As the parent of a picky eater, I tried every trick in the book to get my child to eat. I lectured, bribed, bartered, cried, cajoled and took rejected foods out of rotation. Along that journey, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't, and I gradually found a way to approach food with energy and enthusiasm - and without control and obsession.

Food and eating are topics that generate a lot of parental guilt and angst, as well as repeated (and continually un-resolved) power struggles. Breakfast and dinnertime can become battlefields. Sometimes we score a victory. Maybe, after much coercion, one lima bean is consumed. But we often win that teeny lima bean battle at the cost of our relationship with our kids and a predictable, peaceful mealtime. Add to that situation the ever-increasing diagnoses of obesity, anxiety, depression and ADHD, and food and nutrition become dicey parenting dilemmas.

Food and nutrition are important and deserve our attention and care. However, attention and care do not include control, anxiety, permissiveness, giving up/giving in, lectures, demands or bribing. In order to create healthy attitudes toward food, we need to keep two parenting priorities in mind: meeting "the needs of the situation" and maintaining mutual respect. We call this positive parenting and this method can get us out of the weeds of power struggles or permissiveness and into good, healthy and productive relationships to last a lifetime. After all, childhood eventually ends, but our relationship with our child never does.

The needs of the situation

Meeting the needs of the nutrition and food situation begins with gathering information about the impact of food on our moods, our mental health and our physical well-being. To find out more, I interviewed Linda Petursdottir, a certified nutrition and wellness coach with expertise in functional medicine. Linda explained that our gut and brain are in conversation with each other and surprisingly our gut talks more to our brain than vice versa. In other words, what we ingest directly impacts our moods and behavior. The typical American diet, which is high in refined sugars and processed food, gives our brain a quick surge of energy and good feelings - but at the cost of feelings of depression and anxiety as soon as that high wears off. Poor gut health directly impacts our ability to produce serotonin, and decreases in serotonin trigger symptoms of depression.

Mutual respect

When we find that our family's nutritional options and meal preparations need fine-tuning, it is up to us as parents to take responsibility. Linda Petursdottir explains, "Parents are responsible for the food they bring into the house, and kids are responsible for what they eat." While our kids are young, we parents have almost 100 percent control over what comes into our house and enters our kids' bodies. That changes as kids get older and have money and access to convenience "food" stores. Mutual respect means that as we make changes we allow kids time and space to adapt. Mutual respect means we provide for our kids' needs and some of their wants.

Getting started

Where do we begin? Do we throw out ALL the sugar? Go vegan? Eliminate gluten? Petursdottir has a saner suggestion - one we can all start working on today: adjusting our mindset. "I always like to focus on the mindset of abundance rather than deprivation," Petursdottir says. "While I don't disagree that parents need to cut things out, I think it's healthier to think of what's missing. Start by simply tracking what you eat in a day, and if you are not eating the recommended 4-8 daily servings of fruits and vegetables, then that's where you can start."

Use family challenges. How can we go from 1 to 2 servings a day to 3 or 4? When we start adding healthy foods to our daily routine, then naturally some of the unhealthy choices start falling out - without creating feelings of despair and deprivation. Petursdottir says, "It becomes a more positive environment when we create healthy new habits rather than just thinking, ' We have to cut out soda. The fried food has to go. No more Chinese take-out .' That needs to happen, too, but I always want to start with the mindset of abundance. What foods can we add that are really health-promoting?"

Making lasting changes

Let's look at the family's development of healthy eating habits as a platform on which to grow our parenting muscles. We can create deeper and more robust relationships with our kids while at the same time improving our own health and getting to know ourselves. The important thing to do is to be honest about our current habits and start exactly where we are. Guard against drastic changes that are too hard to maintain and that will just make you throw in the towel in frustration. If you slip up, get right back on track rather than putting it off until tomorrow or next week.

Here are some steps you can take right away to get your family started on the path to better eating habits.

To Do This Week

  1. Go through your cupboards and pitch half of the high-sugar items

  2. Add fish once a week

  3. Put healthy options in prime real estate - for example, at the kids' eye level in the pantry, within easy access on the fridge door, on the countertop, washed and ready to grab

  4. Add in Meatless Monday

  5. Sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture or take your family to the local farmers market

  6. Plant a basil plant (or any other easy-to-grow herb)

  7. Drink water instead of juice or soda

Learn More

  • Check out the 100daysofrealfood.com blog and the book "100 Days of Real Food" by Lisa Leake

  • Watch the documentary "Fed Up" on Amazon or go to website fedupmovie.com

  • Make better food choices by using the Healthy Living app put out by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), which enables kids and parents to scan foods in the grocery store and get a rating on their selection

  • Get personal support from Linda Petursdottir, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Coach, at simplewellbeing.com


Related Articles

Encouraging Your Teen to Develop Good Eating Habits
When Nutrition Is the Prescription
The Importance and Benefits of Family Mealtime
Eat to Beat Heart Diseaseh
How to Get Your Kids to Eat Veggies


Paige Trevor is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP's "Parenting 5 to 12 Year Olds" classes. For more information about PEP's programs for parents of children of all ages, go to pepparent.org.