We have three children with very different tastes, attitudes, and opinions on food. I am the one and only mom who plans, shops for, and cooks all the meals in our house. We also have one Daddy who eats what I make no matter what and gives his opinion on the meal when asked. Much like Switzerland, he is neutral territory. In order to keep my sanity in this 3 vs 1 food war, I’ve come up with three absolute rules (for myself).
You cannot (and should not) force a child to eat.
Think about your personal appetite. Are you always hungry at meal time? Do you like every food that comes across the table? I am guessing the answer is “No” on both points. The question is “why do we expect our children to be any different?” The clock may say it is dinner time, but that does not mean your child is hungry. Engaging in a power struggle over how much food they need to eat before they are able to do anything else is really not healthy for anyone. Think about it. In this scenario mom is aggravated and frustrated, the child is aggravated and frustrated, and the meal time is now full of negativity. I fully support encouraging children to try something new or eat a few more bites. For my own sanity and the sanity of everyone involved, I stopped requiring it as a universal mandate and the only way a child can leave the table. I know what you are thinking. They will just be hungry and asking for food in 20 minutes after the kitchen is clean and everything is put away. I get it – that is really annoying! To combat this issue, I leave the untouched dinner plates on the counter. In 20 minutes when I hear “I’m hungry!” I offer my children dinner. Throw the plate in the microwave for a minute and I may even allow a picnic on the floor, because now we are all watching a really cool show together and he/she doesn’t want to be left out. In a culture where obesity rates are constantly rising, learning to follow hunger cues rather than arbitrary social cues is actually a good life skill. Repeat after me, it will serve them well when they are 30 (Even if it drives me insane when they are 4).
It is impossible for a child to starve.
In a home, where healthy, nutritious foods are available and offered on a consistent basis, a child will not starve. My son is a perfect example. In my opinion he eats enough to keep a hummingbird alive. I take him to the pediatrician and he falls in the 88th percentile for his height and the 85th percentile for his weight. HOW??? I told the pediatrician he is a horrible eater and I am surprised he grew at all. She replied, “He is getting what he needs and growing wonderfully. Don’t stress about it!” I am taking her advice and choosing not to stress about how much and in what variety he eats.
Using my oldest daughter as an example, she was tremendously underweight and incredibly picky. I spent the better part of 5 years fighting with her about food. I did not win one battle. The only thing I accomplished was a deep hatred for meal time for both her and I. She is now almost 13 years old, a healthy weight, and eats a wide variety of foods. I wish now, I had wasted less time fighting with her about food.
Everyone does not need to eat the same thing.
I recently came to terms with the fact that everyone does not need to eat the same thing. This one was hard for me to grasp, feeling that I should make dinner and everyone should sit and eat what I made with no exception. The reality is everyone’s tastes are not the same. I adore pasta. My seven year old daughter thinks noodles of any kind are disgusting. Nothing bad happens if I eat pasta and she eats salad and bread.
I even take this concept a little farther. If one of my children does not want to eat what I prepared, for whatever reason, he/she is allowed to choose something else. They can only make this choice if they:
1.) Do not whine, complain, or otherwise insult the meal I have prepared.
2.) Choose a healthy meal alternative.
3.) If said alternative cannot be prepared on their own, they must wait until I am finished with my meal.
Adopting this practice made dinner more enjoyable for me and stopped the never ending snack requests from 7-8:30pm, because now we are hungry. The most common meal alternatives in my home are leftovers from a previous night, cereal, and sandwiches.
Some meals cater themselves to multiple choices better than others. I may make two different meats, potatoes, and a vegetable. My husband and I like sweet potatoes, but my children are not fans. I bake half russet potatoes and half sweet potatoes. The goal is not to make more work in the process of giving choices. I am not running a restaurant and everyone does not get a say in what I make. I simply choose to add a few more things to the table to accommodate the families overall tastes.
The three practices listed above gave me back my sanity. I love to cook and I do not want to spend my time in the kitchen arguing and negotiating. All my children are healthy and growing. All my children try new foods on a semi-regular basis, even if they do not like them and choose to eat something else. Meal times are more peaceful and contain more silly conversations and tid bits about life. The way it should be!