“What do I say when…” Extreme Picky Eating Edition

A big challenge that trips parents up daily is, as one mom put it, “Knowing what to say in the moment.” Sitting across from a child,  parents often feel pulled into those familiar, but counterproductive patterns: the negotiating, bribing, nutrition lectures, sticker charts, or threats around video game time. When the old patterns haven’t worked, but parents aren’t quite sure what to say, we offer some suggestions that: reduce conflict, build relationships, support appetite (anxiety and conflict can kill appetite and curiosity) and make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone.

These “scripts” can be used flexibly and adapted for different situations. We even recommend parents practice some of the phrases. Here are a few that we include in the book with the reasoning behind them. For more thorough discussion of how to transition to responsive feeding and more script examples, check out Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating.

One caveat: If you say something like, “We won’t make you try foods anymore,” be sure you are ready to mean it. This is tricky stuff. Learn as much as you can before you jump in, learn about common obstacles and ideas on how to approach them, know what to expect, consider online support (we love the private Mealtime Hostage group) or get help from a responsive feeding professional.

These are just suggestions; adapt and find the words that work for you and your child (be responsive).

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Anxiety often plays a big part in extreme picky eating. If it helps your child, begin by slowing down and acknowledging his feelings.

  • “I’m sorry you’re upset about X.”
  • “I see that you’re upset.”
    Get down on your child’s level if you can and help them feel heard. You can give them a big hug and slow your breathing with them. There are different ways parents can help children manage anxiety, but we often find that anxiety decreases as children learn what to expect at the table and as they learn to trust they won’t be pressured into eating more or different foods. (Step One of our approach is all about reducing anxiety and conflict for the child and parent around food.)

Try not to engage in battles or negotiation, or in attempts to try to “get” your child to eat. Avoid “no” when possible.

  • “Soon…” is a very useful word. “We’ll have noodles again soon.”
    When? Some will ask… Here’s a tip. A dry erase board with the rough menu spelled out (or with pictures) can help. “See, we are having noodles again for snack tomorrow.” Some anxious children really like to see that each meal and snack will include a preferred food.
  • “That looks yummy. Let’s save that for snack.”
    Let’s say someone gives your child a cupcake, but it’s in between meal and snack times. Support routine, not just “No.” Sometimes you can say “yes” to that cupcake, but if you’re working to support appetite and routine, you want to try to limit eating between meal and snack times to allow appetite to develop.

Reassure your child that you will no longer try to “get” him to eat as you transition to more responsive feeding strategies. Also reassure them that their hunger and needs will be met.

  • “You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to.”
  • “You don’t have to eat if you’re not hungry, but will you come sit with us and tell us about the painting you brought home?”
  • We will find something you can eat.”
  • I called ahead, and they are having cake and ice cream and pizza.”
  • “We’ll bring the chips and salsa to the party, so we can enjoy the chips and see what else they have. I can’t believe Marco is 11 already!”

    Tip: Deflect and change the topic. Make your statement, then take the focus off the food. Focus on something the child enjoys. His art class, her soccer practice, his favorite teacher…


  • “We’ll have a snack at home after the party. I wonder if they will have a Pinata again?” (See that? Changed the focus.)
  • “Susie’s mom is serving pretzels and pizza (pretzels are a preferred food). I wonder what color the Bouncy Castle will be?”

Ask for your child’s input where you can. Help her feel some control & have her get involved to encourage confidence.

  • “What would make this meal better for you?”
    You might be surprised that it’s a simple request like a new napkin, a different fork, ketchup or even a quick kiss from Mom or Dad.
  • “We are having chicken, would you like rice or pasta with it?”
  • “Could you put out the paper napkins and maybe pick some cooking and table-laying music?”

If they are old enough to notice, communicate that things will change. Focus on fostering connection and not on the child’s eating.

  • We’re a problem-solving family. We’ll figure this out together.”
  • “I think we’re all tired of the fighting. We’re going to do things differently. It might take some getting used to, but we want to have a better time at the table.”
  • “You’ll like not having to do spit bowls anymore, but you might not like when we ask you not to get applesauce pouches between meals. That’s okay. We learned that eating meals and then waiting for a bit before snacks helps our bodies.”

What you might say to friends and family who comment/offer unsolicited advice:

  • “I know you want to help, but I really need someone to listen.”
  • “We’ve tried so many tricks that didn’t help. We feel like we are on a good path now. Please don’t send links to articles or “kid-friendly” recipes anymore.”
  • “I’m so glad you want to help. Could you take Cori to her piano lesson so I can run a few errands?”
  • “Mom, would you please follow my lead on this?” (See another post for dealing with family at mealtimes, including holidays.)

Sample scenario: Child sees that smoothie is purple, and wanted a pink smoothie.

“I’m sorry you’re upset that I made purple this morning. Do you need a cuddle? Those are big feelings. We are also having French toast fingers, bagels and scrambled eggs. There will be something you can eat. Would you help me put out the paper napkins? I promise we will have pink smoothies again soon. We could make them together tomorrow morning if you like.”

Have you found any other words or tips that have helped reduce anxiety and facilitate your child’s progress?

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