I get DM’s, emails, and have in real life conversations in the corners of birthday parties with people all asking the same thing: Do your kids really eat that? What do I do with a picky eater? What if I shop, put away, chop, prepare, and serve a meal and they only eat two bites? Dinner is driving me crazy.
Believe me, I hear you.
The struggle is real, and I would venture a guess that it is among the biggest challenges of parenting. Food shopping and cooking takes up a huge part of our daily budget and schedule, so it’s worth a reflection. I also think there are some assumptions worth challenging that can make your life so much easier.
When people start to ask about their picky eaters, I share what our very first pediatrician told me: your job is to make them healthy food, and their job is to eat it. Anything else is a power struggle.
I’ll let you sit with that for a minute.
Parenting is complex. Every kid is different. And seeing through the eyes of a three or four year old really helps to see that of course running in circles is way more fun than sitting still. It really helps to give yourself a pep talk and to know that this domain is one that everyone has challenges in, and that you are not alone.
But there are some things you can do to help or hurt your situation. Kids are always testing where the lines are, where their power is, and the easiest arena to do this in is what they eat. Staying positive, setting boundaries and taking back your power as a parent almost always helps you and your kids.
Here are a few general pointers that help with meal time negotiations and help eliminate the power struggles for me. Note these apply to kids over 3. I find toddlers generally eat when they are hungry, and don’t eat when they are not hungry. They also can’t sit still for long. We rarely take the twins out to eat because at two they can’t sit for longer than 10 minutes and then we all get indigestion unless we can let them down to go play. But for table dwellers, here is what works for us:
- I only have time to make one meal. I tell my kids when they beg for chicken nuggets instead of the casserole we are having that I don’t have time to make separate meals for people. This really ends the begging because it’s such a clear boundary and one that kids in every country, all across time have learned to accept. With that said, I have lived through picky eaters and I know if I offer a scoop of pasta or cheesy veggies (or whatever is on their ‘will eat’ list) in the meal everyone is having, we are all happier. And if some of us really want something spicy, I either try to add the spice after or will make something very simple for little kids. But since the rule gets repeated to them when they ask for something else they come to accept it and don’t seem to notice diversions.
- You can always have apples and ketchup. Our kids know they are always welcome to eat fruit or veggies anytime. So if they tell me they are hungry right after dinner, I tell them to have an apple, carrots, a banana. If they really hate the roasted asparagus they can go reach for a handful of baby carrots from the drawer. It ends the constant negotiations and promotes fruits and veggies. Any worries of hunger or getting nutritious food in them are settled for me because they can fill their belly with these. And most of the time, the ‘gross’ vegetable or chicken can get swallowed if they dip it in ketchup or ranch.
- Bribery works. Ask any grade school teacher – kids brains are wired for rewards and light up with winning a prize. I always dangle dessert at them when they don’t want to eat something. We tell them that if they want dessert they have to eat their protein and veggies. During our pickiest eaters pickiest years this rule helped me the most. Often ‘dessert’ is only a frozen yogurt tube or berries with whipped cream, but they still get the job done because of the prize dangled. Often with ketchup.
- Kitchen is closed after dinner. If they are hungry, see rule #2.
- Meal time is special. We are lucky to have this food, each other, and the time to sit down together. As our kids get older and do sports it is increasingly rare to have everyone eat at the same time.(Sniff). I try to make it fun by everyone going around sharing their ‘News & Goods’ (one new thing and one good thing) of their day. We also just found conversation napkins that they all are loving. I really believe in setting expectations and tone for this sacred part of the day. If they are having fun they are too distracted to complain or misbehave.
- Meals at the table are training. One day they will be asked to eat at a friends house, or go to banquets, or go on a date, or even run dinner meetings (like their Dad) and if good manners are habits these will generally go better. I start at their level and say ‘if you want me to let you eat over at your friend’s house, you have to show me you know good manners’. Getting up from the table repeatedly, eating before prayers, interrupting, complaining about the food are all recent offenders that made me give the friend’s house speech. (You parents of grade schoolers know that time at a friend’s house is golden.) Napkins in their lap, saying ‘please pass the butter’, watching their elbows and keeping your water glass where it won’t get knocked over are all life skills and things that greatly help me enjoy their company. We eat pizza on Fridays in our family room, and some nights they eat at the island with a sitter if I am running a kid somewhere, and I notice when we get away from the routine at the table they forget their manners. So I keep bringing it back around when are at the table.
- Keep your expectations low and theirs high. I think kids rise to expectations. Don’t be afraid that a three or four year old can’t sit at the table for 10 minutes because it happens gradually over many repeated attempts where you expected them to and then suddenly one day they can. But if it goes south, or they knock over that water glass, or they push their plate away and tell you they’re not hungry and they don’t want dessert, you’re unfazed because your low expectations keep you from getting triggered.
- Attitudes are contagious. If I’m stressed and annoyed that I am making dinner, it rolls off to everyone. But if I am excited to cook what we are having and to eat it with them, or I have stuff to tell them about our dinner or they can learn something, it elevates the experience. This impacts my big kids a lot.
- Cook for yourself first. If I make something that I’m interested in making or tasting or craving, and do all the planning, shopping, meal prep, cooking and they only eat two bites, I am not resentful or angry, because I am still happy to be eating the meal. If you make waffles out of cauliflower because you read in a magazine that kids love it! even though you don’t want to eat it and neither do they, then everyone is grumpy. I ask my kids what they want for dinner when I’m meal planning though and the answers are usually things I want to eat too, like Spaghetti and Meatballs or Shepard’s Pie, so when I include them we’re all happy.
So what do you do if you have a child that is making meal time hard? First off, kids come in ALL different temperaments, and if you are familiar with a bell curve in statistics, most fall under the range of ‘normal’ eaters, but some have very open personalities and will try anything, and some are very clear on what they do and don’t want to eat and are extremely picky eaters. (Bell curves are also a helpful way to think of nursing babies too FYI. Some are great, some are hard, most are in the middle.) Extremely picky and very open eaters are small percentages all kids, but power struggles or a lack of them can shape them to be more picky or more open.
To eliminate power struggles, try for a month to serve pretty kid-friendly meals (i.e. not spicy, not overly cooked and mushy vegetables, or overly foreign items), and don’t offer a lot of commentary if they don’t eat it. If they say they are not hungry at the table, tell them there are berries with whip cream/frozen yogurt tube/actual sugary treat for dessert if they eat a reasonable amount of their dinner, but if they don’t want to that’s fine.
If your kids are like mine, next they ask ‘what do I have to eat?’ Without a lot of negotiation, I quickly make it a judgment based on age and kid. For my son who hates veggies, I’ll offer him raw carrots from the drawer instead of the mushy green beans. For my picky carb loving daughter, we’ll make a ‘have to eat’ pile and there will be 3-4 pieces of chicken and her veggies. Ranch and ketchup get offered. After that, I’m done helping them. They get to choose.
If you are still having major behavioral issues, I HIGHLY recommend 1-2-3 Magic , and while it isn’t food specific it is a great way to deal with behavioral issues which is what is behind a lot of food struggles. Some of our kids have ADHD and it is especially good for giving impulsive kids time to make a good choice. (This book helped me realized that all kids secretly want you to take the power back so they feel safe and secure).
If none of this works, talk to your pediatrician. They might be in the small percentage of kids who are extreme. If they are then maybe just making a box of pasta (or whatever else is one of ‘their’ foods) with everything else and give them a scoop along side the family dinner so you know you’ll all sleep that night and life will go on.
I think a lot more fall under the category of ‘power struggle’ and I want to empower parents to step out of this if possible. I have definitely locked horns with a kid at dinner (mostly the same child over and over) and I know what it is like to have your buttons pushed and to have them wear you down. But I also know that repeated exposure to good REAL food over and over again has made that same child who at ages 5, 6 and 7 ask only for pasta to now be eating buffalo wings, loving soups and stews, and begging for chili at age 10. Progress not perfection is always the goal.
What do you think – does this cover the challenges you are having? Drop me a line in the comments and share your struggles with other parents.