Picky Eating: Defining Boundaries, Laying the Foundation

By Jennifer Yoon, RDN/LDN, Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair



The reported statistics for percentages of children who may be defined as “Picky Eaters” is all over the map. Websites and articles quote a range of 20%-50%. These statistics seem low! Most statistics agree that peak picky eating behavior is from 2 to 6 years old. So if you are a parent struggling with a picky eater, these numbers tell you that you are not alone, and there is light at the end of the tunnel!

Most, but not all, picky eating is a behavior and not a medical issue. As with most behaviors, they are learned and conditioned, can be prevented, and with time and CONSISTENCY, they can be reversed. As with most behaviors, appropriate boundaries, consistency, and the parents’ reaction are all contributing factors.

In order to set appropriate boundaries, parents must first understand the “Division of Feeding Responsibility”. The Division of Feeding Responsibility was defined and developed by Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist, Ellyn Satter, Feeding Guru and author of many books on child feeding, including How to Get Your Child to Eat…But Not Too Much.

The Division of Feeding Responsibility states parents are responsible for what food is offered, when it is offered, and the manner in which it is offered. Wise parents will keep food in the house they do want their child to choose, and leave the foods out of the house they don’t want their child to choose. They will present a few selections at each meal that include at least one food the child will like. Parents will intentionally offer food at the table, in a pleasant environment with few distractions, and time meals and snacks 2-3 hours apart. Parents may have the expectation that their child will join them at the table for a reasonable amount of time (this varies by the age and by the child). Parents should model good eating behavior by eating the foods they hope their child will like. This is the end of the parents’ job.

In the Division of Feeding Responsibility, children are responsible for how much they eat or whether they eat at all. This is very difficult to accept as a parent, but can free you from the crushing responsibility of believing that you MUST MAKE THEM EAT. In fact, making your child eat is impossible (and somehow they know this!). Outside of the expectation of your child remaining at the table, they are free to choose to eat, or not, the foods you are offering. Withholding certain foods or placing too much emphasis on eating other foods most often has the opposite desired effect. Praising, bribing, begging, or cajoling backfire most of the time. Giving negative energy to what they do and do not eat will lead to tension and frustration at the table.

The Division of Feeding Responsibility is the undisputed truth. It is employed across the board by professionals working with all types of feeding issues. It works, but it is not easy. If you have a child with problematic picky eating, please seek help. And though at the surface, the concept seems straight forward, there is much more to share! This will be the first in a series of articles on Picky Eating. Please stay tuned!


*** Jennifer Yoon sees patients at the Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair office. For an appointment, please call (412) 221-2121. Read more from Jennifer on The PediaBlog here.