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?


I never assumed parenting was going to be a walk in the park.  But one thing in particular that I was not at all prepared for was quite how angry I would find myself becoming at times.  And the very worst of those times were apparently all because of a two-year-old??

Yep, who knew that a two-year old could unearth such an extraordinary amount of pain?  Pain that had laid unexpressed and buried since my childhood. 

But here’s the thing; the realisation of this and the gradual unpacking and coming to terms with it has been transforming.  It has ultimately led to strengthened and more connected relationships with all of my children and a generally happier parenting experience.   

It’s not the easiest of topics to delve into and be open about.  But I feel strongly about being authentic about all aspects of parenthood; being real about the nitty-gritty of the whole process, not just the end result or pretty bits. 

So here goes…

Our first child was pretty compliant and easy going from the start.  Partly down to his temperament, I expect, but he also had that huge advantage of doting first-time-parent attention – no doubt further intensified by the huge gratitude I felt for being present with him at all after coming close to not surviving his birth.

So, when he reached the age when daily routine things had to be done – teeth brushing, for example – it was no big deal.   He would generally comply, or at least, be easily encouraged through silly games or songs or giggles.

Our second child, not so much.  A bright, independent, happy little girl, until aged around 18 months she learnt the joy of saying ‘no’ and identified many things she’d rather not do, brushing teeth included.  She would gleefully, point-blank refuse to co-operate.

It was a bit of a shock, and I guess the truth is, it seriously threatened our ‘good’ parenting status. 

On a good day, I would be mildly irritated, but on a bad day, particularly in the evenings when I was low on energy and resources, there were times I would completely see red.  It made me livid!  How dare she not comply!  How dare she disobey and disrespect me!  I surely could not let her ‘get away’ with such disrespectful behaviour!

The more we tried to clamp down and coerce her into ‘behaving’, the worse it seemed to get. 

The power struggles increased, and I noticed that we started talking about her somewhat negatively and throwing around comments about her being ‘feisty’, ‘stubborn’, having a ‘difficult’ side.

But I knew at the back of my mind something wasn’t quite right.  I would reflect sometimes on the degree of anger she seemed to be able to elicit from me and I would feel quite shaken.  I knew, deep down, that the strength of my feeling was irrationally disproportionate to anything this beautiful, tiny, innocent girl could have ‘done’ to have caused this.

Things came to a head one day during a crazy, and looking back now, quite embarrassing stand-off we were having in the bathroom – over yes, teeth brushing.   We had done with the yelling match and were sat silently side-by-side, both refusing to ‘give-in’.   I was ruminating on a traumatic week of endless power struggles – and school runs, where in order to get my eldest to school, I’d had to carry this poor girl kicking and screaming under one arm, whilst pushing our new-born in the buggy with the other.

But this time, instead of feeling enraged that she was ‘making’ me feel so angry by her stubborn behaviour, I felt only deep helplessness, despair and sadness.  Helplessness and despair that despite all my knowledge and training I was still a rubbish parent and couldn’t ‘control’ my children.  Sadness that we’d somehow got to this point, and though I loved her deeply nothing about the way I was behaving was showing her this.

And that was when it dawned on me.  This was not about her at all. 

It was about me and the tangled mess of buried emotions that were being triggered.

You see anger is just the surface emotion.  It is a less vulnerable and bizarrely more ‘acceptable’ emotion than fear, sadness, worry, hurt, disappointment, rejection and so on.   Underneath the anger are all the feelings we learnt as children were not allowed to be expressed, or felt too painful to be expressed, or caused our own parents’ distress or discomfort.

We learn to bury them, until along comes our own child, who’s behaviour evokes exactly those painful memories and feelings we’d been trying so hard to ignore.

My parents were not intentionally unkind but they were strict and I was scared of them.  So, every time my daughter refused to cooperate, one of the things it triggered was my unexpressed childhood pain of all the times I was too scared to do the same.  I wasn’t allowed to behave like that, so how dare she?!

I know now that my reaction deeply disturbed her.  And often when children are scared, they will keep repeating the same behaviours to test for a better response; they desperately need our calm control, our calm knowing and reassurance that we will keep them safe however they are feeling.  Repeatedly pushing a limit is the only way they know to attempt to establish something that feels safer and somewhere they can feel properly heard.

Very often, our reactions to our children are so automatic that we convince ourselves that we have no control over them.  We blame our child’s difficult nature that ‘makes’ us feel and respond a certain way, or simply believe that it’s just part of our personality and there’s little we can do about it.   And this is where I was; I had barely even considered that I had a choice.

But we always have a choice about how we respond and behave.  It doesn’t always feel like it, and it’s definitely not easy, but we do have a choice. 

Our children, on the other hand, absolutely do not.  They will eventually learn to find ways to deal with their emotions from experience and modelling us, but in the meantime, they are predominantly dinosaur-brain driven.  It is our job then, to bring the logic and rational thinking to the table, and to act as this part of their brain for them during the times that they lose it and cannot control themselves.

Which unfortunately means it’s also our job to be responsible for our emotions and learn to handle them.  And I’ve come to realise now that the biggest part of this is understanding where these feelings are coming from.    Not so much in terms of specifically what’s triggering them from our personal history or experience, but understanding on a much broader and fundamental level how our minds work and who we really are underneath our psychology.  It sounds kind of magical and to-good-to-be-true I know, but honestly,  once we get this and truly see how it works, everything begins to shift and starts to look so much easier and simpler. 


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