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How to tame your anxiety when your child won't eat

Whenever you see your child ignoring new food, you may feel a particular feeling rushing through your body. It can be slightly different for each of us, but you may feel fear, anger or even shame when you are feeling judged by others.

Sometimes, you may start experiencing these feelings in anticipation of mealtimes before you even sit at the table.

These feelings are widespread and may have an evolutionary explanation.

Why are you feeling like this?

Our parenting instincts are millions of years old. They were shaped in times of extreme food scarcity and optimized to ensure our offspring's survival.

These instincts have a job. They make us feel certain emotions that can incentivize us to get the child to eat. Because when we don't know when there will be another eating opportunity, eating as much as possible when we can make a difference between life and death.

In our current food environment, concerns about nutrition have replaced the food scarcity issue for many families. Because we, as grown-ups, understand and value the principles of a balanced diet, we think that if our children do not eat what we envision as "variety and balance," they may be in imminent danger.

So, simply put, the prehistoric parenting instincts that ensured the safety of our offspring for millions of years may now create problems for us by putting us in an alert mode when we may not need it.

When we are in an alert mode, our goal is to solve the problem by any means, even if we compromise the connection with our child.

Without feeling connected, children cannot do a good job with eating, including trying new foods.​

So how can you be sure that you don't need to be alarmed?

Let's tackle a few evidence-backed facts about what's normal when it comes to growth, nutrition and behavior. You might be surprised when you read them!

If you have deeper concerns, you may need a proper evaluation, but many parents of “picky” eaters don't.

Evidence-backed facts:

1️. Children don't need to eat vegetables to get all the nutrition they need.

2️. They can meet their protein needs without eating any traditional "protein" foods. For example, a cup of pasta has 8g of protein, which is more than half of the daily protein needs of a 3-year-old.

3️. Research shows that "picky" eaters are not getting less nutrition than typical eaters.

4️. Kids don't need a varied diet to meet their nutritional needs. Rotating a few staples can help them meet all their needs.

5️. No-pressure approach helps kids eat better in the long term.

6️. Growth is not a problem unless the doctor is concerned. Kids don't need to follow the curve on growth charts perfectly to grow well. Being very high or very low on growth charts does not automatically indicate a problem either.

7️. When children refuse to try the food, it's never a sign of bad behavior. It means that it's not their priority at the moment.

8️. Not trying new food is not something parents should "fix."

What can you do when you feel the rush of anxiety at mealtimes?

First, consider whether your child has access to enough already ‘accepted’ food. If there is enough food on the table that your child usually eats, you know that they are just listening to their bodies, even when they eat little or nothing.

Next, remind yourself that the next eating opportunity will come soon. If your child tends to eat little or nothing at dinner, you can always offer a bedtime snack or a glass of milk before bedtime.

Try to stay relaxed. Any attempts to get your child to eat more will probably backfire. Focus on taking care of yourself because you also need nourishment, although it’s easy to forget about our own needs as a parent.

Do a square breath exercise or any other breath exercise that works for you. Nourish app has a selection of great techniques to bring you calm whenever you need it.


About the author

Natalia Stasenko is a Pediatric Registered Dietitian (UK/US) with 10+ years of experience of working with families all over the globe. Her most recent project is Easy Bites, a research-driven app finally putting together the “why”, “how” and “what” of feeding kids aged from 10 months to 5 years. Created by a team of dietitians, researchers and child feeding therapists, Easy Bites uses the psychology of feeding children to help busy parents avoid mealtime battles and raise happy eaters.


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