Moving from GET to LET: Supporting the Child with Picky Eating

Moving from GET to LET

“I couldn’t get him to eat anything.”

While reviewing the progress of the children in my feeding program with my graduate student clinicians, I hear this type of statement all the time. There is sometimes so much ‘get’ that I have to stop the discussion and tell the students to remove that word from their vocabulary during feeding therapy.

Why? The words we say out loud, and even in our own heads, can make a huge difference in how we think and feel about others, ourselves, and our actions. How we behave is influenced by what we’re thinking . . . and words are a direct reflection of our thoughts.

Words matter. They shape our thinking and other’s perceptions of our message. They can color a conversation, and can change someone’s mind. Words can drive a wedge between partners or support someone so they can go on to change the world.


Henry Ward Beecher said “All words are pegs to hang ideas on”.

If we view words in that way, it can help us to see how our language can make a huge difference in not only how our children react to us, but how WE react to THEM. If you have an agenda and the child isn’t cooperating, your instinct is to do something to GET them to play along.

So many parents I work with say the following types of things:

“How do I GET her to eat more?”

“I can’t figure out how to GET him to drink.”

“His doctor said we need to GET 24 ounces in him.”

“I just can’t GET him to sit at the table.”

The idea hanging on the “get” peg here is that WE adults are somehow in charge of making our children do things related to eating; that we have a better understanding of how the child’s body feels than they do.

It is hard to GET children to do things, and when it comes to feeding, it is almost impossible without sacrificing trust.  Indeed, our job is not to get a child to eat more or differently than they can right now. This involves a major shift in thinking. Instead, our job is to pay attention to the cues the child is giving us as to what they need and how they feel, which makes us better able to react to those needs. We can gently facilitate the child’s progress through presentation of options that the child GETS to opt out of if they so choose.

What language could we use instead?

“I need to LET her decide how much to eat.”

“Please LET him decide what and how much she wants to eat.”

“LET him choose from what is available.”

“She will LET me put food in front of her on the table now.”

When you use the word let, how does it feel? Do you feel the sense of permission? Marsha Dunn-Klein, occupational therapist, teaches about what it means to ‘get permission’ extensively in her workshops, and this may be the only way we should use the word get!

Much of the struggle around feeding stems from a child’s need for autonomy. They want, just as much as you or I, to feel in control of their own body. Allowing them to retain this control can drastically change mealtimes, and you might just GET what you were looking for all along.

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