strain on conversation because parents are so fixated on if/whether and how much their child eats.

What there is, is a pleasant family meal. Milk may spill and noodle night will forever make me wish we had a dog. But what happens when we don’t restrict any foods is…

We all get to eat. We get to enjoy the foods we know we love, learn to like those we don’t, and instead of being focused on if/whether and how much our kids are eating, we get to share in that time and focus on togetherness, training our kids in table manners, and teaching them how to become a competent eater without using restriction to do so.

It isn’t passive parenting not to pressure your children to eat one food or preventing them to eat more of another. It is preparing them for their future, when no one tells them if/whether and how much to eat as adults. That’s on them. If we have done our job properly in these early years, we can have confidence that there’s a pretty good chance our kids will be good at it as they grow and mature.

A quote I recently heard from Lisa DuBreuil, on the Comfort Food podcast, seems particularly fitting here - especially as it relates to raising children to be intuitive eaters of their own.

“Abundance + Permission = Discernment”

So then what? We just accept our kids only eat bread and butter every night?

Surely you know that is not what the dietitian in me is endorsing.

What I am encouraging us all to work towards though is raising children with intrinsic motivations and cues for healthy habits.

So how do we do this?

My Recommended Approach to “More”

Let me share my advice in the context of a mom’s recent question:

My LO had grilled cheese, butternut squash, & french green beans on her plate. Dad had the same thing except oranges instead of the squash. She finished her squash then saw the oranges on dad’s plate and asked for an orange. I peeled her a cutie and said "after this then you need to eat what’s on your plate for lunch." Well then, of course, she wanted another. I said "if you finish all of your plate and you’re still hungry, then you can have another orange." She would take a bite, then ask for the orange. This went back and forth for awhile then I finally just said no more oranges right now. So I am not sure how I could’ve handled that better. Any suggestions?

I understand the dynamics that make this confusing for this mom. She decided what to offer and then a new food came into the situation from dad’s lunch. This isn’t ideal but it happens all the time, so let me walk through how I would recommend approaching this situation.

First, take ownership.

Many of our food battles begin because we are indecisive going into them. The back in forth of this situation is ever so common between parents and children at the table because kids want to test boundaries that parents often haven’t even established yet. To prevent this mom (or dad) from getting into a battle of wills over if their daughter can have any or more oranges, they need to make up their mind on what’s being offered and what’s available.

Is an orange part of what is being offered in this child’s lunch?

  • If yes, then say something along the lines of, “Oh, you’re right. We forgot to include a fruit today. Great idea, Daddy. Let’s get one for you too!” Then provide her an orange of her own.

  • If no, then say something like, “We aren’t having oranges today because we need to save them for lunches the rest of the week. Maybe Daddy would share some of his with you?” Then only enjoy one as a family.

Second, decide how many helpings are available.

If you have decided that the given food is in fact a part of the meal, there may still be instances where seconds are not available. You may only have a certain amount of a given food and need to make it stretch further than one given meal. This may be based on a food budget or if a particular item is expensive and you only have so much of them (like a pint of raspberries when out of season). Or, it might be because you need some of it for another family member or meal during the week. In either case, there are times when we cannot offer all-you-can-eat of something. When this happens, take a proactive to approach the situation so that it doesn’t confuse your child and come across as food restriction.

Are more oranges available? This is asking not just if more are physically available (as in there are more in the house), but is it okay if your child eats as many as they want from those physically available.

  • If yes, then allow your child to ask for seconds, thirds, etc. Encourage them to chew their food, take time to listen to their body between helpings, and make sure they want more before you go peel another one for them. But don’t restrict them just for the sake of assuming they have had enough nor pressure them to eat another food first.

  • If no, matter of factly share with your child why you need to save what extras there are. Clearly share, “we need to leave some oranges for us to take to preschool on Thursday” or “to eat the rest of the week as I won’t be going to the store again,” etc. Use this as a chance to remind them when they will be able to enjoy this food again. This is also a chance to remind them about the abundance of other options still available. Saying something like, “If you still feel hungry though after you eat your orange, you’re welcome to eat the other foods offered until your tummy feels satisfied.”

Third, adjust as needed.

Say this child ends up putting down three cuties at lunch. That’s okay! By the mom deciding what was being offered at that meal, her child then was able to decide how much of it to eat. So parents role in this scenario is just to adjust, as needed. Maybe skip offering fruit at the next eating opportunity since this child just had extras earlier. Over the course of a day, week and month, it will all balance out.

The key is that we are allowing our child to practice self-regulation from what’s offered. In doing so, we remove any scarcity effect and give our children permission to decide if/whether and how much to eat from the abundance available. Then, if/when they eat more than we think they “need,” we can adjust future meals and snacks accordingly by not offering that particular food again that day or maybe even in the day(s) after as well. This promotes variety in their overall diet without feeling the need to restrict at a given eating opportunity.

Some Tactics to Try

Another question on this topic often goes like this:

First, I want to thank you for your educational blog posts. The division of responsibilities and love it like learning it concepts are absolutely amazing. I have loved learning about these concepts and then implementing them with my son. They make so much sense!!! That said, I have a question I’m hoping you might have a chance to answer :)

If my son only eats one food in a given meal and keeps asking for more of only that food, do you keep going and going or eventually cut it off?

This parent has a general understanding of the Division of Responsibility in feeding and Love it, Like it, Learning it framework, and yet the question about how to handle more is still one that generates a lot of confusion.

Here are some tactics to try (based on my advice above):

  1. Make your decision in advance: Make/put out enough for one or two servings of a given food per person, so they don’t eat say five dinner rolls and call it a day. This gives them the freedom to eat more of preferred foods, but also helps them to learn that to feel more satisfied it will take eating from the variety of what’s offered. If they still want more after having seconds say, “I am glad you enjoyed the [love if food]! That is all I made of it tonight though. We can have it again another night, but right now, you can eat from what else is offered if you are still hungry.” Do not get up and make more of that given food though, if there is still food available to eat (if they are still truly hungry).

  2. If there is more available: Allow them to eat this preferred “love it” food freely. If they ask for seconds and more are available, let them have more. But first, teach them to make sure everyone has gotten some so they don’t eat the portion that’s intended for the rest of the family/group. If there is no more available (including for the reasons discussed above), then you may “cut them off.”

  3. If you know it’s a night when your child didn’t eat much, adjust accordingly. Remember that YOU can decide on what and when a bedtime snack. No one wants to wake up with a hangry kid in the middle of the night, so adjust as needed. Instead of making them something different at the given (majority) non-preferred meal, pre-set in your mind when and what will be a bedtime snack to help cover the gap. Don’t say, “we’re having this snack tonight because you didn’t eat your dinner,” (even if you usually don’t do bedtime snacks). Instead, confidently work this into your bedtime routine that night (the what and when of your role).

A Practical Example for “Forbidden Foods”

It is one thing when our kids fill up on the “love it” food of fruit at a meal. The concept of more can be conflicting though when it comes to foods like Goldfish crackers, cookies, or other perceived “forbidden foods” that kids love and parent usually feel unclear how to offer. To help bring the above advice to life in a practical example. This will help us to evaluate how to include these foods so that they are not forbidden, but rather incorporated into meals without your child existing on a diet of say, Goldfish or cookies alone.

In one example, you can offer Goldfish everyday for an afternoon snack. Served with nothing else, your child will likely want a fair share of these crunchy crackers to have their fill between meals. They also may be more likely to be seen as “snackers,” or kids who prefer snacks to meals. Do you know why? Because at snacks, they get their preferred or “love it foods,” but at snacks, it is made up of less-preferred “like it” and “learning it” food combinations like chicken, pasta, broccoli, and strawberries.

So what should you do?

Sticking with the example of Goldfish crackers (although it could be any “love it” food here), parents could be more mindful about their role in the feeding relationship while also allowing their child to become a more mindful eater as well.

You can offer Goldfish crackers a few times a week. Instead of offering them everyday, maybe send them in their lunchbox to school one day of the week, offer them alongside something that has fat, fiber, or protein at snack another day of the week (like cheese and carrots), and then give them the choice of those or another love it food for a snack to take along to a play date to share with friends. You child still got the desired exposure to this food so it doesn’t become elevated as a “forbidden” food you either never allow nor never allow them to have more of. But there are natural boundaries in place:

  • At school, they are offered as a competitive food that our children can get excited about eating around their classmates (who likely have them too). Put a portion into your child’s bento or reusable snack bag for them to enjoy. Since offered at school, there aren’t seconds available. But this allows you to offer this love it food in a way where we aren’t inclined to restrict the amount or pressure their intake of another food first.

  • At snack time, offering it alongside other foods helps offer a more well-rounded snack. Our children of course may still only eat the Goldfish and leave the other foods though. If they ask for seconds, let them have it. I know this sets off the siren for each of our nutrition police, but it is healthy for children, on occasion, to be exposed to an abundance of such preferred “love it” foods so that they can begin to exercise their own discernment over “how much” to eat (when they have the permission to eat intuitively). By not offering this food in this way everyday, it isn’t going to derail them nutritionally if on occasion, they eat “only Goldfish” (or a like less-nutritious option) for snack.

  • At a play date, let them choose between two preferred foods so they see both are an option without being something your family eats everyday. For whichever snack your child chooses, consider bringing individual bags (i.e. of Goldfish) so each child gets one. Or, bring a bag for all to share. Either way, this offers it to your child but also guides them in how much is theirs or needing to be shared among the group.

The goal here isn’t to use restrictive food parenting practices in hopes of getting our child to eat less of the preferred food that seems problematic. This almost always backfires and creates an increased interest in food for children, particularly the one that is being restricted. Instead, try to offer such “love it” foods as regular, routine parts of your child’s diet. Rotate through different options to keep a variety of preferred foods available (i.e. not “off limits”) and as an option as part of a healthy diet. Then, focus on your job of WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE those foods are offered to balance out how often they are being offered. When they are offered though, help your child to feel freedom towards such foods, rather than restricting them of seconds.

Final Remarks

Hopefully, it goes without saying that I value a balanced and nutritionally dense diet. But the variety that diet is made up of for your family is on you. If you are offering healthy variety and consistent eating opportunities to your child, they won’t go their whole lives eating exclusively Goldfish. Instead, they will learn, adapt, and become more competent eaters in the process. The more opportunities we give them to practice this, the sharper their abilities will become!

When kids push back (to your food parenting approach)

Some kids will take to how their family establishes a Division of Responsibility in feeding without an issue.

Particularly when parents start early, using this feeding style becomes much more seamless for both parent and child. That’s why nothing makes me happier than when parents find me while their child is still an infant and share sentiments like this one:

Ashley, I just am so impressed with all of your articles and emails - thorough, useful, organized, everything! I love reading them when I get a chance and find them all so interesting. I'm so happy to read them far BEFORE we get into this chapter so I can really think about how I hope to shape our family's relationship with mealtime. :)

- Liz B.

That’s because when kids are raised with an authoritative feeding style from the start (read more on what that is and isn’t here), it is all they know. Parents don’t have to spend time and energy “un-doing” the behaviors we want to avoid (see which ones here), but rather can instead invest that energy upfront to build a foundation for a healthy feeding relationship from day one.

In most families, however, parents don’t discover the best practices for feeding their children until they usually find themselves in some type of a feeding rut. Whether it is a child who’s apprehensive towards eating altogether or one who throws a fit anytime non-preferred foods are offered, I understand how taxing it is on families when the approach we might have initially used with our children didn’t work out and so we are trying to adopt another way.

Some children will go with the flow as you re-establish your family's feeding "rules." If you’re a parent to a child like this, consider yourself lucky and continue on course. In majority of families though, children will be reluctant to accept new ways of being fed and the learning it foods that come with such ways. That’s because after months or even years of being fed one way, the shift to accepting new roles and responsibilities in the feeding relationship is not always well received.

That’s why in this post, I am addressing how to cope when transitioning to a new food parenting approach.

Below, I share five ideas that will help get your child(ren) on board with this new feeding approach so that your whole family can come to experience less meal time stress and more feeding success.

These include:

  1. Communicate with your child

  2. Continue to offer family meal style

  3. Consider starting with all love it foods

  4. Food chain the familiar

  5. Emphasize scripts that avoid pressure

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Five ideas for how to cope when transitioning to a new food parenting approach

Communicate with your child

The first thing parents must remember is that these changes don’t happen overnight. While some families might choose to make an immediate transition to a Division of Responsibility in feeding, rarely will such families see all their feeding issues solved over night. That’s because as shared here, the Division of Responsibility in feeding is a best practice approach over time. This is not your get rich quick fix (if veggie consumption was our metric of money!), but rather the feeding approach that will lend to your child’s long term success in forming a healthy relationship with food and your family’s ticket to more peaceful meal times for the many, many meals to come.

To help your child and family as a whole in this transition, it can be helpful to talk about some of the new ways your family will be sharing in meals. Express your desire for enjoyable time together at the table and maybe even reflect on situations when such times didn’t exist. Be open about each of your roles in the feeding relationship now and how they will be shifting to reflect those more consistent with a Division of Responsibility in feeding. Without feeling the need to justify or defend this transition, consider sharing something like this (in whatever way your age of child might understand it best):

I don’t feel like our meal times have been very enjoyable for us, so we are going to start doing things a bit differently. From now on, it is going to be my job to decide what food is offered at meals and snacks, when our meals and snacks happen, and where we eat. Every time food is offered, you will get to decide if you want to eat it and how much you’d like from what’s available. We are going to start practicing this at dinner tonight but it might take some time for us to together adjust. I am excited about us having more pleasant meal times as a family. How does all of this sound to you?

While this might be beyond the comprehension level of younger children, you can tailor it as you see fit. The point to remember here is that you need to communicate with your kids so that the new boundaries and expectations are spelled out from the start. Even if your child seems too young to understand you initially, you will continue to reiterate your role versus theirs again, and again, and again over the coming years. So choosing to communicate it in a clear, concise, and consistent way from the start can give you scripts to go back to each time you are met with resistance (which you will be). Just as children need many reminders for other behavioral expectations to play nicely, wash their hands, and use their manners, they will need you to remind them about your family rules around this as well. So no matter how you articulate to them this type of transition, remember it is up to you to be decisive over this shift and to continue to reiterate it in a way that makes sense for your family.

Continue to offer family meal style

Some kids might not care that your pre-plate their food. For others, however, parents might see an obvious difference in their child’s response when they are given control over if/whether and how much of a given food goes on their plate.

For more insights on if this is an approach that might be effective for your family, read more on family meals here.

Consider starting with all love it foods.

Some parents might find more success initially by practicing a Division of Responsibility in feeding with predominantly love it foods at first. As your child gets used to your role versus theirs, it becomes easier to then broaden the menu and include more of a Love it, Like it, Learning it approach. The aim here is to practice positive, productive feeding behaviors with foods that are less of a fight (being love it foods). Then, as your child and family adjusts to your new feeding approach, you can gradually start expanding on what is offered to include more like it and learning it foods. Engage your child in this process and allow them to help you meal plan. This way, as you begin to include them more in family meals that you know aren’t made up of all of their favorite “love it” foods, they will take comfort (i.e. push back less) in knowing there is always going to be something they enjoy offered.

For sample meal planning templates to get started with, click here.

Food chain the familiar

One of the best ways to get more nutrition in your children even before they accept new “learning it” foods is by food chaining those foods that they are already familiar with. I show how to do this in each week of my Love it, Like it, Learning it group coaching. Specifically in week four of this six week email course, I guide parents through food chaining their child’s familiar favorites in a way that gradually introduces new like it or learning it foods. The goal here is for parents to realize how they can take their child’s “staple meal” (even if it’s mac and cheese!) and turn it into a nutrient-dense, family-friendly meal that’s full of variety and for everyone at the table to enjoy.

My six-week group coaching program re-opens every two months. Find out more here.

Emphasize scripts that avoid pressure

For many parent and child pairs in the feeding relationship, words have historically been used in ways to pressure and force feed kids into eating less of their love it foods and more of their learning it foods (more on this to come over the next two weeks) or to argue with one’s parents over the types or manner in which food is offered. That’s why circling back to the first tip in this post, we need to practice what language we should use moving forward AND which language we now need to avoid.

Many of the phrases we might have become accustomed to using are no longer appropriate in a Division of Responsibility in feeding. Even if we as the parents are taking charge of what, when, and where eating opportunities happen, too often we hang onto the scripts that made us unsuccessful to begin with. This makes our kids unclear on how we are really going to react at meals when they push back. While this kind of testing is normal for kids (including in non-food related areas of life), it also tests our resolve to more fully put into practice a Division of Responsibility. For this reason, we need to be able to reiterate to our children the new dynamics of our feeding relationship. Without getting into a butting of heads or a battle at the table, we can remind them of the meal (and snack) time boundaries using clear, considerate language. While our kids won’t necessarily like how consistently we respond each time they resist our food parenting approach, the food-related battles begin to dissipate when parents can speak confidently to their child’s push back.

This is why each week in my Love it, Like it, Learning it group coaching program, I provide sample scripts to accompany the weekly action item families are asked to implement. I want parents to have clear, concise scripts they can use with their children on a day to day basis that help both parents and children to be more confident ad calm in the feeding relationship. To sign up and get weekly access to these scripts, visit my Love it, Like it, Learning it group coaching program,.

Take heart

I have been at this approach with my own family for over four years now and we still face push back on occasion. That is just part of parenting - be it relating to food, discipline, limits on screen time, or doing things differently than our children would like. At different ages and stages and with the varying temperament of each child in a family, feeding with an authoritative approach can be more or less challenging. The key here is to remain both confident and consistent.

You are doing a great job. Just take a deep breath, go as slow as you need, and know that a pleasant meal where nothing gets eaten is often more successful in the big picture than a clean plate achieved in conflict. Over the next couple of weeks, I will walk you through how to handle when your child only eats love it foods and how to better engage them with learning it foods (without force). You won’t want to miss these follow up topics to today’s post, so be sure you are subscribed to my newsletter so you get these in your inbox as soon as they’re live!

Serving Family Style Meals

When parents begin the transition to a more authoritative approach to feeding, like the Division of Responsibility in feeding, I repeatedly hear of struggles similar to this one:

We've been following the division of labor and like it, love it, learning it philosophies (mostly) since our first meal plan with you and while we've had some improvements (mostly just cooking one meal), he has yet to try a single learning it food with the exception of strawberries. he will not ever put a learning food on his plate and if i dish some on plate before serving he will freak out until i remove it from plate. We had the butternut squash chili the other night - which was delicious - and i had to remove his bowl completely from table. So i guess its not much of a question - just please reassure me it will get better!

Parents are trying to practice their role in the feeding relationship, avoid counter-productive feeding behaviors (that might have previously been used like these), and serve a variety of foods that their child both loves and is still learning. But the push back can make it difficult to see progress.

For some children, having meals pre-plated brings about a negative reaction as soon as the food is brought over to the table. Instead of it being an enjoyable, invitation to eat from what’s offered, kids sense that their plate comes with an expectation to eat. Pair this feeling of unspoken pressure with kid’s reactions that, “I don’t like this!” or “I don’t want my food is touching!” and children’s interest in the meal often goes away before the meal ever even started.

So how do we handle this as parents?

First, we can establish regular family style meals.

As quoted from one of my favorite books on how to handle picky eating,

“Serving family style meals is the number one thing parents say defuses battles at the table.”
“Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating” by Dr. Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin

I couldn’t agree more!

In areas where we might have thought controlling what’s on our children’s plate was productive , negotiating what’s eaten was effective, or restricting the amounts of preferred foods our children are allowed to help themselves to was beneficial, we know that many dietitians and researchers agree there is value in considering how family style meals may act as a family’s tipping point to establishing a more positive feeding environment.

That’s why in this post, we will take a high level overview of:

  • What is a family style meal

  • How to set-up a family-style meal

  • Arguments against family style meals

  • Aims for the family style meal

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What is a family style meal

Much could be said on the benefits of family meals here, however for the purposes of this post, we are discussing family-style meals. Family style meals are when instead of pre-serving our children’s meals onto plates, we set each of the elements of the meal in the middle of the table (or counter or shared space) and let our kids serve themselves.

How to set-up a family style meal

Logistically, family-style meals can be done a variety of ways. From as extravagant as a holiday dinner and your best dishes to as simple as a carpet picnic eating pizza with paper plates, the family-style meals can be as (in)formal as fits your family or the situation. Some aspects that help any family-style meal be more successful include:

  • Work with your child’s age

    Parents often ask how early they can begin serving family-style. My answer is, immediately! From infancy, children can sit at the table and begin participating in the family meal. Although I usually don’t recommend children younger than three or four pass dishes around the table (without practicing on empty bowls and with plastic dishes first!), children as young as two are eager for this type of independence. Help serving them from central dishes early on, and then as their skills and coordination allows, let them to self-serve. Gradually, you can begin to also pass the dishes around the table as well.

  • Use kid-safe serving dishes

    You want children to be able to pass the dishes (if able) or at least to be able to serve themselves safely. So pans that are still hot or dishes that are about to dump out the elements within are best avoided. Instead, use lightweight dishes your children can begin to practice passing around the table. Choose fun scoops, spoons, and tongs that invite your child’s fine motor skills to be refined. This will further foster their independence of self-serving the foods being offered without frustrating them with kitchen utensils or dishes that they aren’t able to be successful with.

  • Serve at a shared space

    While many families may have a table that can seat their whole family, you can offer meals family style in a variety of places. Pull stools up to the counter, gather around a coffee table and eat on the floor, join your child at their smaller kid’s table, or put out a picnic and eat together on the ground. While some of these may not be sustainable for every family-style meal, including a variety of places for serving meals this way can make mealtimes extra fun.

Arguments against family style meals

I have shared about family-style meals often on my Instagram and in my Instagram stories. Often times, I get questions from fellow moms about if/how it works out (or doesn’t!) for their family. Here are some common challenges that seem to come up:

It diffuses the battles for sure. But my picky eaters always tend to pick the same foods (fruit, bread, etc) so I wonder if it's still worth doing if they don't really try anything new. Know what I mean?

Yes! I know what this mom means. Some ideas for encouraging your child to eat more variety from meals offered in this way include:

  • Encourage them to take a small amount of everything (think one teaspoon/bite or less), even if they don’t eat it. This might take time (if they resist it even on their plate initially), but remember that even accepting a non-preferred "learning it food" on their plates is a sign of progress! For children who aren’t willing to put all the foods on their plates, consider a “tasting plate,” which is a separate dish for any learning it foods your child is not yet comfortable having on their own plate.

  • Once the learning it foods are on their plate (or a “tasting plate”), you can help to guide them in learning to like new foods (without pressure or force). Consider these Three Frustration-Free Ways to Offer Vegetables.

  • For the known love it foods that they seem to load up on, family meals can be a great way to show them how much is available for the family. Some parents are tempted to restrict the amount of a given preferred food at a meal when it is all their child eats, particularly if the meal is pre-plated. When served family style, however, children see if more is available or not while also learning the manners to ask for more (see below).

They don’t work for us because my kids fight over the bowls they both like - so for instance here both would want ALL the cheese and whoever got to it first would empty it no matter how full and the second would be upset. Not to mention they just pretty much empty every bowl they touch whether they have any intention of eating it or not. Ages almost 4 and almost 2. Much less fighting when I just portion things out individually for us 🤷🏻‍♀️

I totally get this mom’s struggle! The cheese is almost always the first to go in my family to. With a 2 and 4 year old myself, some strategies we use to help with this include:

  • Decide that everyone can only have one helping to start until everyone else has had a chance to get some. This reminds every member of the family to be considerate of others and to pass each food before having more. This takes reinforcing, but becomes an easier to accept boundary with practice.

  • When children want to serve more than they’ll eat, remind them to only take a little for themselves as they can always come back for more. Then consider letting them serve your plate (and thus an adult portion). This fulfills their desire to serve larger portions than they’ll eat without it being wasteful.

  • Remember that family-style meals are a great time to emphasize manners, like passing dishes to one another and asking others if they want more of something before finishing it yourself. The earlier your children learn these things in the comfort of their own home and among family, the better prepared they’ll be to participate in mealtimes with others as they get older.

Do you make them spoon out something from everything you serve? Mine has told me he doesn’t want that before and doesn’t want to serve himself something like beans. I have noticed he serves himself up a larger amount of fruit when he gets to do it himself which is something I usually add to a meal to offer something I know he likes.

It sounds like mom is doing a great job offering both preferred and non-preferred foods at family-style meals. The struggle with the child taking too much of a preferred food and none of a non-preferred food is a common one, as we’ve addressed already. That’s why I do advise to let children self serve each element, but guide them as they learn the expectations in doing so. For example, if they’re going to take the whole amount of fruit for the table, remind them what is appropriate and expected. If they refuse to take any of a new food, don’t turn the feeding environment into a negative one by getting in a power struggle with them. Instead, use some consistent scripts for what you expect that can be reiterated (as needed) at every meal:

  • "Please put a little bit of everything on your plate."

  • “It is okay if you are still learning to like ____________. You don’t have to eat it.”

  • "Please pass the ________."

  • “Only take one serving to start. You can always get more once everyone else has had the chance to have some.”

  • “Would anyone like more of the ________, or may I have it?”

  • "May I be excused?"

I find I need to do a balance of family style and pre-plated. My boys really enjoy family style for the independence it gives them but they are more likely to try new things when they are already on their plates and I tell them they don’t have to eat them if they don’t want to.

I love how this mom has found a system that works for her family! Due to the hustle of the dinner hour, after school activities, getting home late from work, or having a spouse who you wait and eat later with (thus feeding the kids earlier), there are so many reasons why family-style meals aren’t always feasible. Add that to some kids not taking to family meals as well as others, and there is good reason to use them in your family in whatever way works.

That might be to include them on occasion when you feel that feeding is becoming a power struggle or your family is in a bit of a mealtime rut. These can help bring back some age-appropriate independence and offer a novel way to liven up meals again. If, however, you see that your child responds better with meals pre-plated, just make sure it isn’t because other tactics are also being used to pressure, force, or bribe more being eaten. This mom has found a great balance of feeding meals both family-style and pre-plated in a pressure-free way!

Aims for the family style meal

Remember that the main aim of family-style meals is not necessarily to get our children to eat more. While we all want to see that our efforts to provide healthy meals to our family are recognized in this way, other positive outcomes often occur prior to our children eating more.

For one, we want our children to feel interested and eager about what foods are offered. Giving them the opportunity to demonstrate independence in not just if/whether and how much they eat (their job), but also the amounts and types of foods that goes on their plates (a prerequisite to them eating it), can create an environment that automatically lessens any perceived “pressure to eat” at meal times. This, in turn, promotes both appetite and enjoyment in the meal itself.

Furthermore, family meals do a great job at emphasizing abundance versus scarcity. Often times, we see a child covet a certain type of preferred food (being a food group or just “love it foods” in general). Worried that that is the only food they’ll eat from what’s offered, it seems natural to restrict that foods even more. This, however, can create a scarcity effect that actually increases a child’s obsession with the food. Instead of equipping our child with a sense of freedom towards such food(s) and the security that there is indeed enough of that food for them to enjoy, we end up restricting them by only serving a small portion, eliminating seconds, etc. when we pre-plate. Helping children to understand the dynamics of how much food is available and visually making that evident at a family-style meal can help kids rest assured in the abundance of being allowed to have more (when available).

Here are some remarks (emphasis added) other moms shared about offering meals family-style:

Family style has been really helpful for us. My 3 YO likes the power of choosing, and I like her at least passing and seeing various foods. As often as possible, i get her to put the foods out in their dishes too, so she interacts with all of them. Thanks for this idea!

When we serve family style, we encourage putting a little of everything on your plate. Not necessarily eating it, but at least one bite of most items go on the plate. But she chooses how much of each which helps her feel in control more.

We did this a couple of days ago (thanks to your suggestion), and it worked really well! My girls ate more than usual, and it was stuff they normally don’t eat a lot of, if at all. I need to remember to do it more often!

Resources to Help

If you aren’t already a member of my community, subscribe to my newsletter as there will be many more posts in the coming months on what to do when your child pushes back to your positive, pressure-free feeding style, helping our children learn to like new foods, and how to handle it when they only eat love it foods!

Additionally, if you want some family-friendly meal ideas to begin offering as family-style meals, check out my seasonal meal plan. It includes a variety of healthy, balanced main entrees, vegetables, and starches to prepare and begin practicing family-style meals with.

I share six other simple meal ideas that can be used for family-style meals in my Love it, Like it, Learning it E-Course. In addition to the menu idea itself, I share sample scripts for what you can say to continue to create less meal time stress and more feeding success. Learn more about it here.

Next Steps

If family style meals stress you out amidst the chaos of dinner time, try to find even one meal a week where you let your little ones serve themselves. Observe how each you and your child respond to meals being offered in this way and if/how it helps to achieve less meal time stress and more feeding success. You should find that this small step can help to encourage independence, release some control/power struggles between parent+child, and empower our kids to choose variety in a way that feels natural and free instead of restricted and forced.

Do you do family style meals? I’d love to hear, so tag me @veggiesandvirtue when you share a pic of your child’s plate or family table!