Many parents wonder how they can avoid power struggles over food. Feeding and eating have become very tense in our culture. Food is often restricted, moralized, and made “super,” making it very hard for parents to know what they should do.
The good news is that feeding doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be important. What do I mean by that? I mean that you should prioritize feeding your children as an essential part of caring for them. But feeding should be about connection, not correction. And it should be about being together, not being perfect or eating perfectly (since there’s no such thing!).
Eating and feeding are intimate forms of communication between parent and child. When a child is rejecting food, avoiding eating with others, or eating alone, that can be troublesome and even dangerous. So it’s important for parents to “own” meals. To take responsibility for feeding their kids and prioritize connection and loving communication during meals.
When parents step into their authority by choosing the times and format of meals, they show that feeding and eating are an important part of their role as parents. Feeding our children thoughtfully and with respect is an important part of parenting and showing them our love and care.
Here’s how to avoid power struggles over food:
Note: for each point, I’ve added a brief description of how this works for one family that’s doing it.
1. Have family meals
Make meals an important part of daily life. Food is the first way we show our children we are attentive to them, and feeding serves as an important bonding experience for both parent and child. Don’t let this drop away as they grow up. Eating together should be a family priority, and should be taken very seriously.
What this looks like for Allison’s family: We have busy schedules but we always make time to eat dinner together. We avoid planning meetings, events, and calls from 6:30-7:30. Sometimes we have to eat earlier, sometimes later. But whatever our day brings, we prioritize getting together for dinner.
2. Serve food you know your child will like
Don’t be a short-order cook who makes individual meals for each person. But do make sure that there is always something you are sure each person will eat. Good options include bread and butter, tortillas, a bowl of fruit, baby carrots, etc.
What this looks like for Allison’s family: I’m a creative cook, and I enjoy trying new recipes. But I always make sure there is at least one dish for everyone on the table. For our family, everyone likes tortillas and cheese, so I’ll put that on the table in case the meal I’ve prepared isn’t appealing. I also keep a bowl of fruit on the table just in case.
3. Let everyone serve themselves
Family-style meals provide individual autonomy and choice. This allows each person to feel cared for, in community with the family, and responsible for their own choices. This can eliminate harmful food-based power struggles since everyone is in charge of themselves.
What this looks like for Allison’s family: We eat at the table and I serve everything family style. This way everyone feels as if they are in charge of their own plate, which seems to reduce tensions. Sometimes my kids actually ask me to put a plate together for them, which is fine. But our default is that they get to make their own choices.
4. Keep your eyes on your own plate
Don’t watch what your child is eating or make comments about their choices. Let them eat what they like and how much they like at each meal. Put them in charge of their own nutrition, and empower them to know their body best.
What this looks like for Allison’s family: I was raised in a family where every bite was monitored and I felt bad for either eating too much or not finishing what was on my plate. So that feels pretty natural to me. But I’ve found that since I stopped doing that with my own kids, they seem more relaxed, and I’ve noticed that there’s a lot less waste and grumbling as a result. And they’re even more adventurous, which really surprised me.
5. Keep the conversation light, bright, and polite
Don’t make the table the only place where parent-child conversations take place. Make space for difficult conversations about homework, tests, and other concerns away from the table. During meals, keep the conversation positive and strive to make each person feel seen, heard, understood, and loved. This is a time for connection, not correction.
What this looks like for Allison’s family: We used to spend most of our time at meals managing the household, making sure everything got done and setting up our schedule for the next day. Now we save that for after dinner, and instead, we focus on being together and laughing and sharing stories during dinner. It’s so much more pleasant and I notice the kids linger around the table now instead of rushing to get back to their phones. We end up spending a lot more time together, and it’s much more high-quality.
Feeding without drama
Remember that what parents repeatedly do matters more than what they say. Often parents think they need to instruct children about how to eat and what to eat. But it’s more important to show them that food is important. That our bodies deserve respect and kindness. And, most importantly, that food is something to be enjoyed and savored together.
How you feel about your child matters. If you worry about your child’s eating, they will sense it. This is particularly true if you believe they eat “too much” or only “unhealthy” food. Before you sit down to a meal together, find a space inside of yourself that trusts and believes in your child’s autonomy and ability to eat in a way that serves them. Yes, this requires a leap of faith, but no more so than the leap of faith it takes us to send them off to school or teach them to drive. Autonomy is essential to raising a self-sufficient, healthy person.
What you prioritize matters. When you prioritize feeding and eating as something to be honored and treated with respect, you set your child up for a healthy relationship with food for life.
Family meals are a great place to show your values to your kids. This is where you can show them that you value connection, community, and eating. It’s where you can show them you value respect, autonomy, and togetherness. The family meal offers amazing opportunities for parenting.
Meals should be a place where everyone feels safe and cared for. When that happens, you are more likely to avoid power struggles over food.
This advice is based on interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. The particular feeding method outlined is called the Ellyn Satter Divison of Responsibility, an evidence-based approach to feeding that is shown to prevent eating issues, power struggles, and food battles.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.