Recently I’ve seen heaps of posts from people asking about how to get their kids to eat their dinner and it reminded me of a battle I had with our oldest daughter when she was younger.
For my family, the evening meal has always been a meal that we share together, we all sit at the table and we all eat the same thing; I’m not a mother who cooks different meals for the children and I never will be. Despite placing so much value on the evening meal and spending it together there was a time that it was pure hell! Dinner time for us used to be a stressful time and almost everything during our evening meal revolved around our then toddler and trying to get her to eat what was put in front of her.
Often dinner time looked like this – I started to feel anxious mid-afternoon, around the time that I was starting to think about what I was going to cook. I would spend most of my time preparing dinner thinking about how I was going to present it to our daughter so that she would want to eat it. I’d use all the tricks of the trade to ‘hide’ vegetables into our meals so that she was getting all the goodies I knew she needed. I’d serve up our meals all the while preparing for battle and then call the family to the table. My husband and I, and my step-son if he was with us, would all eat our meals without any fuss – yum yum! The wretched toddler however would sit there and look at it, followed by statements such as ‘it’s yuck’ ‘I don’t like it’ ‘poo dinner’ and many other variations of the sorts. The trick this kid played on us though was if we attempted to take her meal away she would scream bloody murder and insist she wanted it, only to turn around and refuse to eat again. In hindsight, she was a royal manipulator and I shouldn’t have let her antics bother me so much but they did.
Now as a mother the fact that my child wasn’t eating her dinner worried my senseless. I panicked that she would be hungry, malnourished, start waking at night etc etc, if you can think it I worried it. So, because of this I became so upset and obsessed with the fact that she wasn’t eating dinner I started losing sleep as I would be constantly thinking about how I could just get her to eat her god dam dinner! We must have tried EVERYTHING and by everything I really mean everything. We bribed her, we feed her like a baby, we tricked her, we yelled and screamed, we made her sit there for hours until it was gone, we threatened to never feed her again, we praised every single mouthful like she had just received a Grammy, we served up cold dinners for breakfast, withheld pudding, tried sticker charts, fancy plates, novelty shaped food, phone calls from Santa, letters from her grandparents you name it we did it! And none of it worked. We still sat down to a meal every night full of anxiety and being ruled and ruined by the smallest person in our house!
So, here’s how we changed dinner time, and to this day (she is now 9) we still follow the same principles at meal times and none of our subsequent children have ever been an issue for us when it comes to eating their tea.
We took away the fight!
I bet your thinking well that isn’t going to make her eat her dinner and your right it didn’t and on lots of occasions she still wouldn’t eat her tea but we no longer fought about it and our dinnertimes were again a special and peaceful event. So, here’s what we did to remove the fight…..
1. Acknowledged her diet on a daily basis not a meal by meal basis – Although our girl wouldn’t eat her tea her daily intake of food was MORE than adequate for her size and age. She would often smash back 4 Weetabix, a banana, yoghurt, sandwiches, an apple, cheese and crackers, a muffin, ham, toast, carrot sticks and any home baking that was available before we’d even get to our evening meal. She was not a malnourished or starving child. I would suggest looking at what you child is eating throughout the day, if they are eating well, like my girl, they may not be hungry in the evening.
2. Only cook 1 meal – now I said before that I’ve never cooked multiple meals and I never will but reality is some people do. If you are thrilled at the idea of cooking several meals and really enjoy that and it works for you then ignore this advice. If, however you have found yourself making special dinners for your child just so they eat something and you despise every second of making that meal then stop and don’t do it anymore. Most children will eventually eat what is put in front of them if they are hungry enough.
3. Sit together at the table and all eat the same thing and the same time – As mentioned I find this is important and we aim to do it most nights. If you are feeding kids earlier than yourselves or separately you might want to try sitting together. When our kids watch us eating and see what our behaviour is like they get a better understanding of the type of behaviour that is acceptable at the dinner table. Also, if everyone else is eating the same thing that is in front of them they might just want to copy you!
4. Don’t force them to eat – This is the most important thing! Remember we are taking away the ‘fight’ and it is this moment that either takes it away or charges in like a red rag to a bull. With our girl, she was given her dinner just like us and whether she ate it not became her choice not ours. There was no fight no expectation, no forcing, no punishing, no bribing and even no praise if she did eat. We said to her ‘here is your dinner if you would like to eat it great and if you don’t fine’ The only expectation was that she sat at the table with us during mealtimes regardless of her decision. All our conversation during dinner revolved around sharing what we did during the day or other things, there is no focus on what she was doing with her meal.
5. Set a time limit – For us this time was 20 mins you may want longer and that is fine. The reason we did this is, before we implemented this plan we could spend hours going between her refusing to eat and then begging for her dinner back. By having a time limit it was very definitive and if she didn’t finish her meal it was taken away, again without fuss or punishment or any extension of eating time, even if she was part way through eating and the time was up her meal was taken away. I know that sounds mean but we needed to stop her having so much physical, mental and emotional control over our mealtimes, by having a time limit we were in control without the fight. We used a visual timer so she could see her time decreasing; it was an app I downloaded onto my phone, I’m sure you could google something good.
6. Have clear boundary’s around further food and/or pudding – If our daughter did not finish her dinner in the time limit allocated she got nothing else until breakfast. No pudding, no snacks, no supper, NOTHING! However, if she did eat her tea she was then allowed pudding and additional food if she wanted it. Do not be the parent that gives them a bowl of Weetabix or a sandwich before bed just in case they get hungry, doing this only enforces the fact that they don’t need to eat tea because they will get something later anyway. If your child had a reasonable diet throughout the day missing dinner will not starve them or cause them to become malnourished overnight.
7. Stick to it and be consistent – 7 years later and we still follow every single one of these steps (minus the timer as we no longer need that enforcement as the kids just know how dinner goes now). If there is NO FIGHT at dinner time being consistent isn’t hard.
So, once I implemented these steps and took control of mealtimes again my anxiety and our stress around dinner completely dissipated. Suddenly, by my own choice, I was enjoying that time with my family again and I gave myself permission to let all the worry and anxiety I had been feeling go. I knew my daughter wouldn’t starve and if she chooses not to eat her tea then that was ok with me – there was no fight anymore! Our kids don't always eat there tea now and that is ok. They do however sit with us for dinner, they share their days with us and when they do want to eat they do so without fuss. Our kids are all what I would term "good' eaters now, they are all open to trying new foods, have quite broad palettes for young children and love sharing new and exciting foods as a family.
If you are having issues around dinnertime and your house sounds like mine did then give this a shot, you never know it might just work!
Take Care & Best Wishes
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