A doctorate in child development and years of working with children and families did not prepare me for the sheer frustration and stress of feeding my own family.

Three different children with three different preferences and three different eating patterns and bodily rhythms = headache on a grand scale.

And as much as I sometimes longed to be one of those like-it-or-lump-it Mamas who rigidly adhere to their own timetable, only cook one thing and forbid the eating of anything else, I couldn’t do it.

Memories of my own miserable mealtime experiences and later battle with an eating disorder also made me reluctant to force feed, or to battle with my own kids over food.

Embracing a peaceful, respectful, conscious approach to parenting changed all aspects of my parenting experience so much for the better.

But applying this to eating?  This I found so much harder.  I spent a long time trying to make sense of the huge amount of information out there, much of it contradictory.

I will spare you the examples for now, but suffice it to say that initially I found it all mega confusing.

So what changed?  How did I finally get to a place of clarity and peace?

I’ll tell you; it was a simple process of working backwards. 

And by this I mean, thinking about what I wanted for my children in the long term.  Working out what I didn’t want my children to associate with food in the future. 

For example, I imagine that like me you don’t want your children to associate eating with feeling loved and ‘good’ and comforted, right?  And you don’t want them to eat by the clock even if they’re not at all hungry?  And you don’t want them to associate eating cake or ice cream with being a naughty treat that they only deserve if they are ‘good’ and already full from main course, right?

And yet, with a traditional approach to eating and mealtimes these are all messages our children are hearing.  Particularly when…

  • We have rigid rules about when they can and can’t eat
  • We insist they eat everything on their plate
  • We forbid pudding until they eat their ‘healthy’ main course
  • We use all manner of techniques to coerce and distract them to ‘get’ them to eat
  • We talk in their earshot about our own diets or being ‘naughty’ having that cake

None of these things normalise the process of eating or teach children to eat purely for nourishment and enjoyment.

None of these approaches convey trust in our child to utilise their incredible innate capacity to know what their own body needs and to choose accordingly.

And surely we owe it to our children to get out of their way and give them the freedom to do this.   We owe it to them to find a way to stop the growing problem in the western world with compulsive eating, with obesity, with eating disorders.   And we owe it to ourselves to find a way to make things less stressful, and find a simpler way that we can feel calm and confident about.

So I urge you to consider whether the path you are on at present is the one you truly want to continue with, and whether you are giving your children the messages that you really want them to hear.  I urge you to consider whether winning the short-term eat your greens battle is truly worth it at the expense of a healthy life-long relationship with food.

Let me clarify again; the easiest way you can make mealtimes less stressful and make the biggest impact on your ‘fussy’ eaters is to re-visit your whole approach to mealtimes and think of it only in terms of what habits you want to develop and teach for the long term.

Here’s a few things it might help to think about more specifically:

  • Get realistic about how much your child actually needs to eat.  We tend to vastly overestimate our children’s appetites.  Very roughly, their tummies are the size of their fists, but sometimes even smaller.  Vegetables, in particular, are very bulky.  If they say they’ve had enough and are full, they probably are.
  • Children eat more when they are growing and not in order to grow.  So their eating patterns and requirements will vary greatly according to the particular stage of development they are in.  Babies up until the age of one, for example, eat a ton more in proportion to their size than they will again until they are teenagers.  So when at this age they appear to become ‘fussy’, very often it’s merely because they no longer need to eat so much.
  • Examine who your current food schedule suits and what the rationale is behind three square meals a day.  As stated above, children have varied but generally significantly smaller tummies than we always remember.  Eating little and often may well be what suits their appetite and metabolism the best.
  • If you are happy for your children to eat sweet things and puddings, consider what the logic is behind having it after the main course, and the message you are sending if you are requiring a clear main course plate first.  What do you fear would happen if they have their fruit or yoghurt or fruit lolly presented at the same time as the main course?
  • What are you (and any other adults in the household) modelling to your children about eating and mealtimes?  Do they see you enjoying a varied diet, respecting your body, and enjoying both sweet and savoury food equally?  If not, what messages are your eating habits (and your partner’s) sending to your children?


Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit.  The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler.  All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe and guide an internal sense of respect for their environment and community, as well as themselves and other people.

I am increasingly convinced that the less control and the more freedom we can give our children the better.  But as much as children need a calm, kind leader who respects their rights to independence of thought, feeling and action, they also need to know that they are safe and cared for.

If we do not help them manage their emotions and set some basic behavioural limits, they will end up feeling insecure and uncomfortable.   Limits around respect and safety are also vital in order for our own needs as parents to be met.




1. Make thoughtful decisions about which limits you will enforce. 


Try and ‘pick your battles’.  If you can, consider freeing them from as many arbitrary rules and restrictions as possibleOverly controlling and managing our children tends to be counter-productive and a better aim is to focus on helping them learn to be independent and trust themselves.

Will it teach or help them with something rather than being a random rule that you want them to follow because ‘you say so’?

Do you feel they ‘need’ this boundary for safety reasons?  For health reasons?  To show respect for the boundaries of others?  To help them feel your calm leadership and release emotional tension or big feelings?

Here’s two examples:


For safety reasons (potential glass and sharp objects) I do not let my kids go out of the house without shoes where we currently live.  But I’m much more relaxed about coats; I trust that they will know if they are cold and will put it on when they are. 


If my three-year-old demands a different cup to the one I’ve given, some days I’ll comply and other days I won’t.  If I’m not in a rush and neither of us are overly tired or hungry and I sense there is something he is holding onto and needs to release, I will maintain a gentle limit; ‘You’d really like your red cup, but I’m giving you the Thomas cup today’. 

Doing so will allow him to cry and let go of whatever emotional tension he’s holding onto and needs to get out (see below).  His request for a different cup is not about manipulation or stubbornness; it is the only way he knows at that moment to tell me he has big feelings about something (from earlier in the day or built up over time) that he needs to express in order to heal.  But if I sense it’s not a good time or I don’t have the energy to listen and support the emotional fall-out, it doesn’t matter.  Kids know how to heal themselves, and you can guarantee that he will find another opportunity to do so very soon (see here).



2. Do not worry about being religiously consistent


In-the-moment confidence and rational explanations are much more important than always feeling you need to enforce the same rules and limits (as in the cup scenario above).  Things change, moods change, everyone is different – and this is okay and a good thing, in fact, for our kids to learn.

Here’s an example:

Some days you might be up for supervising high energy bouncing games across the sofas and feel confident you can join in and keep everyone safe.  On another day, not so much, so just say it how it is; ‘sorry guys, no kangaroo games today, I’m feeling too tired to join in and keep you all safe.  How about you play on the trampoline or we play a board game instead?’

You may also choose not to set and enforce limits if you have guests or you are out in public, to avoid (as much as possible) making your child feel embarrassed or disrespected.  I’m not saying you should let them run wild, but if there is another way or another time, why not take that option.

I would advocate behaving this way even with very young children as they are absorbing much more from your daily interaction than is sometimes obvious.  Behave just as you would with a partner or friend; for example, out of respect, most of us would wait until we got home to point out or discuss something we didn’t like or felt was inappropriate rather than publicly shame them.



3. Is it a behaviour that could be re-directed rather than quashed?


Consider if you could avoid saying ‘no’ or setting a limit by re-directing the impulse.  A child who is throwing things around may simply need space to practise their lob.  This is particularly the case with younger children as their impulse control is so very immature and underdeveloped.

Rather than yelling and point blank shutting the behaviour down, could you try something like, “No I can’t let you throw that ball in here as there are breakable things.  Shall we go outside and throw balls in the hoop instead?” 



4. Can you use playfulness to turn things around?


If you have asked your child to do something you consider you ‘need’ them to do (e.g. put on their shoes) and they are ignoring you, could you try being playful or humorous before getting firm with a limit?

Be as creative as you can; use silly voices, pretend you don’t know how to put them on and keep doing it wrong, make it into a race, be a shoe monster who eats any shoes that are not on feet – you get the idea.   It’s surprising how much more fun the whole process becomes for you too, and your kids will feed off your relaxed playfulness and respond accordingly.

I try to only do this with things we ‘have’ to do, that are perhaps a bit tedious or dull – daily routine stuff like brushing teeth or tidying something away, for example.   It is usually not appropriate if your child is already cross or frustrated.  Trying to chivvy them out of a feeling is akin to trampling on that feeling and the opposite of being heard.  It would be similar to telling your friend how sad you are that your dog has died, and for them to respond with a ‘knock, knock’ joke to ‘cheer you up’!





1. State your limit warmly but decisively


You want to aim for a ‘calm and kind, but firm’ stance – think unruffled or picture someone you know who represents this state.  It can take a bit of practice to hard-wire, particularly if you’ve previously only set limits when you are already annoyed or triggered or exhausted from the repetitiveness of a testing behaviour.

Imagining it is somebody else’s child can also help (because they don’t tend to emotionally trigger you in the same way).  Or try viewing your child as if they are in physical pain (from a deep cut or something) as this helps distance yourself from irritation or thoughts that they are purposely being annoying or difficult.



2. Try not to shout, ‘act’ cross, get worked up or irritated  


You can still set and hold a limit just as effectively without doing these things.   In fact, if you are feeling frustrated and have lost access to your own rational brain, then addressing this first (if safe to do so) is a priority.  You will not be thinking clearly and will be unlikely to hold a limit with any degree of warmth.

We now know that shouting and yelling at a young brain doesn’t ‘work’ anyway; it activates their primitive fight-or-flight response  causing them to become further enraged and disconnected from their thinking brain (see here),

Bear in mind that even if you are not yelling or puffing smoke, a strangled huffy tone or a despairing, fed-up one will also send clear signals that you are not calm and centred.  As will towering over them, glaring, with hands on your hips!  Sorry, I know it does seem like it requires an impossibly unrealistic level of zen.   But this is only what you are aspiring to, it won’t happen all the time and neither does it matter.  It will gradually get easier and more automatic the more you practise.



3. Show that you understand their perspective


Not always possible I know, but if there is time and you can, showing empathy helps remind your child that you are not the enemy and you are on their side.  It is a natural response of all humans to resist being controlled, but knowing that we are understood helps a great deal to soften the blow.

Here are some examples:

I know you are having a lovely time, and now we have to leave 

I can see that you are cross, and I can’t let you hit your brother

I know you would really love an ice-cream, and we are not having ice-creams today.



4. If necessary, physically hold them


If you’ve clearly stated a limit as above and they continue to do something you deem unsafe or that you cannot allow (e.g. hurt someone, run away), you may have to physically step in.

As Harvey Merriam says, “Controlling our children should not be the first choice for intervening in their lives, but, if we do have to control them against their will, direct physical control is the way to go.” 

If they are trying to hit you (or others), block and hold their hands to gently restrain them.  Face them away from you on your lap if possible.  Let go as soon as they are no longer hitting, even if they are still angry.  You are only there to ensure safety, not to teach them a lesson or punish.  They are not hooligans or being ‘naughty’, they are in pain and not in control of themselves.

Speak minimally, if at all.  Gently murmuring that they are safe is the most you need to say (they won’t be able to absorb anything anyway) as your calmness and body language will do the rest of the talking.


5. Expect and welcome tears

Be prepared for your limit to unleash big feelings (or more big feelings).  This is not only okay but a normal part of the emotional healing process (see here for more on this).  Kids are allowed to have and express feelings in the same way as adults; they will undoubtedly be upset if we say they can’t have an ice cream, and that’s fair enough!  If their feelings are not allowed they gradually learn that there is a ‘bad’ part of them that is not acceptable which they learn to suppress.  These buried, unacknowledged feelings can be carried for many years and are often at the root of any number of later mental health issues.

So your job is just to listen with kindness and empathy to all these feelings.  Without, if possible, interrupting the flow by distracting, fixing, diverting, leaving, ignoring, soothing or shushing.  Sounds pretty easy?  It’s not!  At first, anyway – it’s amazing how habitual trying to eradicate or avoid tears becomes.   Again, just keep being aware and practising and it will gradually become your new normal.





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