The Feeding Doctor on Pinterest

food as “negotiation tool?” and picky eating

Posted by on Oct 24, 2011 in Blog Posts | 9 comments

Oy. This was in Family Fun magazine at the doctor’s office. Talk about mixed messages. I think it was for chicken nuggets or fried cheese sticks. The quote was basically, “the only food your kids like 100% of the time.”

If that’s your criteria, you are dead in the water. There is NO food kids like 100% of the time– perhaps ice-cream…

M used to LOVE shrimp and cocktail sauce. At 18 months she would eat half a pound easy. I had to limit it because it was getting expensive. She hasn’t chosen shrimp in over a year now. But, will I give up? No, I will keep serving it and offering it because I like to eat it, and chances are she will again too someday.

I HATE this ad, and ones like it. Sends all the wrong messages about food. It is NOT a negotiation tool, it’s food. It is not something they have to love 100% of the time, it’s food. It is alas, something most families in our culture can relate to, as studies show that 85-90% of parents routinely bribe, reward, pressure, praise, threaten etc around mealtimes. It doesn’t work, but ads like these reinforce the abnormal norm.

When the mom of a 12 month old asked me at a workshop what I thought of chicken nuggets, I pressed her to explain. “Well, I worry he doesn’t get enough protein, and chicken nuggets are the only protein he eats every time, so I serve them every night for dinner…” Sadly, her worry about nutrition (misplaced as it turns out as she was over-estimating his protein needs anyway) was causing her to make a classic feeding miscalculation- limiting options to readily accepted foods. He needs to be exposed to lots of different protein sources on a regular basis so he can learn to like them. What she is inadvertently doing is heading towards life with  a 3 year-old who only eats chicken nuggets… Ads like this encourage limiting options and creating more problems with picky eating.

What do you think?

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  1. jaed

    One sort of creepy thing about that ad that you didn’t mention but that jumped out at me: the misbehaving kid (the one holding the doll away from his sister) is noticeably plumper than the thin sister and brother on the floor.

    Ads like this are usually carefully designed so every visual nuance supports the message. I wonder what the choice of models here is supporting?

    • katja

      good point. Almost always the bully in TV and movies is visibly fatter, Phineas and Ferb, Spy next door… I notice it a lot these days because I am tuned in to size bias, but most people don’t notice or question it.

  2. Kate

    My neighbor cooks a special meal for her daughter than one for her and her husband every night. The daughter eats mac & cheese, pb&j and such things every night. The don’t eat together, the child eats separately. In every other regard the mom makes sure her daughter gets to experience lots of different things and let’s the child experiment with things around her, but food is completely dictated by the kid.

    I want to say something, but I don’t, I don’t really think I even should. I have talked in length about learning about Ellyn Satter’s methods when we were going through the foster/adoption process and I have sent her links to both this site and Ellyn Satter’s sites, not in a lecture-y way, but in an FYI way. It’s just frustrating to watch. But it’s always easy to give parenting advice when you’re not actually a parent.

  3. sarah stabio

    I have always worried about protein since my son has always been on the smaller side. And yes I am in the 85+% of parents who bribe with food. I think it has gotten better for us as my husband and I focus on it and don’t do it as much, but it is an easy habit to fall into. How much protein does a 3 year old need? He’s overall a good eat who likes a variety of foods and will eat the protein portion on his own regularly, but when he doesn’t I find myself stepping in, “O make sure you rotate food, some rice and the a chicken bite, here I’ll load your fork for you.” Or, “no more pasta until you eat more meat.” Meal time is always a learning time for us and always room to grow! Thanks for the post.

    • katja

      This is from Eat
      Foods Toddlers Need:

      Most 2- to 3-year-old children need to consume about 1,000 calories per day. Here’s how to distribute those calories in a healthy eating plan:

      * Milk Group: 2 cups per day. Whole milk is recommended for children younger than 2. Older children can have lower-fat, calcium-rich choices such as fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.
      * Meat and Beans Group: 2 ounces total per day. Options include one ounce of lean meat or chicken plus one egg or 1 ounce of fish plus ¼ cup of cooked beans (black, pinto, etc.).

      If he drinks milk, that is a great source of protein. I see many parents overestimate how much protein a child needs. One egg is half of what they need, milk or Greek yogurt, cheese are great sources of protein, an ounce of meat or beans or a few tablespoons of a nut butter can help. I find that if parents are concerned, having an intake analysis has been so helpful! Almost always, kids are getting the right amount, or even more than they need and it really helps parents relax. Remembering that snacks are a great time to offer protein, from crackers and cheese, or fruit and cheese, or milk and apples with peanut butter can help take the pressure off at mealtimes. Also, little kids might find chicken breasts to be dry, so don’t forget sauces, consider slow-cooker pulled pork, or ground beef or turkey with sauces… I think that most parents try to push protein, or veggies, or whatever they worry about because they think it works (and it might work for a bite or two in the short-term) but research shows that pressure almost always backfires. So, if you worry about protein, think of ways to include more options in meals and snacks and see if backing off helps. He might eat less for awhile, but over time he will likely do better. Also, I now make smoothies with greek yogurt since M didn’t eat much protein in the mornings. You can also consider adding whey protein powder, but I would be cautious before going to that step. What do you think? I know it’s easy to pressure, I’ve done it before I found this model, it’s the default, and we do it because it seems to work. (You can get two bites of cucumber into a compliant child, but are they learning to like cucumber?) And, for some families with kids who are really stubborn or slow to warm up to new foods, this pressure can cause MAJOR conflict and stress…
      Thanks for sharing!

  4. erylin

    i met my children at age 3 and 4. their birth mom (who has passed) routinely fed them nuggests, cheese, shirp….easy, fast basics that the kids would eat 100% of the time. when i met my husband dinner time was like being a short order cook. I laughed and i said NO> if I am cooking round here i cook one meal. you eat it or not. i don’t make a second meal. snack is never more than 2 hours away and they wont starve. now the kids are 8 and 9. one actually cried because we ran out of spinach one night. we eat asain, indian, mexican, american and everything in between. As long as they know what i put into the food and at least 1 part if familiar to them they will usaulyl try it ( and like it!)

    • katja

      I am so glad you figured out what worked for you! I work a lot with adopting families (and would like to help foster families more) I’d love to learn more about how that transition looked for your children. Would you be willing to share your experience with me? Feel free to email me at

  5. Samantha C

    I’m not sure that I see all the links you’re making – I don’t know whether offering food as a bribe is the same thing as limiting other food options. To me, the ad seemed to be using the food as a bribe in an otherwise non-food situation. It looks more like the girl is being trained with the doll (presumably a stand-in for the food? Really, the picture doesn’t make a ton of sense) the way you might train the dog sitting next to her: behave, and you can have this. It just sounds less like a choice between two different dinner foods, and more of a choice between food, stickers, toys, and whatever else gets kids to do what you want.

    Now all that said, I don’t really know how to feel about using food as a bribe in a non-food situation. It’s such a normal part of life for me that I can’t make myself hate it. Maybe these days I won’t deny myself dessert until I’ve done something to ‘earn’ it, but there’s still cases like saving dinner at a favorite expensive restaurant or a bottle of special champagne for achievements and special occasions. I understand it’s not the best way to raise a kid, but having been raised with it already, it just feels so normal.

    • katja

      Yes, I made a few different points here. Bribing is one issue, and then limiting what you offer to only foods you know they will accept is another. (The copy at the bottom of the ad talked about 100% acceptance.)
      The bribe issue to me would be, “Hey, if you kids stop fighting, I’ll make you cheese poppers” or whatever the special food is, or bribing a child to behave well so they can get ice-cream. There is nuance. I don’t think that saving a fancy dinner for a special occasion is the same as saying to a child, “If you eat this chicken, you can watch a movie after dinner…” here is another post I did on the real-world nuance of it…