My kids are really great overall, but the one area that never seems to work out is dinnertime. They simply don’t want to eat! It always seems to be a fight getting some food into them. How can I get them to eat their dinner properly?
Dinnertime is a common flashpoint between parents and kids. You are not alone! Let’s take a look at some conceptual points that will help us develop a healthy approach to dinnertime, and then we’ll touch on some practical tips to grease the wheels.
The cardinal rule of handling your children’s eating habits is not to make it a power struggle. If you really really want your kids to eat, and they know it and feel it, they are likely to take the opportunity to assert their independence, as children are wont to do – especially if they are already feeling too controlled or micromanaged at home. This is normal behavior for a child, not a behavior problem! The more you try to compel your child to eat, the more resistance you are liable to face. (This is evident in the classic “Try it – how do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?” debate. Have you ever seen a kid finally give in and then say, “Hey, you know what Dad, you’re right! This is really tasty!” No, you have not.)
The solution is to not care if they eat. Really. If you are genuinely concerned about their nutritional levels, take them to the doctor and get a blood test. If the doctor says your child is healthy, then there is no problem with their food intake. If they aren’t hungry for dinner, then they aren’t hungry. (Do you often eat a meal when you aren’t hungry? Probably not.) However: you can and should nonetheless establish rules so that they do not drive you crazy later on in the evening. That means that dinner should be available for a defined period, not whenever they feel like eating. If they discover that they are in fact hungry just before bedtime, let them have a piece of bread or matzah – something really plain that will sate their hunger.
What happens when you give up your need for them to eat is one of two things: either they stop feeling the need to resist and start eating, or they continue not to eat because they really aren’t hungry. Fortunately, nature works in your favor on this one, and eventually, they will be hungry enough to eat (trust me on this one). If you keep junk food out of the house as much as possible (or at least inaccessible), and model healthy eating yourself, then when the cravings strike your children will start eating nutritional foods, which keeps you, them, and the doctor happy.
Finally, some practical points to bear in mind to help ease the situation for fussy eaters and such: first of all, make sure your kids like the food you serve. This may be obvious, but we sometimes forget that kids in general like simple, whereas we older folks enjoy more complex flavors. Complex doesn’t do it for kids. They want plain noodles, or maybe noodles with cheese. A bowl of cottage cheese could be great, with a cucumber stick on the side. If you are making delicious casseroles for you and your spouse, you may need to be making backup foods for the kids as well. And yes, they may want to eat the same thing every single day. Don’t force them not to! It seems unpalatable to us, but as long as the doc says the kids are healthy, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Their bodies will provide cravings for the right balance – carbs, proteins, etc. – over time (provided that their systems are not awash in sugar).
Lastly, make it fun. A young child who refused to east his or her veggies moments ago might do a complete 180 once s/he sees the little man with funny hair that you created out of carrots and cukes. Some children like to pretend they are eating fantastic items (magic beans, anyone?) or that they themselves are animals of some kind while they eat. Older children may enjoy being a part of the preparation process. Creativity is key.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways to better manage dinnertime, but I hope it will spark some ideas for you. Most importantly, keep in mind the pitfall of the power struggle. When you let go of your need for the children to behave in a certain way – and this is true in many areas – you may find that they will step up to the responsibility quite on their own.