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Gentle Eating – the simple, calm approach to solving picky eating in childhood

Most parents worry about their child’s eating at some point, whether it’s picky eating, sweet cravings or vegetable avoidance. But according to Sarah Ockwell-Smith, mum of four, author, and co-founder of the GentleParenting website, the answer is not to enforce strict rules around eating – or reward children with food. Instead we should gently nudge them towards healthy eating.

picky eating

Solutions for picky eating in toddlers

While being picky is completely normal and natural for young children, there are several things that parents can do to slowly encourage less fussy eating. Here Sarah shares her ideas on what to do about picky eating in the toddler/preschooler years, the time that is most synonymous with childhood eating woes.



Hold the praise and rewards

Praising a child for eating can be incredibly counterproductive. While the child may initially try to eat the food on offer, in order to earn lots of praise from their parents, the effect is unlikely to be long-lasting, as it encourages children to override their innate satiety cues in favour of pleasing their parent.

In a similar vein, rewarding for ‘good eating’ is also best avoided, particularly if the reward on offer is another food, as this can cause an aversion to a previously liked food: for instance, if the child is rewarded with ice cream for eating their broccoli.

Eating really should be emotion-free. That means no praise and no rewards. The goal of gentle eating is to raise a child who has a healthy relationship with food, one who eats when they are hungry and stops when they are full.


Remove the pressure

When your child doesn’t eat, or constantly refuses a certain food, it can be really hard to not prompt them to ‘just try one forkful’ or comment negatively that they ‘never try anything’. Gentle eating is about taking a responsive, compassionate and authoritative approach – that means taking a step back and allowing the child to take more control over their eating. Research has shown that children who are pressured to eat by their parents eat significantly less than those who are not, and they are more likely to avoid the foods that they are being pressured to eat. So while you may be tempted to cajole your child into taking just one more bite, the best way to reduce picky eating is to keep quiet and remove any pressure.


Don’t give up

As children grow, their tastes change, and their dislike of bitter foods, in particular, will subside a little. Liking a food is not only related to taste though. A child’s experiences will also affect which foods they choose to eat. For this reason, one of the most powerful things you can do is to keep re-presenting the challenging food. There is a myth that it takes ten or fifteen exposures to a food for a child to try it or begin to like it. In reality, it may take hundreds of exposures before your child attempts and, ultimately, likes a certain food. Research does show that repeated exposure to a food increases the chance that a child will eat it, but it is important that you remember to stay calm and avoid placing pressure on them to actually try it.


One step at a time

When it comes to types of food that you know your child isn’t keen on, offering only one of them at a time provides the least stress for you and your child. So if your child usually refuses green vegetables, for example, only serve one type. Putting cabbage and peas on their plate at the same time is likely to lead to anxiety and stress for you both. Presenting just peas, or just cabbage, however, is likely to be much more successful. In addition to only offering one challenging food at a time, make sure you always offer something that you know your child will eat. Their plate should ideally always comprise one new or challenging food, one that they are neutral about and one that they are almost guaranteed to eat. Being presented with food in this manner means the child should feel more relaxed – and a more relaxed child is one who is more likely to try something new or challenging.


Give them some control

Gentle eating is about empowering your children and respecting their likes and dislikes, satiety and hunger. Too often, parents unconsciously try to force their own food preferences onto their children. Comments such as ‘Don’t be silly, it’s lovely’ can quickly creep into your daily dialogue without you realising. It’s OK for children to like foods that we don’t and dislike foods that we may love. One idea is to use serving bowls that children can serve themselves from, rather than you putting food directly on their plates, which allows them to select the food they would like in differing amounts.

As well as likes and dislikes, we must honour our children’s hunger and satiety. If a child only eats a few mouthfuls and then declares that they’re not hungry, all too often we encourage them to eat up. This denies them the opportunity to self-regulate their eating. Scientists have found that young children actually eat a fairly well-balanced diet when left to their own devices. Although food intake at individual mealtimes may be erratic, young children do seem to eat a well-balanced diet when their food consumption over a twenty-four-hour period is calculated.


Time to get messy!

For children who struggle with the sensory aspects of eating, especially foods that are slimy, mushy and gooey, incorporating more messy play into their days, focusing on the sensations that they struggle with, can help them with food acceptance. Research has shown that sensory play with real fruits and vegetables can have a positive impact on children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.


Picture perfect

Imagine that you are on holiday and are served something that you don’t recognise. You don’t speak the language, so are unable to ascertain what the food is; all you know is that it doesn’t look like anything you have ever seen or eaten before. Would you be just a little reluctant to try it? Now imagine living this scenario every day and I think you’ll begin to understand how toddlers and preschoolers feel.

Helping children to familiarise themselves with new and different foods can help to reduce anxiety surrounding them. Research has found that looking at books containing pictures of food helps toddlers to be more adventurous when trying them for the first time.


Mirror, mirror

Children learn how to behave by mimicking us. They watch us day in, day out and look to us to learn what to do in different situations, eating being one of them.

As a parent, your eating behaviours and likes and dislikes are paramount when it comes to influencing your child’s preferences. Think about the message you are giving to your child when you take the crusts off your bread, push your vegetables around your plate or ask a restaurant to ‘hold the salad’. Think too about what you convey when you refer to sweet foods as ‘yummy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘a treat’.

Research has shown that toddlers and preschoolers are more likely to try a new food if an adult is eating the same food at the same time. This ‘modelling’ is the most successful way of encouraging a child to eat. So try to find time to eat at least one meal every day with your child and at weekends aim for all meals. If you are not eating your meal at the same time as your child, serve yourself a small snack of the foods that your child is struggling with and eat that with them. Modelling really does have such a powerful effect on toddler and preschooler eating that it is worth making the time to do it as often as possible.



Extract from The Gentle Eating Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith