“Eeeew!” shrieks 7-year-old Louise the instant she sees her plate. “I HATE salmon!” Louise’s disdain for dinner mirrors her father’s exasperation. He spent after an hour cooking this repugnant meal. He cringes. We all do. But kids rejecting food is part of life as a parent. It’s an inescapable behavior when you’re trying to feed young eaters. Not surprisingly, a lot of parents stop serving salmon, and its equally objectionable counterparts altogether. Chicken nuggets colonize the dinner table. Anything else starts to feel like a waste of time.
Despite children’s tendency to turn their noses up at food, parents remain starved for simple strategies to cope with these dilemmas. Try bites and no-thank-you bowls haven’t marshaled the kind of cooperation parents crave at mealtime, and sometimes even the good advice to patiently keep trying — because it takes 15 or more tries for kids to like new foods — yields mediocre results.
So, what can parents do when kids freak out about food? First of all, don’t panic. Scientists have amply demonstrated that kids generally get the nutrition they need. They aren’t going to starve themselves to death. But don’t just give up either. If you’ve got a “picky” problem, I have a strategy to solve it. I’m going to share this wisdom because it’s hard won and my approach works better than any other strategy I’ve stumbled across to date (that’s anecdotal, but I’m a registered dietitian so it’s not a small sample size).
I call it the Add-On. It’s a two-step parenting technique to cope with food rejection in kids. It involves four magic words and one small portion of a condiment-like food kids can dip, squeeze, sprinkle or spread right at the table. Unlike other suggestions for navigating food refusal in kids, the Add-On aims to both engage kids with the food and preserve everyone’s dignity, giving kids the little slice of power they’re hungry for at the table.
Step One: What is an Add-On?
An Add-On is a condiment-style accoutrement kids can apply to whatever food is distressing them in the moment. For Louise, it’s a wedge of freshly sliced lemon she generously squeezes onto each forkful of salmon. Other Add-On’s for salmon could be mustard, crushed corn flakes or chopped fresh pineapple.
There are two criteria for an Add-On food:
- It is a condiment, not a meal replacement. A whole banana, for example, is not an Add-On. Chopped pistachios are.
- It is accessible by the child with minimal to no parental assistance. If you’re offering lemon wedges, have them pre-cut. If the Add-On is crushed walnuts, smash them ahead of time—kids can help!
In general, an Add-On is the sort of food you could ask for at a restaurant without being charged extra, like sprinkles of ground cinnamon or a dollop of sour cream.
In your home, identify Add-Ons you have on hand or are willing to offer. The options at our house include: fresh lemon and lime wedges, tzatziki, hummus, mustard, roasted sesame seeds and slivered almonds. Other ideas include: unsweetened shredded coconut, raisins, crushed nuts or sesame sticks, balsamic glaze, raita and an assortment of salad dressings and dips. Keep three to five Add-On options in a cupboard or section of the fridge that kids can access without help, thereby leveraging a shred of autonomy in a scenario where they might otherwise feel disempowered.
I know what you’re thinking: slopping some sauce on the situation won’t stop your kid from scoffing at salmon. The good news about the Add-On is that skepticism can work in your favor. What you’re trying to do is inspire curiosity. What can your sophisticated child concoct at the table when given little a free reign? The key is how you ask, or rather invite, your child to employ an Add-On.
Step Two: What to Say
When your kid starts fussing about food, invite them to take advantage of the Add-On by saying these four words: “What would help it?” Stick to the script on this, refraining from all the other stuff you habitually say. Your kid hates salmon? You simply ask, “What would help it?”
Louise screeching, “I HATE salmon,” prompts her mom to say, “What would help it?” This is Louise’s invitation to find an Add-On. If Louise escalates, her parents make one statement acknowledging her feelings and then repeat the same question. For example: “I hear you’re upset about the salmon. I’m wondering, what would help it?”
The next move, as hard as it may be, is to resist the urge to say more, even when your child inevitably answers your newfangled question with a one-word retort. When you ask, “What would help it?” and your kids screams, “NOTHING!” calmly acknowledge their opinion and offer one or both replies: “You don’t have to eat it,” and/or “What would help it?”
How you say it also matters. These phrases aren’t expressed as heckling but curiosity. Your non-verbal delivery of the question “What would help it?” should reflect a genuine and kind-hearted inquiry, not an insult or intimidation. The intent is to empower your child to take action vis a vis an Add-On, if they so choose. You’re on the right track when you sidestep fruitless negotiations and offer your kids a little self-governance as eaters.
Louise’s parents are Add-On aficionados. Here’s the verbatim conversation between Louise and her dad one salmon’s eve:
Louise: “Eeeew! I HATE salmon.”
Dad: “Okay, I hear you. What would help it?”
Louise: “Nothing! It’s gross. I’m not eating it.”
Dad: “Alright. You don’t have to eat it, but you’re welcome to an Add-On.”
Louise: “No! I want something else.”
Dad: “Well, salmon is on the menu tonight, so I’m wondering, What would help it?”
Louise: “Daaaad – stop! I don’t want to do this.”
Dad: “Okay, you don’t have to do anything. It’s your plate. You’re welcome to grab an Add-On.”
Louise: “But what would I choose?”
Dad: “For me, mustard helps salmon sometimes. How about you?”
This interaction didn’t make Louise jump for joy about eating salmon, but it gave her a chance to work with it. She quit moaning and shuffled to the fridge to grab an Add-On making do with the meal before her. Add-Ons work because they allow kids to take agency over eating in situations where their locus of control is usually overlooked. The Add-On gives kids an action step to escape stewing in disgust.
The goal of the Add-On is not to make kids eat something they’d rather avoid, nor is it about sprinkling “glitter” on the situation in hopes a distraction will appease their aversion. The Add-On enlists options-based behavior giving kids a simple choice that honors their sovereignty as eaters. It also helps maintain the integrity of the interaction for both parent and child. Kids gain some authority and ownership of their eating and parents find an alternative to badgering. In short, everyone feels less fed up.
Clearly, Add-On’s won’t alleviate all mealtime meltdowns, but they can help kids develop as eaters and parents steer clear of over-coaching in food rejection situations. If you’re feeling defeated at the dinner table, test drive the Add-On to disengage the battle-of-wills and ignite your kids’ creative capacity.
How are food refusals handled in your home?
Stephanie Meyers is a registered dietitian and nutritionist teaching parents how to coach healthy eating habits in kids. Her passion is sharing practical strategies to decrease stress and frustration around feeding a family.