How Connection Helps Picky Eaters


Do you have a child who has some irrational eating preferences? For example they eat certain foods at nursery but not at home, or there are foods they used to love that they now claim they don’t like? I know this situation well! Some of my daughter’s preferences have been that she eats cashews at her best friend’s house, but only almonds at home (even though she used to like all nuts apart from hazlenuts). Or that she will eat chips but not potatoes, (!?) or that she will eat spaghetti with sauce if she’s at a restaurant, but at home the sauce is ‘yucky’ and she wants it plain, (even though she used to like it!).

If this sounds like your child, then you may have given up hope that there’s anything you can do. I know I’ve gone through phases like this. You may have put it down to just ‘toddler irrationality’ and hope they grow out of it. You just want to make sure your child has some calories in them, and you just want to relax and eat your own dinner.

However there is a solution! Chances are if your child is acting irrationally in their food choices, the problem is not really about the food but with their feelings about the food.

Hand in Hand Parenting is based on the understanding that when children feel good, their thinking brain works well, and they can make rational choices, and co-operate from us, even from a very young age. However when children experience stress and upset the feelings get in the way of their behaviour. They start telling us that they aren’t feeling good by acting in ‘off-track’ ways.

When your child is acting picky about food, it’s hard to tell what to do. We may not want  to force them to eat anything they don’t like, but we also want to make sure they are getting enough vitamins. And also just as important is that if your child’s pickiness is a sign that they aren’t feeling good, so we want to address those feelings, so they don’t get in the way of them enjoying life, and all the wonderful opportunities out there!

If your child is acting afraid of food, it’s often a pretext for deeper fears from difficult experiences your child has had. As Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore describe it in their book Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, ‘those feelings are stored away, raw and powerful still, in the child’s emotional memory. There they sit uneasily, tangled with information about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the experience.’

So when a child gets picky with food, it’s often that they are projecting their fears and upsets, onto the smells and tastes. It’s hard to be adventurous with new foods when our children are still re-experiencing fear from the past.

I have gone through periods where I have let my daughter’s picky eating slide. I was learning and observing to try and figure out the best approach. I noticed that she was highly sensitive to smells and tastes. As she got older she would sometimes complain about the smell of my food and not want to sit near me! However I began to notice that when she was feeling good she didn’t get so irritated by unusual smells and tastes. So it really wasn’t actually about the food.

Here’s how connection can help. When a child connects with us, they get to feel safe, and they also get to be listened to. One strategy we’ve tried is doing special time before dinner. (You can find out more about Special Time here) My daughter carries that sense of happiness and connection to the dinner table, and then when she sees the food there she sees it through a lens of connection and joy rather than fear.

Another strategy is play and laughter. Children (and adults!) naturally like to giggle away our fears, and  and we can bring play to the dinner table with fun and powerful results. (see my article 20 Playful Ways To Help Picky Eaters, for some inspiration).

We can also set limits about food, and listen to the feelings. It’s not about forcing our child to eat something they don’t like. But proposing they try it, and then listening to the upset. (You can read more about this approach which Hand in Hand Parenting calls Staylistening, here).

A few years ago, I wanted to help my daughter expand her pallete. So I decided we would try some new fruits. I told her my plan and we went to the shop and bought a mango and some kiwi. We laughed at these ‘funny fruits’ and took them home. The next day I proposed we tried them, and my daughter cried for a long time. In the end she did try them, and ended up eating two kiwis! After that she liked them and now mango is one of her favourite foods.

At that time we used to go to a music class for toddlers. All the children would play with musical instruments, and then put them back in a basket when it was time to finish. My daughter had always been shy to go up to the basket and didn’t like the rush of children all together. However the two days after I staylistened to her feelings about the new food, she happily rushed up and put her instrument back in the basket. It was amazing to see how listening to her fears about the food was not just about the food, but helping her with fears that were getting in the way of her living life to the full.

I know I go through phases where I just don’t have the energy to figure out how to work on this big emotional project for my daughter, and that’s where listening time helps (You can read more about listening time here). Because every family is different we need time and space to think through the emotional projects we want to help our children with and see how we want to tackle them. Having space to vent our worries, and also talk about how eating was for us as a child allows us to get our head clear to figure out an action plan for our family.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful, and I wish you many happy adventures at the dinner table!



20 Playful Ways To Help Picky Eaters



When it comes to picky eating it can be hard to find a solution that is fun, connected and playful. On the one extreme we can simply let our child survive off yoghurt and spaghetti with tomato sauce, with underlying worries about their nutrition. On the other extreme we can try the ‘threat of starvation’ approach where we just put their dinner down in front of them and refuse to give any other options.

In desperation we may have tried either or both of these approaches, but never felt completely comfortable with them. Luckily there is is a third way that can help with the underlying root cause of picky eating.

Often when children are experiencing fears or anxiety, they may project it onto food. So when a child scrunches up their nose at broccoli, and seems fearful, it may not be the food that is the ultimate cause of their fear.

Children gather stress, and tension from the early experiences in their lives when they felt small and helpless. They use little everyday moments, to try and ‘tell’ us about these feelings through their behaviour.

When we learn to listen to our children’s feelings, we are doing the most compassionate thing possible, allowing them to express their upset so that they grow in confidence. That plate of peas won’t look so scary when it’s no longer clouded by a mind full of upset.

I remember one time listening to my daughter cry about separation anxiety. After that we had dinner, and she started eating potatoes and cheese, two foods she had never tried before!

It’s not just about the food. When we help our children with feelings in life in general we can help them be more adventurous with their food, and when we help our children with food we may see leaps and gains in their lives.

Where the laughter comes in. Laughter is one of the ways in which children (and adults!) release the stress, tension and fear that can get in the way of them enjoying food. We also want to give children a sense of freedom and choice in life. We don’t want to set limits every single dinnertime. which might quickly lead to powerlessness and resentment. We want to warm up the connection with our child through special time and playlistening so that dinner time is fun, and so they feel safe to tell us about the big feelings that can also get in the way of enjoying food.

Listening to big feelings can be challenging, and coming up with fun, playful ways to deal with it can be even more difficult!

So I asked my friends and fellow Hand in Hand instructors to contribute to this list of fun playlistening ideas to help children with their fears around food. These are a great starting point to follow your intuition, and see what makes your kids laugh while they are in the more powerful role. Your dinner might get a bit cold while you try these out, and if taken to extreme some of these can get a little wild.

But there’s a big advantage. When we invest the time to listen to feelings and fears, it means that in the long run, dinners go much more smoothly. Your child doesn’t need to have a gigantic play every dinner time, (thankfully because I wouldn’t have the energy!) but laughter sprinkled here and there helps a lot, and perhaps you can have a bit of extra fun at the weekends.

Sometimes as my daughter laughs and play games, she ‘forgets’ to be afraid of the food, and ends up eating it. We get closer to the food together in a connected, fun way that takes the pressure off. I wish you many joyful, laughter-filled dinnertimes!

  1. Special Time – Roma Norriss Hand in Hand instructor in Bristol, UK  recommends doing it before dinner. In the rush to prepare food we probably aren’t thinking about connecting with our kids. If you can keep the dinner warm and then spend 10-15 minutes doing special time then this can give children the close connection they need to feel safe to try new food. Roma says, ”My very fussy daughter has been known to tuck heartily into her food and even exclaim “Mmmn delicious Quinoa!” when she has had a good dose of Special Time.”
  2. Yuck – In this classic game we simply reverse roles and pretend that we are scared of the food. Bring our fork up to our mouth, and make a suspicious face. Try it and make exaggerated yucky sounds. Run away from it. We might even encourage our child to feed us this disgusting food by saying, ”I hope you don’t make me eat this horrible food.”
  3. Mmmmmm Take bites of your food while looking a bit sceptical that it’s going to be tasty. As you chew it say ”mmmmm.”Gradually ramp up your surprise and delight at how delicious the food is with a big long ”mmmmmm” sound. Make some animated movement to express how tasty it is. Perhaps you run around around the room in a crazy manner, and then come back and say, ”oh sorry, that food just sent me a bit crazy for a moment.”
  4. Escaping Food. Roma Norriss says, ”One day my daughter wouldn’t eat her food, so I put some on her spoon and then zigzagged it away from her plate saying ”Help! Some of our food had escaped from our shopping basket. It’s rolling down the hill and I’m afraid that little stray dog is going to eat it. Quick save the tomatoes.” She immediately took me up on the game and started woofing after the food and trying to eat it. Then I changed tack and said, “Oh she’s a nice doggy shall we just feed her, I don’t think she has any owners, we could take care of her.” Soon she had eaten up all her food.
  5. Seat Glue Hand in Hand instructor Sarah MacLaughlin has a fun suggestion for children who are finding it hard to sit still. Pretend to spread glue on the chair before they sit. When they get up; act confused as to why your glue is not working, “that is so strange! I guess I’ll put some more glue on here…. Hurry, see if you can eat a bite of food before that glue wears off.” Lots of laughs, smiles, and “phooey” and “oh darn it,” when they get up again and again. Add “stronger glue” each time.
  6. Run Away From Your Seat Katalin Hidvegi, says, ”My eldest son is constantly running away from the table with food in his hands. One day we were playing, and he shared some “cakes” with me from his toys. I pretended to eat my cake, and hubby came to ask us to go to the table. My son and I started running away from him together. We pretend to sit on the coach eating together as allies. Hubby played his part well, complaining and insisting that we move to the table, then taking our cakes away. We would obediently sit down at the table but then jump up and run to the couch again. It was hilarious. My son laughed heartily and I enjoyed it too. Great healing laughter and togetherness. Great autonomy(rebellion) experience for both of us too!
  7. Missing Your Mouth I have to thank my mother-in-law for this one! Try to put food in your mouth but instead, ‘feed’ your ears, your armpits, the top of your head, your foot. Keep saying, ”oh no! That’s not right, let me try again.”
  8. Mis-serving Food. If the food is in the middle of the table to serve out, try mis-serving it by nearly putting a spoonful into your water glass. Catch yourself, ”oh whoops! That’s not right.”
  9. Flying Food – The food gets on a spoon or a fork (with a little help from us) and says, ”This is my aeroplane and I’m flying to Australia/America/Europe, and I’m not coming back!” We mock panic, and say ”oh no,” and ‘chase’ after it.
  10. Food Stealing – From Hand in Hand instructor Muftiah Martin in Santa Rosa California, I’ll say, “Ooh, I love eggplant (or mushrooms or beans) so much. I hope no one takes my eggplant when I’m not looking.” And she snatches it up!
  11. Food Robbers – Jessica says, ”I tell my kids that a robber is coming to steal their food. Then we look away and then they quickly take a piece and eat it really quickly.”
  12. Secret Eating From Hand in Hand instructor Skye Monroe in Australia.  Put their plates down with food at the table and say “ok I don’t want ANYONE to eat ANY of this food .. Please do NOT eat this.. I just want you to look after it for me for a bit while I grab something from the bedroom.” Walk away for a bit and come back and see they have eaten and with mock horror exclaim “oh no it looks like someone has eaten this food ?! That can’t be right ?!”
  13. Doll Roleplay – Stephanie Parker, Hand in Hand instructor in Stroud UK.says, ”I pretend Innes’s dolls and animals don’t want to eat their dinner and then Innes steps into being the parent and setting the limit and encouraging them to eat. She loves this.”
  14. Food Race – From Muftiah Martin, ”We do “who’s going to get this bite of food first?” as I lean in toward my daughter and pass the spoon near both of our mouths. She is always faster!” .
  15. The Wrong Seat – If each family member sits down in a regular seat, then you can get a few giggles flowing by sitting down in the wrong one. Take a fork and start to eat a mouthful of dinner then stop saying, ”hang on, something’s not quite right here. This is not my dinner. I’m in daddy’s seat!”
  16. Random Objects Instead Of A Plate – Lay the table, and put everyone’s dinner out. But put a funny object in your place. Then when everyone’s come to dinner and you sit down, say ”hmmm, why have I got a magazine for my dinner?” Try to eat it, and then act all disappointed, ”hmmm that doesn’t seem very tasty! I better go and get my proper dinner.” Repeat with objects, the more outlandish the better. Putting some toothpaste on your placemate, or a (clean!) potty, is bound to get your child laughing hysterically. You can even ask them to join in the fun by saying, ”Would you mind getting me my proper dinner?” And then mutter to yourself, ”I hope they don’t bring me anything silly,” literally inviting them to join in.
  17. Funny things on my spoon – I started this game when I was eating Minestrone soup, and every spoonful  would have a different variation of food. So when I got a spoonful of green peas, I would say to my daughter, ”oh dear. What’s this on my spoon. This looks a bit strange,” and pretend to be afraid of it. Then I would eat the spoonful and it would have a funny effect on me, making me jump around, or swing back on my chair, or make my face go into a funny expression. Then I’d say ”oh sorry, that strange spoonful turned my face funny,” and straighten it out again.” My daughter kept encouraging me to keep taking spoonfuls saying excitedly, ”go on, see what’s on your spoon next!” I tried this the other day when I was eating curry, and there was a green bit of coriander on my fork. I looked at my fork and said, ”what’s that? A leaf? Why did daddy put a leaf in my curry?” She laughed a lot.
  18. Eat me. Eat me. Have the food say  ”eat me! eat me!” to your child says Hannah Gauri Ma From Loving Earth Mama. Then the food pretends to get all sad if it doesn’t get eaten. I have also tried with this one with food that wants to get eaten by me instead. If you have some small items, like nuts or raisins, or peas, then have them come near your mouth, and then you take them away and put them down again. Act all annoyed and frustrated in a playful way, telling them that you’re not hungry, or don’t want to eat them, and then have them try to be eaten all over again.
  19. Aeroplane Game – This is a variation of the traditional aeroplane game of feeding your child. Load up a fork with food and have it take off to your child’s or your own mouth, But instead of landing there it lands in your mouth instead, or it flies and lands on top of the fridge, in the fruit bowl, or the kitchen counter. Act all muddled and confused and say, ”oh no, that’s not where I meant to land,” and try again, failing every single time.
  20. Food that doesn’t want to be eaten – Serve out your food, and then have it say, ”I don’t want to be eaten, I’m going back in the saucepan/fridge, etc.” Have the plate or individual pieces of food jump off the table, and jump back into the saucepan. Say ”hey, that’s my/my child’s dinner, come back here, we need you,” and act all befuddled as you keep trying to serve it but it keeps running away.

I hope this list bring lots of laughter and joy to your dinner table. If you try them out feel free to leave a comment and let us know how you get on. If you come up with any games of your own, we’d love to hear them!

Diary of an imperfect mum