End Mealtime Battles Forever with These 5 Simple Words

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on May 17, 2013

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It’s dinnertime and my 4 year old son is deep in play. When I announce that dinner is ready he makes his own announcement: “I don’t want to eat, Mommy.”

I tell him 5 words that avoid the food battle that he wants me to engage in: “You don’t have to eat.”

This is the rule in our house but it is followed by a second rule that everyone follows, regardless of wanting to eat or not. I tell him that family dinners are about being with family, and not just eating, so we all have to sit at the table.

Nine times out of ten, once he sits, he eats at least some of the food on his plate.

Why avoiding food battles is so important

My problem with food battles is that there is a winner and a loser. If the parent wins then the child loses, and if the child wins they hold all the cards. Both situations are not beneficial!

When we make eating about the parent’s will versus the child’s will, the joy and connection of eating gets lost. Some parents may win the battle and feel good that their child eats the way they want them to eat, but deep down the child may be full of resentment, eating peas to please his parents and not because he enjoys eating them.

In fact, a 2008 study published in Journal of Nutrition Education found that parents who pressured or used rewards to get their preschoolers to eat fruits and vegetables saw an immediate increase in intake, but also had children that were less likely to prefer such healthy foods.

Make it a win-win

What I like most about Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, is it gives parents and children very specific jobs in the realm of feeding. Parents are in charge of deciding what is served at meal time, when meals occur and where. Children get to be in charge of choosing what to eat and how much from what is offered to them.

So when my children complain about what I make for them, I always remind them that they can choose not to eat it. And I make sure to include at least one or two items that are likely to accept.  This gives them some control, melts away the tension, and makes them more likely to try it.

And isn’t it enough that parents have to plan and shop for food, prepare meals and serve them in a structured manner? If they take on the added responsibility of their child’s job, it just makes the whole process more miserable. The same goes for when kids take over the parent’s job. It’s not fun being a short-order cook or being held hostage by a child who learns they hold all the power.

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Getting past the fear

I have found that allowing children the freedom to choose from what is offered is not just hard on parents, it actually fills them with fear. What if they only eat bread? What if they say they are hungry before bed?

What I write, both on this blog and in my new book, Fearless Feeding, aims to help parents understand what is going on physically, cognitively and nutritionally at each stage of development. I believe this information not only gives parents peace of mind, it’s help them understand the reason behind food-related behaviors and why no-pressure meals really are best.

For example, it helps that I know my four-year old is experiencing slowed growth and cognitive changes that mean his appetite is low and he is more selective with his food choices. I know that he meets his nutritional needs and usually does better at breakfast and lunch — and I use snacks to fill in nutrition gaps — so I’m relaxed come dinner.

Additionally, the preschool years are a time children take initiative with daily tasks including eating. Children allowed to take the lead once food is served, and be successful, are more likely to feel good about eating. But children who aren’t allowed to take initiative, and are criticized during the process, may develop a sense of guilt around eating, resulting in less confidence and enjoyment.

With a deeper understanding of feeding parents can skip the food battles, trust their kids will move towards food acceptance at their own pace and embrace the family meal as a way to support children in this endeavor.

And those 5 words (you don’t have to eat), while scary, allow this transformation to happen.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

LeAnne Ruzzamenti May 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

Thanks for the great summary post – this details it so well!

I, too, love those words because it automatically diffuses the situation – giving the child the power they need and making the “must sit with us” request seem much more plausible.

I have had a few favorite moments when I have said these words to my 4-year-olds and their nearby friend looks at me incredulously and tells my children how lucky they are.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 17, 2013 at 11:24 am

Thanks LeAnne! My daughter now realizes how lucky she is since starting school and realizing how common it is to be “forced” as she calls it.

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Suzanne May 17, 2013 at 9:34 am

Thank you Maryann, for these very wise words. This is something I struggle with every night. I do my best to follow the division of responsibilitly, and then my two children (ages 2 and 4) just eat fruit and bread. They aren’t malnourished by any means and so I just keep trying an putting things on their plates. Something I ran into the other day was my 4 year old telling my 2 year old that she had to try a bite of her chicken before she could have strawberries. I don’t know where she got this from…it has to be her preschool. How do you handle outside influences giving children mixed messages about eating?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 17, 2013 at 11:28 am

Suzanne — I would ask the preschool about how they feed the kids. This happened with Big A in preschool where she starting saying “healthy foods first.” So I stopped sending her chocolate and she would have it at home instead. It can be a good opportunity to start a dialogue about feeding at school.

You might want to try family style meals and let the kids serve themselves. Your kids are young and probably would need help but I found this to work better than pre-plating the food. We also recommend this in the book.

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Jen May 17, 2013 at 11:10 am

But what do you do with the kid who won’t eat anything at the meal and then ends up in a low blood sugar crash? My little one decides he’s “not hungry” and then we have hours and hours of hysterics until the next available food time… Something I have no capacity or patience for! (We have never forced any food)

He has woken every morning this week in tears which continue regardless of outside interactions until he eventually eats something (it’s clear hunger is the issue) but he doesn’t want to eat anything other than sweets (which are allowed at most once a day). “Filling in nutritional gaps” right now is no different than pandering to his every food whim as he’s not eating anything he’s offered (even favorites).

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 17, 2013 at 11:32 am

Jen — sorry to hear you are having a hard time. I plan to post soon about picky eating and some things parents can try. It sounds like your child might be a problem feeder. If he has these red flags you might want to consider an evaluation with a speech or occupational therapist who specializes in feeding issues. Red flags are listed here: http://www.sosapproach-conferences.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Red-Flags.pdf

Lastly, I’m curious if you put food on teh table your child will eat. That might be bread or fruit or another side dish they like. One example is I put out meatballs and fruit (2 items my children accept) when trying a new veggie pasta dish. This is really important because if kids truly are hungry, they will eat these foods. Staying consistent is key.

Let me know if you have any other questions!

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Stacy May 17, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Great article, and I look forward to reading your book. I’m curious, if your child chooses not to eat at dinner, do you allow he/she to eat later? Also, if your child eats just bread, or just fruit, do you allow them to have a “treat” after dinner? Those are two things we struggle with with our 5 year old. She is a very picky eater, but will eat a few bites of something that is not her favorite if she knows she can have a treat. Also, regardless of her intake at dinner, she always claims to be hungry when going to bed and requests a tortilla or a cheese stick. Advice?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 19, 2013 at 10:02 am
Elle May 17, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Maryann, what a great idea!

I love that you make the mealtime about family and not about food. Food is what we need to nourish our body but family is what we need to nourish our soul.

I think that part of the reason that many people struggle with food is because they are trying to use it to nourish their soul, and not just their body. At that point they are fighting to achieve something that will never happen.

By making meals about family and not about food we can take a step back in the right direction. This will help us keep food just about nourishing our bodies and to help us all have a healthier relationship with food and each other.

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Sam May 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Another helpful post, thanks Maryann! I agree that parents are often fearful when they begin the process, but it’s amazing to see the calm after the battle and the difference it makes at the table.

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Robin Kushner May 18, 2013 at 9:56 am

This is a wonderful piece. It emphasizes the importance of enabling your children to develop a healthy relationship with food which is so important at a young age. Forming healthy habits and positive thought patterns early in life will make the road less bumpy later in life.

I also appreciate your emphasis on family time at the table. Associating the table with family rather than food is a very positive message. Family time also creates opportunities for communication, understanding, support, and relationship building.

Thank you for this informative article.

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Anita May 18, 2013 at 10:07 am

Thank you for an interesting perspective. Every child is different and we as parents need to tune in on that. AD children for example need to know that dinner time is about eating dinner, while some benefit from a rule such as tasting is necessary while others would function well from a “you don’t have to” perspective.

Thanks,
Anita

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 19, 2013 at 10:04 am

I agree Anita. Most of my posts are written for the regular child. Of course those with special needs (food allergies/diabetes/AD meds) may need a different approach. Each child is different and considering unique tendencies is key.

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Kelly May 19, 2013 at 3:32 am

We took a nutrition class when our first was 4 months old. Best choice as it empowered us to help create little foodies.
Questions: 1. At meal time there are times when they try everything and then decide one item is their focus and then proceed to ask for seconds before the other itens are finished. I keep quantities low on their plate but am unsure if I am building a love for food and self when I say you may have more when the othe other items are eaten and your belly is still hungry? Or should I just let them have more of the choosen food regardless of the rest?
2. My almost 4 year old still has an insatiable appetite. Still eating 5 times a day and sometimes to the point of eating until her bellie hurts. I have never regulated their intake allowing their bodies to decide but I wonder if she may need a little help?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 19, 2013 at 10:20 am

Kelly — Most young kids simply don’t eat perfectly balanced meals. In order to make them do so, that would be a battle depending on the kid. The best thing to do is offer a variety at meals and allow them to enjoy. Kids will focus in on one food but they will move on on their own. For more see this post http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2012/04/the-feeding-obstacle-that-trips-up-parents-but-shouldnt/

The best advice for big eaters is to structure meals. That means serving meals and snacks at the table and allowing them to enjoy. You also want to make sure you are providing enough protein and fat which help with feelings of fullness. In our book Fearless Feeding, we help parents troubleshoot these issues looking into the what, how and why of feeding. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/111830859X/?tag=wwwwileycom-20

Lastly, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to raise little foodies. Remember that kids will go through certain stages no matter what you do. Offering a variety in a pleasant variety is key. Good luck!

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Lisa October 24, 2013 at 11:02 am

We have been using this rule, but we can’t even get our toddler to the table. So, the battle happens even before we sit down to eat. It takes about a 1/2 hour of battling to actually get him to settle down and sit with us — even if he doesn’t eat. And, he’s not a picky eater (although, he’d happily eat pb&j at every meal). Once he sits for a bit and we engage him, he’ll usually eat a little of everything. We give him time warnings (hey buddy, we’re going to eat in 15 minutes, you can do one more of X and then it’s time to eat), but it doesn’t matter.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD October 24, 2013 at 11:48 am

Have you tried telling him that he can sit at the table or his room?

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Lisa October 25, 2013 at 7:37 am

Yes, that’s what we do every night. So, he says he won’t sit at the table, we bring him to his room. Every 5 minutes or so (while he’s crying upstairs), we go up and ask him if he’s ready to sit at the table. If he says no, we shut the door and go back downstairs to “enjoy” dinner (not so much). Then, either one of us talks to him long enough to calm him down and he comes down or he stays there until dinner is over and then we let him out. I don’t think the latter teaches him anything, so I try to coax him out before then. Sometimes, I have to negotiate that he can sit on my lap while I eat (which is tough b/c I’m usually also trying to feed his 7 month old sister) or he just decides to sit there on his own. After about 5-10 minutes of sitting and insisting he won’t eat, he usually starts picking at his food and eating something. So, he always eats, but it’s always this battle beforehand that results in a stressful dinner for everyone.

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Lisa October 25, 2013 at 8:33 am

Occasionally, I can get him to help make dinner, but even then, it’s still 50/50 trying to get him to eat. Sometimes, I’ll even resort to doing “breakfast for dinner” because he loves to help make pancakes, but then he’ll just want to stand and eat at the kitchen island instead of sitting down.

We actually all ate at his kids table one night this week b/c it was the only way to eat together.

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Joann Lim January 2, 2014 at 11:41 pm

My son is 2 years 8 months. Most of the time he doesn’t want to sit at the table. He wants to take a bite and run around/ play. Sometimes it will take an hour or so for him to finish eating. There are times that I’ve thought he was done and put his plate in the fridge but he comes back later looking for his plate. Other times I strap him in a high chair, he eats a little, he says he is done, he runs around to play, and then he wants more. Should we strap him down to eat together until we are all done eating? Or let him eat at his pace and play too? Thanks! I enjoy your writings and advice.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 6, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Joann,

I would structure meals and let him know when he is done he is done. You can try having him put his plate near the sink to signal he is done. If he knows he can always come back to eat more, he will have no incentive to eat when it is mealtime. So don’t make him eat but when he says he’s done remind him that the meal is over and he won’t eat again until the next meal. At this age eating every 2-3 hours is important due to little tummies and erratic eating habits. It’s okay if he gets hungry sometimes, that is how he learns. If there are issues with growth, see a pediatric dietitian for more guidance.

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ramesh February 7, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Hi – wonderful article! Question – how do you handle when they ask for something else or want dessert but not the main meal? What portion of the main meal do you want them to eat if dessert is part of the meal (and understand it shouldn’t always be).

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 7, 2014 at 7:28 pm
Luci February 14, 2014 at 7:15 am

Can I apply this strategy to a 2,5yo who used to eat well by herself until I introduced solids to her little brother?.. Now she’ll only eat if someone feeds her or, If I let her choose, she’ll only eat the veggies (no meat/chicken will be touched)…

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Amanda September 18, 2014 at 4:49 pm

I came across your blog, I’m going to read your book soon, but I’ve thought about this approach, but I don’t feel that my husband would agree and my son who is 3.5, loves his milk and he would rather (if we or I) just drink milk. What would you suggest or think about telling him that having a few bites of each that are in his plate before he can get up or have his milk?
Is this strategy like bribing or forcing. I have been saying that he does need to sit with us at the table, but says I don’t want that (which I know he wouldn’t mind eating). It’s a struggle
To actually get him to sit. I am constantly reminding him to sit. I don’t know if this makes any sense, I just want to instill good habits and manners.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD September 18, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Hi Amanda. I’m not sure what else is going on. Is he snacking before dinner making him not hungry? Is there something at the table he likes so he’s interested? I would only put out 4 ounces of milk (and without a straw or sippy) and let him know that all he can have with the meal. Make sure you have at least one thing at the table he likes and let him know whether or not he eats, he needs to sit for at least 5-10 minutes. Your first goal is to make him comfortable being at dinner (the eating part will flow from that). Make meals fun — ask him about his day or play games. Three is tough because kids are often tired and not that hungry by dinnertime.
If you get the book, have your husband read it with you. We summarize all the research on feeding and hopefully he will see that it doesn’t make sense to make a child eat — they only eat worse and it colors the whole meal (and food in general) as negative.

Thanks for stopping by!

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