It happens in homes all over Australia each night. Mum makes healthy meal. Child refuses to eat. Mum orders child to “finish your dinner!”.
The ‘dinner time duel’ I call it. It’s where parents threaten, cajole or downright bribe their kids with Xbox privileges, scoops of ice cream or whatever it takes if they will only FINISH WHAT’S ON THEIR PLATES.
It happens in my house too. My daughter is a grazer who feels that sitting down to a full meal is an affront to her sensibilities. Being that she is four, I like to think that I have a little bit more knowledge in this area (but there’s no telling her that!)
The battle begins
And so we sit down to a meal where she takes a few bites before informing me she is full. And there begins the child won’t eat dinner battle. As someone with an active interest in healthy eating habits, I struggle to know what to do next. I know that forcing her to eat is not the way to go. So I don’t. But I also know that she will 100% come a-calling in the next 30 minutes and ask for a snack. Or dessert. And what then?
Paediatric dietitian Stefanie Valakas knows all about tricky eating behaviours in children. “Many of us grew up with the old adage of ‘eat everything on your plate’, Stefanie says. “However, we now know that this isn’t best practice when it comes to instilling healthy feeding habits for our children.”
So what’s a frustrated parent to do? Here’s Stefanie’s tips to help make mealtime less of a battleground.
Kids and hunger
Most children are born with strong hunger and satiety instincts. They’ll request food (loudly and repeatedly, from birth, in my experience) when they want it and signal clearly when they’re finished. The importance of honouring these instincts, especially as children get older, is one of the main reasons that ‘forcing’ food is not encouraged.
“Almost all children can naturally tell when they’re full,” says Stefanie. “Our job as parents is to help children preserve this innate ability.”
Where things can become a problem is when parents start to use THEIR judgement to tell a child whether they’re full or not (which, let’s face it, is an easy thing to do.) “Some researchers have theorised that not honouring fullness signals can lead to those natural cues being overridden,” Stefanie warns. “This can lead to children becoming unaware of when they are full.”
While Stefanie says this is all still a theory, respecting your child’s cues from a young age is key. So no telling them to eat everything on their plate! But what’s the alternative?
“Parents provide and children decide”
There ARE ways to respect your kids and how they want to eat, without being railroaded into after dinner snacking or dessert gobbling (or worrying they’ll suffer malnutrition from existing solely on corn on the cob). Parents have a very powerful tool at their disposal; they’re the ones who choose the structure and content of dinner.
“I have a new adage for everyone,” says Stefanie. “Parents provide and children decide.” This means parents are in charge of what is served at the dinner table and where and when it’ll be offered. The kids are responsible for deciding if and how much to eat. Eeeek!
“I think this can be tough for parents who think their little one isn’t eating enough,” Stefanie says. In that instance, it can be easy to switch up the food on offer or give in to demands for preferred foods or dessert, as ‘something is better than nothing.’
But Stefanie cautions that this can backfire. ” If kids learn they can consistently refuse dinner and get dessert instead, they will continue with the same pattern and always ditch veggies for ice-cream,” she says. It’s important to keep providing the foods you want your child to eat while (trying) to take a hands off approach. This means binning the bribes and adopting an attitude of ‘food neutrality’ where foods are not considered ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but are simply there to be eaten and enjoyed.
Still sound scary? Rest assured that your child’s appetite is, well, kind of like yours! “Children eat to their needs,” says Stefanie. “One week they may barely touch their dinner and the next they’re asking for seconds!” You can rest easy knowing though that most kids will eat when they’re hungry. Survival instinct overpowers hatred of sweet potato every time.
Dessert before dinner (is finished)
So what to do when you’ve provided a wholesome meal for your child, allowed them to set the pace as to how much to eat and STILL end up with a near full plate leftover?
“Look at how much food and drink is being consumed in the lead up to dinner time,” Stefanie says. “If your little one is drinking milk or grazing just beforehand, they’re unlikely to be hungry for dinner.” Cutting back on snacking before you serve up or reserving snacks for the period after school finishes can help stop tiny tummies from filling up.
But what about the minimal dinner eater who requests after-dinner yoghurt (a common occurrence in this house) as they are ‘still hungry’? Stefanie recommends offering leftovers from dinner, because if your child is THAT hungry, they’ll eat what they left behind.
Stefanie’s tips to encourage healthy food behaviour
- Serve meals in the centre of the table and allow children to serve how much they want. This helps action the ‘parents provide and children decide’ strategy easily and effectively.
- Keep mealtime positive and associate food with fun rather than negative feelings.
- Reduce food bribes. Whether it’s promising a game to get in those extra mouthfuls or using “no dessert until you eat your beans”, associating food with rewards from a young age does not facilitate the healthiest relationship with food.
- Have an open conversation about your food expectations with grandparents and other family members or carers who may eat with/feed your children. This can prevent a whole host of issues with the sometimes generational belief that ‘more food is better’.
- Eat meals together, sitting at a table, with no distractions.
- Enjoy your mealtime as a family! If you can’t master that just yet, aim to get siblings eating together or even one parent and child eating together to role model how eating is meant to be done.
- At the end of the day food is more than nutrition. Teaching your children the enjoyment of eating is all part of a life-long healthy relationship with food.
Need some more advice for dealing with a fussy eater? Check out our 9 Paediatrician approved strategies.