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The Problem With Counting Bites Of Food, & What To Do Instead

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"Just three more bites and then you can leave the table." What parent hasn't said something like this? I know that I often resort to, "Just try two bites, and if you hate it, we'll try something else." In the end, I just want my kids to have at least some nutrition in their bodies, and I'll beg, borrow, and cajole them into it. I never saw a problem with it until I started asking questions. The problem with counting bites of food is as much about the fact that it's so habitual and ingrained in parenting, as it is about the very real outcomes of the practice.

When it comes to dealing with picky eaters, sometimes it feels like you just can't win. That's probably why so many parents run interference at meal times, demanding that children eat so much of one food before they can move onto another, or before they're excused from the table. This sort of transactional dining experience is done with the best of intentions. After all, you just want your kids to have a somewhat balanced diet. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that parents avoid this tactic, because it makes the treat superior to the experience of eating. It doesn't matter if the treat is dessert or playing Xbox, the minute you say "If you take two more bites of x, you'll get y," you've elevated the prize over the process.

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I am the mom of two very picky eaters. My daughter is run-of-the-mill, "I'll try nothing new and hate everything else," 7-year-old picky. But my son is quite a bit more challenging. While he's always embraced eating, chugging down wild combinations of foods, and has a daring palate that would make some grown men scratch their heads, he is also autistic with sensory processing disorder, and therefore his food must be tailored specifically with that in mind. Basically, his food has to beat him in the face with flavor — and not sweet. He loves all things spicy, sour, and strong in flavor. When we first started feeding him, all he wanted to eat was egg yolk, puréed bok choy, and fig pieces.

To this day, he doesn't give mildly-flavored food much chance. And I've fallen into the "just a few more bites" trap with both my kids. With my daughter, I'm begging her to eat her veggies. With my son, I'm trying to get him to eat a piece of wholemeal bread or a noodle. When I found out about the problem of counting bites, I called a nutritionist friend of mine and she actually referred me back to a feeding therapist to answer, because it's so much deeper than nutrition.

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I spoke to my son's feeding therapist, Alex Kendrick (now a PhD candidate in the psychology of oral interactions), and she tells Romper, "It's not the worst thing in the world you can do at mealtime, but it does set up a false sense of appropriate eating behaviors." She notes that all food and eating is a risk, pleasure, and reward transaction, but children need to have some level of autonomy over what they eat. "You get to decide the what and the where of your meal times, but your kids need to be able to say when it's enough, or if they're going to eat at all. Punitive measures like punishing kids for not eating or bargaining with them to eat certain foods, will have the opposite of the intended outcome."

And don't worry, your kids won't starve themselves. Kendrick says they have a very good "interior governor" that knows when they've had enough, much better than adults. If you're tempted to forbid them their treat if they don't eat dinner, don't. That just makes the treat even more valuable. Kendrick says instead to limit portions of the treat or the dessert so that it's not as filling as the meal. "What is the meal and what is the treat should be well-known. By serving smaller sizes of the dessert than any part of the main event, it allows children to learn that it's not a part of the actual meal."

Honestly, I don't know if I'm going to be able to change overnight. I get so frustrated with my daughter who only wants mac and cheese, Chinese food, and otter pops, and my son who thinks Cholula is gravy. But I know I need to try and do better, because my own relationship with food has been fraught and I don't want that for them. I'm sure you don't either.