The Many Forms of Pressure at Mealtimes

Main image for the article [The Many Forms of Pressure at Mealtimes]. Pictured is a toddler looking at a big dish of food.

When it comes to our picky eaters, most of us parents are willing to try anything to get them to just eat and be healthy – especially when the frustration and struggle at meal times never seems to get any better! You’ve likely tried everything in the books, from promising them dessert after supper, to hiding vegetables in sauces, to threatening to take away a privilege until they EAT. THEIR. DANG. MEAL! And soon, you telling your child, “Just one more bite” or “Do it for mommy,” becomes the regular type of talk at the dinner table. And even though these tricks and tactics may seem to work initially, you just can’t seem to get a break and move on from this phase!

Want to know a secret, though? These well meaning tactics may be unintentionally contributing to your child’s picky eating. That’s because all of the above behaviour can be seen as a form of pressure to kids! 

Adding pressure is unintentional most times, and often we don’t even notice we’re doing it, but it really can not only prevent things from moving forward, but can actually make picky eating worse. So basically, the complete opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish. 

Let’s get started with talking about what pressure actually looks like in detail.

The Many Forms of Pressure

There are certain subtle, and not-so-subtle, forms of pressure to be aware of around food and eating. It comes in many different forms and can be ingrained in many different parenting styles. The following forms of pressure are much easier to do when feeding toddlers, but many are still seen when feeding babies as well. Babies DO sense pressure just as much as toddlers. In general, they tend to experience more “pushiness” when being spoon fed, or bottle fed, despite indications that they are full or don’t want to eat. That being said, here are the main types of pressure that can be experienced by both babies and toddlers.

Positive Pressure (the type that seems encouraging and harmless to us…but toddlers know there is a hidden meaning behind it)
  • Praising them and tying eating behaviour in with moral behavior: “You’re such a good girl for eating all your food today!”
  • Bribing them: “You can have dessert if you eat three more bites of broccoli”
  • Rewarding them: “You get a cuddle/sticker/ipad at the table/tv time/dessert etc… ‘cause you ate all your food today!”
  • Distracting them: Playing games to distract them to take bites or letting them have the tv/ipad so they “zone out” and eat.
Negative Pressure is commonly observed as the following…
  • Dictating: “You have to eat one bite of everything on your plate.”
  • Negotiating: “Okay, two bites of this, then one bite of that. If not, have at least a small bite of this one then…”
  • Guilting: “Think of all the poor children who don’t have this wonderful food,” or “Mom made you this delicious food and you won’t even take a bite!”
  • Begging: “Please, just take at least one bite. Please, please, please.”
  • Forcing: Physically placing or forcing food into a child’s mouth, or holding a child’s head or hands while feeding.
  • Restricting food: “There’s no more bread for you” or “You’ve had enough for this meal”
  • Food shaming: “You shouldn’t be eating that food, it’s bad for you and it’s full of sugar!”
  • Withholding food: You can’t have any snacks/dessert/favourite food because you didn’t eat your food today”

There is even hidden pressure, such as disguising foods as other items, so your child won’t know their food contains something they dislike.

Overall, there are many different scenarios where pressure can be placed on a child, and as mentioned before, it can be really hard to detect! If you’re unsure as to whether or not something you do, or say, could be interpreted as pressuring, ask yourself this question:

“Am I doing this/saying this for the reason of trying to get my child to eat more, less or different than what they are eating now?”

Ellyn Satter

If so…this is pressure!!

I’ve got lots more information on why and how these forms of pressure can be counterproductive, or harmful, in my Feeding Toddlers online course, as well as what to say in order to move things forward, instead of backwards, so please check that out if you’d like to learn more.

Pressure is most commonly seen in parents whose child’s doctor tells them that there’s been a dip in their child’s growth, or that they’re on the extreme lower end of the growth curve. This is, of course, concerning for parents, and unfortunately it can make them feel desperate to do anything to get their child to eat; like hover over them, follow them around with food all day, beg them to take another bite, distract them, etc. Naturally, this can make babies/toddlers feel uncomfortable and often make them want to eat less!

Similarly, when doctors tell parents that their child is on the higher end of the growth curve, parents may feel the need to restrict the types of food their child is eating, or restrict eating any food past a certain amount deemed appropriate by the parent. What this can look like is a parent saying: “You can only have more vegetables”, when they see their child reaching for more rice. Or, saying: “You’ve had enough for tonight”, before the child has finished eating their meal. We know from research how much restriction like this can backfire, and how much more a preoccupation around food will actually develop when kids feel that their parent is making a big deal out of it, or restricting it.

Why Pressure Can Backfire

By using pressure as a tactic to get our children to eat more, it can actually decrease the likelihood that they’ll eat. This happens for a number of reasons, most of which revolve around anxiety, lack of trust, or a sense of control.

When children feel that they are forced to do something they don’t want to do, they might get anxious and stressed, causing them to lose their appetite and ability to focus on food. Furthermore, their emotional level rises and their anxiety may turn to anger towards you, or towards mealtimes in general, for making them feel this way. Even if it’s not obvious that they’re feeling this way, you can see it manifest in their feeding behavior through: refusing to eat, not enjoying mealtimes, or not giving food a chance. To see this from their perspective, you have to imagine yourself in their situation and how you would feel if someone was trying to make you eat something that was scary, unfamiliar, or gross. You’d probably feel really cautious, worried, afraid, disgusted, and even fed up or down right angry that someone is making you do this over and over again!

Pressuring a child can also cause them to lose trust in you. When parents ignore cues coming from their child and try to get them to eat more, or less, than they want, the child begins to lose trust that you will be responsive to their needs, even though you may be very responsive in other aspects of their life. On the other hand, when a child learns that their parent is a reliable “secure base” that will respond to their need to eat or not eat, they in turn feel more comfortable exploring in that environment (hint: this is what you want in order to eventually get them to try new foods!). Something as simple as allowing the child to decide when they’re done with the meal, versus forcing them to finish their meal, can have long-lasting effects on attachment.

There’s also the chance that your child just wants to feel in control and wants to show you that you can’t make them eat whatever you’re offering them, even if they’ve eaten it before. The concept of saying “NO” just because they were pressured to do something is all too common for kids, especially once they hit ages 1-5. Think about this scenario… your child knows that it’s important to you for him to eat his broccoli, and because he wants to get your attention, or exert his autonomy, he’ll deliberately choose not to eat it. Or, in the case of the persistent or strong-willed child that wants to be in control or wants eating something to be their idea, they may refuse to eat if the idea comes from someone else.

It’s important to mention here, that these tactics may seem to work in the short-term. They may allow you to get an extra spoon of oatmeal in at breakfast or a bite of carrot in at dinner, but these tactics aren’t helping your child become a competent eater OR learn to love these foods anymore in the long run. It’s also important to note that certain children who are easy going, eager to please, or who are fearful, may go along with the rules, but with more sensitive children or children with extreme picky eating, this will definitely lock you into more of a power struggle at meal times and can make problems worse down the road. If you feel that your child is putting up resistance to your encouragement, it’s a sign that you should try something else.

What You Can Do Instead

Instead of applying pressure, here are some things I suggest trying:

Trust your child’s role to choose what and how much they want to eat. Let them feel that you trust them and that you will follow the roles each of you are meant to play. You are in charge of offering what to eat at times you choose, but they will ultimately get to choose if they want to eat, what they want to eat, and how much. See more info on this concept in this post.

Keep mealtimes positive. Smile at mealtimes and make sure it’s a time where the whole family can sit and chat together. Make mealtimes a bonding time, a time to talk and just get together, rather than a place for battles or concern over food.

Be neutral in your approach around food. It often helps to be “nonchalant” about whether they eat the food or not, and even quiet about food altogether. Try setting new food out at the dinner table without mentioning it or being very matter of fact as to what’s served if it’s asked about. For example, simply say: “It’s chicken with soy sauce”. Don’t ask them to try it, don’t say “mmm so good,” or anything else besides what it is because sometimes, that opens up the possibility that a pressuring comment can come out. Just eat it yourself, and immediately start engaging in a light hearted conversation that has nothing to do with food.

Praise your child’s behaviour, not what they are or aren’t eating. Provide positive encouragement to your child for following general meal time rules (ie. sitting at the table, serving themselves, engaging in conversation, etc.) and give them a confidence boost around their physical skills, curiosity, and manners at the table. For example, “Wow, you’re getting good at using your spoon for scooping” or “Thanks for being patient while I served everyone” or even “What a great question you asked mommy!” Again…you’re saying nothing directly to do with eating itself.

Encourage them to interact with and taste food using food play and food exploration techniques!  There’s no better way to create a positive, fun environment at the table while simultaneously encouraging your baby/toddler to eat, without directly asking them “to take a bite,” than by encouraging them to play with their food! I’ve got lots more info on this in this blog post that will help you understand how food play and food exploration can actually help them overcome picky eating using no pressure methods.

If you were prone to pressuring at mealtimes with a previous child or you fear you may be the “pressuring” type with your baby who’s about to start solids, consider taking my Baby Led Feeding online course and start your baby off with the principles taught in this course from the very beginning. It incorporates puree feeding (in a baby led way), but focuses on really advancing them to self-feeding with finger foods primarily, which makes it much harder to implement pressuring techniques. 

Remember, don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve used pressure tactics in the past….trust me, we’ve all done it in one form or another and I know it’s only because we have the best intentions for our kids. These tactics are used, and have been used for years by our parents and our great grandparents when they grew up, and it’s what’s become familiar to many of us. That being said, I’m here to help you turn these habits around and find new (and more effective) ways to help your baby/toddler eat adventurously, eat enough, and come to have a healthy relationship with food. Both my Baby Led Feeding course and my Feeding Toddlers course are based on no-pressure, child-led methods to feeding, and really give you all you need to know to turn mealtimes and picky eating around and make feeding a pleasant experience for all!


meet edwena

Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two picky-turned-adventurous eater, and the creator of the Texture Timeline™ – an exclusive tool to help move your baby through easy to more advanced purees and finger foods to prevent picky eating.

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