Food battles. I don’t know of a single parent of young children who doesn’t fight the good fight (or who hasn’t just surrendered). Meal time can quickly become stressful when you’re dealing with a picky eater. For the most part, we have overcome, though there are times that Rachael still acts like the food will eat her, rather than the other way around.
If you’re fighting the good fight, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be a fight at all. Meal time CAN be a pleasant family time without food battles, but happens by design, not by chance. Here is what has worked in our home.
- Be consistent — This is the #1 most important thing and applies to all areas of parenting. My Papa gave my parents only one piece of parenting advice, which they have handed down to me. It was, “Whatever you do, be consistent.” Without consistency, you will only have inconsistent results and frustrated parents and children.
- Cook one meal — I make supper and I serve it. If kids are hungry enough, they’ll eat. If they are stubborn enough to not eat and go hungry, then they won’t starve to death until the next meal!
- Clean plates are by design, not demand — Skip the one bite rule and give small portions. If it’s a new food, give a tiny portion and expect it to all be eaten. It’s still only a bite or two, but it eliminates the discussion. Make your child’s plate intentionally. I want Rachael to eat a balanced diet, so I make her plate accordingly and make it with small portions, so that it all gets eaten.
- Turn your no’s into yes’s – When you follow #3, it’s easy to say yes more. Yes to dessert, yes to seconds of a favorite (but not-so-healthy) food, yes to being excused from the table… yes, yes, yes! Rachael loves macaroni and cheese and will always eat it first. So, I give her a smaller amount of macaroni and cheese than vegetables. When she asks for more macaroni and cheese, it is so easy to say, “Absolutely! You can have more of anything you want when you finish what you have.” Either she eats all of her food and gets more macaroni and cheese or she cleans her plate and no longer wants it.
- Plan ahead – Kids are much more likely to eat food they don’t prefer if they are hungry. If I am planning to make something for supper that Rachael probably won’t like, I give her a smaller lunch and no snacks so that she’ll be hungry and more likely to eat without complaint.
- Educate – I teach Rachael about nutrition. We talk about why certain foods are healthy and why others are unhealthy and how those foods affect your body. This is so important and helps influence healthy eating choices when you get past the every-meal-is-a-battle stage.
- It’s not a discussion or a negotiation – We don’t talk about “how many bites”. We also don’t allow whining and rude behavior. We don’t remind her that she’s not getting dessert if she doesn’t eat. A meal is not something to endure to earn dessert. We only allow positive comments about food during mealtime.
- Communicate – Communication and discussion are two very different things in our household. Communication is respectful and beneficial, while discussion is what happens instead of obedience. So while we don’t discuss, we do I ask Rachel for feedback on a meal and she is free to give me an honest answer as long as it is kind and respectful. I am careful to ask open-ended questions like, “What did you think of ______?” I ask what she liked, and what she didn’t like. I’ll ask if she liked it, disliked it, or if it was “just ok”. I have discovered that sometimes what Rachael doesn’t like about a food is easily fixable (example: beans and rice separate instead of together).
- Involve them in meal preparation – When kids are involved in meal preparation and menu planing, they have invested in it! And even if they don’t like what is served, they’re more likely to try it!
- Give them freedom to choose – This is last for a reason, because it doesn’t work unless you’ve ended the food battles and taught healthy principles. You have to establish the ground rules and do the hard work before you can reap the benefits. Meal time becomes so pleasant when you can finally say, “Eat based on what you know to be healthy and stop when you are full.”
This approach to meal time has been successful in our home and we’ve been reaping the benefits of it for over 6 months now. What has worked in your home?