I just recently posted something on Facebook on this very topic prompted by an article I read (I’ll link the article at the end), so I just share what I said there..
When I had the daycare (and this rule applied to my own kids as well), I made a variety of foods for each meal.. usually six things (two entrees, two sides, and two veggies)… I had two rules… you need to pick three things to eat, your choice, and if you take it, you need to eat. If you think you aren’t hungry, just take a little, you can always come back for seconds. If you choose to not eat anything, that’s fine, but there won’t be anything else to eat until snack time. No do-overs.
Their parents were shocked that their kids would eat whatever I fixed. They were having to fix three different dinners… one for each child based on “the food of the week” and one for the adults. This is insane.
At least in this story, the mother realized what she had been doing and changed her behavior which changed her child’s…
“It’s dinner time. You’ve sweated in the summer heat over a pot of mashed potatoes just because it’s the only thing your kid seems to want to eat this week. You’re in the middle of a heatwave, the air-conditioner’s on the fritz, and you’re boiling potatoes and mashing them in a steam bath anyway because you’ve just got to get this kid to eat.
This is the meal he’s going to eat, you think to yourself. I’m a good mom! I’m not starving my child!”
“I’m a food-obsessed mom who loves to try new, exotic foods and cook new recipes all the time. To have someone in my home who not only does not appreciate that but who actively turns their nose up at everything I make is heartbreaking. I also know that when my son overeats junk food and doesn’t get enough good stuff in him, he gets grumpy and loses focus at school. It’s super important to me to have him eating well, but sometimes that feels like the impossible.
That is, it did. Until I came to a significant, life-altering realization.
Every night, dinner was an ordeal. It got to the point that I was making two entirely different dinners every single night. I was doing just about anything to avoid the dinner table confrontation; the begging; the bribery; the pleading.
One day, though, I’d just had enough. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t slave over two separate dinners only to have him turn his nose up at his. I couldn’t take the arguing or the whining or the crying. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I just goddamned stopped.
I dared to just make one dinner. I put that dinner in front of him.
…when he told me he didn’t like it and wasn’t going to eat it, I said okay. “What can I have for dinner, then?” … that’s for dinner.” I pointed to his plate. “That’s all that’s for dinner. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s your choice, but there is no other dinner, and nothing else until this dinner has been eaten.”
Although I wouldn’t go as far to save the dinner he didn’t eat for his lunch and next night’s dinner. It just sets up a power-play over food that can backfire big time. I would just tell him, this is what is for dinner (whatever that night’s dinner is) and he could take it or leave. Don’t punish him with the leftovers if he chooses to leave it. Just say this is what is for dinner and you are welcome to share it with us. If not, that is your choice. By the third night of not eating, he will be so hungry, he will eat fried grasshoppers.
Food should never be used as a guilt trip, or fear-mongering, or a reward or punishment. Don’t use dessert as a reward. Dessert is just a part of the meal, just like the entree and veggies are. This is why parents shouldn’t make separate meals for their kids, or deny them foods for one reason or another. All of these tactics can lead to food hoarding or sneaking due to fears of not getting their fair share. If the kid is hungry, make sure he gets enough to eat… at mealtime. Growing children need more calories than adults.. so they need breakfast, lunch, dinner, an afternoon snack, and sometimes something just before bedtime, especially if they are in a growth spurt. Please don’t deny them food out of fear of them gaining weight, that is almost always a guarantee that it will lead to some kind of eating disorder.
Treat food for what it is… fuel for our bodies (and as individuals, that’s different for each person) and as a social time to interact with family friends. When you make food a power trip, everyone loses.
Another trick that sometimes works with some kids… reverse psychology. Prepare the food that your child would normally balk at and don’t even offer them any. Mention casually that this food is for adults only. Some will at first be happy to be off the hook.. mom isn’t forcing them to eat something they don’t want to eat. But with some kids, both curiosity and the urge to be seen as a “grown-up”, will ask if they can try some. Say no… it’s for adults only. If they persist, offer them just a bite… “but just a little one, you really aren’t old enough for this yet”…. It might be just enough to get them to ask for the food each time you serve it…
My daughter went through phases where she wouldn’t touch one food or another or wanted nothing but one kind of food.. one time it was chicken, another time she wanted nothing but broccoli. But she knew the rules, what I fixed was what was for dinner. If she didn’t want to eat, that was fine.. but there were no other options. Neither of my kids starved and none of my daycare kids did either. All of the kids, including my own, had at least 4 “meals” a day, sometimes five. Forcing kids to eat something doesn’t work and catering to them sets them up for too high expectations for everything else. Rules should be made because they help and make sense.
Too many parents overcompensate out of fear or guilt… thinking they are doing the right thing for their kids. But they often are setting their kids up to be little tyrants.
I taught parenting classes for the school district and I saw so many parents like this (and grandparents who were raising their grandchildren), parents who didn’t have any concept of child development. It doesn’t help them and it sure doesn’t help their kids. One family had 6 children, and the father was doing all of the cooking and cleaning and fixing six different meals each night because each child wanted something different, and he did it. When he filed for divorce from his wife, the judge instructed him to take parenting classes, which is how he ended up in my class. Food and discipline were the two biggest concerns of parents in those classes. Once the father learned to make just one meal, the kids ate it… He was shocked to learn he could do that.