When parents disagree about feeding children

Do you and your partner disagree about how to handle your fussy eater? It’s a common scenario and one that can make mealtimes even more stressful.

One of you believes that your child should finish all the food on her plate. The other has a more relaxed approach, believing that if they are not hungry, children shouldn’t have to eat.

We’ve all been brought up with our own set of ‘food rules’. Now this may not be a problem when children happily eat at mealtimes. But differences between parents become apparent when one child is a fussy or picky eater, and their relationship can start to suffer.

When you disagree or argue over feeding, you lose the benefit of a supportive partner, say feeding experts Dr Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin in their book Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating.  Not only that, it can cause increased conflict at meals, making an already difficult job that much harder. Any stress or anxiety at mealtimes is likely to make your child’s appetite shrink even more.

It’s rare that parents will agree on all aspects of parenting. Any differences can be positive for children, as long as they don’t generate a great deal of tension and especially if parents can appreciate each other’s strengths, say Rowell and McGlothlin.

What you can do

  • Share your own mealtime experiences with your partner. How were you raised around food? Did it help you develop a healthy or unhealthy relationship with food? Were you forced to eat everything from your plate, no matter how long it took? How did that make you feel? We either feed our children the same way we were, or go to the extreme opposite if we had a particularly bad experience.
  • Try to uncover each other’s motivation for your attitudes to mealtimes. If one of you is pressuring your child to eat or try all the food, it could be that you believe doing otherwise is disrespectful to the cook and the food, or that not eating is incredibly wasteful of food. In contrast, the other parent’s motivation might be a relaxing, conflict-free meal. Often your motivation can be fear – fear that your child won’t grow or get sufficient nutrition, fear that you’ll be judged by others because your child doesn’t eat, fear that your child will end up ‘spoiled’ if you let him have too much control over what he eats. Whatever your motivation you’re likely to both want the same thing – healthy kids.
  • Listen to your partner’s viewpoint. It may be hard to admit it, but they might possibly have a healthier approach.
  • Aim to agree on certain rules around feeding: no force feeding, no bribes, stopping whatever is happening that may be causing a child to become overly upset. Begin to have family style meals, and start to implement the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, where the parent decides what food to serve at meals and snacks, where to serve it, and when, and the child decides whether and how much food to eat.
  • If you agree to disagree, it might be worthwhile one parent taking control at mealtimes while the other remains supportive by being silent. Without overt conflict you may be able to see progress in your child’s eating.
  • Celebrate successes together. Perhaps your child ate really well after school, or ate all her school lunch. And track progress with a journal – if you start to introduce new tactics, such as the Division of Responsibility, make a note of any changes you see.