I grew up in a “clean plate” house. You were expected to eat everything on your plate, and you stayed at the table until you did. My sister, a picky eater with a stubborn streak, spent many evenings sitting at the table by herself. I remember battles over eating more than I remember pleasant conversation at dinner time
When I had my own children, I found myself falling into the patterns of my childhood – insisting my kids finish their meal to get dessert, dictating how many bites of something was “enough”, and the battle royale – getting my daughter to eat anything dairy.
When we visited the pediatrician for her two-year well check, I moaned about her refusal to consume milk, cheese, or yogurt. He looked at me with kind eyes and told me not to worry – she was growing as she should and there was no reason to worry. She did not show signs of allergy. He said it was far more important that she have a good relationship with food and dinnertime, and that she would likely add these things back into her diet on her own time. He recommended I relax.
That night, I tried to relax at dinnertime. I really did. At that moment, I realized how rule-driven dinner at our house had become. No one was enjoying themselves, and I was super crabby by the end. I felt hassled and like no one listened to me.
The next day, we made some major changes in our dinner routine. I am not going to say that every meal is bliss, but most of them are pretty great these days. Here are my tips:
1. No “special” food. My kids eat what the adults eat, in smaller portions, of course! Making one menu for our family is not only much easier, but it teaches my kids to eat foods with a diverse palate. I promise my kids that my husband and I do not care for gross food, and that the food we eat may not be their favorite, but it won’t taste terrible.
2. Proper portions. I make sure to keep in mind a proper portion when making my kids’ plates. Protein servings should only be as big as the child’s palm, with produce taking up most of the rest of the plate. I would rather my kids eat all of their meal and ask for more than get in the habit of wasting food.
3. No more nagging. My kids know that dinner is what’s presented, and they can choose whether to eat it or not. I won’t nag. I tell them to listen to their bodies – if they feel full, they should stop eating. Over the last few years, this has prevented me from accidentally forcing a child to eat dinner, only to discover later that the child has a stomach bug (whew!). It also teaches my kids to listen to their bodies, which a lot of adults don’t know how to do when it comes to food!
4. No snacks (sort of). My kids get one snack when they get off the school bus. That’s it. So, they are actually hungry for meals. Kids are much, much more likely to try new things when they are truly hungry!
5. Dessert. My kids used to earn dessert by eating all their food. This was a terrible idea – I was asking my kids to eat more than their bodies told them to, and rewarding that with treats! Now, my kids earn dessert by being pleasant dinner company. We encourage manners, chatting about our day, and sitting at the table properly. (This includes not complaining about dinner.). They are free to eat, or not, and they receive dessert if they have been a pleasant and respectful companion during the meal. The added bonus here is that my kids learn proper table behavior for when we go to restaurants!
If you are having trouble at dinnertime, you might give a few of these tips a try. It certainly has reduced our dinnertime stress, and I actually enjoy dinner with my kids now!