Stress During Meals Will Cause Picky Eating

stress during meals

There’s a common reason behind several of the techniques that I teach to prevent (and turn-around) picky eating with kids. It’s stress. If your child experiences stress during meals they will honestly lose their appetite. And it’s not all in their heads. There’s a physiological cause to their lost appetite. As such, if you want your child to eat well (and what parent doesn’t), you want to minimize the amount of stress that your child experiences while at the table.

Stress During Meals

Here’s how stress causes people to lose their appetite. I imagine that you’ve heard of ‘fight or flight’. It’s the signals that travel through our body when we’re scared/stressed. You’ve likely heard that adrenaline is involved. One of the many results of these messages is that the body moves the blood flow away from our digestive tract towards our muscles in our arms and legs. It’s preparing us to be able to fight or run away from that saber-tooth tiger that’s chasing after us. The body only has so much blood so it prioritizes saving our life from the imminent threat – not having lots of blood ready to absorb nutrients that we’ve eaten and digested. Because, we’re highly unlikely to eat a meal with that sabre-tooth tiger. We can eat later once we’ve found safety.

Unfortunately our bodies can’t tell the difference between a physical threat (like that tiger) and psychological stress. It creates the same reaction. So, when your child experiences stress or anxiety at the table, they honestly lose their appetite.

Now does this mean that you never serve your child a new food ever again? No. Nor does it mean that you need to go to great lengths to entertain your child at the table. I actually recommend no screens or toys at the table. Afterall, the opposite of ‘stress’ isn’t ‘entertained’. It’s ‘pleasant’ or ‘calm’.

Stress-Free Meals with Kids

Here are some strategies to create a stress-free meal environment for your child:

  • Be good company. Talk about your days, play eye spy, any pleasant conversation topic.
  • Don’t choose mealtime to be the time to scold or punish kids. Or, argue with your spouse.
  • Always serve at least one familiar food at a meal. This way your child can rest assured that even if they don’t like the other foods on the table, they can fill themselves up with their familiar food.
  • Don’t stress the mess. Kids gradually learn to use utensils. Don’t expect them to be proficient until they reach school-age. Allow toddlers and preschoolers (and younger school-age kids too) to use a mix of fingers and utensils. Constant nagging about utensils and manners can create anxiety.
  • Don’t have a one-bite rule. Now before I get a slew of responses from people who swear that it works, I agree that the one-bite rule (also called the “no thank you bite” or “polite bite”) can work with some kids without causing any stress. Some kids are just wired so that trying new foods doesn’t stress them out. For lots and lots of kids however, making them try a food before they’re ready (or even the anticipation that you’ll ask them to try a new food) can cause the stress reaction in their bodies before they even sit down at the table. The result is that they’ve lost their appetite before the meal has begun.

For a step-by-step solution to reduce stress at meals with picky eaters, check out my book.