Expert Parent Advice

5 Strategies To Avoid Mealtime Battles

Mealtime battles are common with young children and most parent strategies actually escalate power struggles. We’ll reveal 5 helpful strategies to put an end to the battles over broccoli and beans, and without becoming short order cooks.

 

I’m Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, and I’m proud to partner with Kids ‘R’ Kids for the Expert Parenting Advice series. 

Today, we’re talking about mealtime battles.  This is one of the challenges I hear all the time from parents.   They’ll ask, “How do I get my kids to eat what the family eats?  How can we get through the meal without a power struggle or meltdown?”  Today, we’re going to tackle those questions and give you 5 strategies to avoid mealtime battles with your kids.

Let’s begin by talking about why mealtime battles happen in the first place.  We have to remember that kids have a hard-wired need for power.   That means they need to have a sense of independence, free will and some control over their own lives. Actually, the need for autonomy and control over your life applies if you are a toddler, a teen or a senior citizen. However, when you’re a kid, you don’t feel like you have a lot of control because you always have someone else, like us! – calling all the shots.  Parents decide what they’ll eat, when they’ll eat, what they’ll wear, and when they’ll go here and there.  From their perspective – we call all the shots – so it makes sense that kids battle us at mealtime.

Mealtime is one of the areas where kids do have legitimate power or control.  We can’t MAKE them eat. Period.  We can try –but can’t MAKE them eat, and they know it.  As a result, mealtime becomes a perfect battleground for a power struggle. The more we coax, prod, beg and encourage night after night, kids find tremendous power in dawdling through their meal or refusing to eat altogether.  The harder we push to get them to eat – the bigger the power struggle. It’s their way of saying, “You may think you’re the boss of me, but you’re not.”

Fortunately, there are things we can do to make mealtime much more enjoyable for everyone. 

1.  Involve your kids in meal planning and preparation. 

The more invested your child is in the meal; the more likely he’ll be to eat it.  If you allow your kids to have input into the family menus for the week and let them pick, for instance, whether to serve sweet potatoes or steamed carrots, they might actually eat what’s on their plate without the usual struggle.  Likewise, it’ll help to give your child a meaningful role in each meal’s preparation.  Kids as young as two or three can cut banana slices with a plastic knife for fruit salad and older kids can make the entire salad from start to finish.  Let everyone contribute to menu planning and most importantly – get everyone involved in the preparation.  Not only will they feel more invested in the meal and be more likely to eat it – but they’ll learn important life skills in the process!

Other ways to get kids involved and invested:

  • Give everyone a job when you go to the grocery store.  A grocery list (in words or pictures) for each of your kids will keep everyone busy in the grocery store, teach important lessons about food and shopping and make them more invested in the process.
  • Plant something! Even if you don’t have enough space to plant fruits or vegetables, plant a pot of basil or parsley and let your kids be responsible for watering and caring for the herbs.  They’ll be thrilled to watch them grow and will be excited when you ask them to “grab a handful of basil” for tomato sauce!

Michelle Stern, Founder of What’s Cooking and author of the Whole Family Cookbook, recommends these Tools of the Trade for tiny hands…

  • Rotary Cheese Grater – this does more than grate cheese, this lets kids grate carrots, zucchini and chocolate while protecting their tender knuckles at the same time.
  • Plastic Lettuce Knives – these child-safe knives (like the lettuce knife from Oxo and child-sized knives from Curious Chef) are tough enough to saw through carrots, but aren’t sharp enough to accidentally cut through skin.
  • Mini-Muffin Tin – everything is cuter and tastes better when it’s small.  Kids love the mini-tins for making anything from muffins to tiny rice crispy treats.
  • Small Scoop – this is perfect for the tiny muffin pan, because it allows kids to get uniform scoops every time.  They can also use it for scooping cantaloupe, watermelon or teensy balls of ice cream.

2.  Make eating the child’s problem, not yours. 

When kids refuse to eat the family meal on the table, most parents resort to either coaxing them to “just try it,” or becoming frustrated and angry.  Believe it or not, both of these reactions are a huge payoff to the child.  Kids like the feeling of power they get and are more likely than ever to reject their food in the future.

Instead, let your child know that you aren’t going to badger or nag anymore about what she eats.  Let her know that she is growing up and she can choose to eat what’s served or not. Either way – you are fine with that.  However, let her know the kitchen will close at 6:30 p.m. and then that’s it.  There will be no snacks or meals served until breakfast.  This creates a logical consequence – either she will eat or she will be hungry until the next meal.  It becomes HER problem, NOT yours. 

Don’t worry; she’s not going to starve between now and the next meal – but she will be much more likely to eat dinner the next night since she now knows you aren’t going to rescue her with a bag of Goldfish before bed.

When introducing a new rule or routine, it’s helpful to role play the experience with your child.  Once you explain the new “game plan” for mealtime, have some fun with it by role playing what she can expect.  Role play how you will clear the table at 6:30 p.m. and discuss how you won’t be serving any snacks before bedtime.  Pretend that she’s “starving” at bedtime and encourage her to have a drink of water so her tummy feels better.

Then, switch roles and allow your child to play Mom or Dad while you dawdle through the meal.  This is where the magic happens!  Allow your child to remove your plate and explain to you that dinner is over but you’ll have a chance to eat again at breakfast.  You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to implement new routines when you take time to role play the experience!

3.  Stop any discussion about what or how much she eats. 

Your job as a parent is to plan healthy meals, and it’s wise to include at least one healthy item you know your child will eat.  But after that, there’s no need for any discussion: don’t ask him to “try one bite,” don’t encourage him to “eat more” as that will only invite a power struggle.

Also, resist the urge to praise good eating.  Comments like, “you were a good eater tonight” make eating a “performance issue” and lets kids know that it’s a big deal to you – which in turn makes eating a ripe topic for a power struggle.

Desserts as REWARDS?

It’s best to avoid using dessert as a reward.  (Using rewards in general to motivate behavior is proven to produce negative results – but that’s a topic for another session!)

Using dessert as a reward sends the message to your kids, “There’s no way I would ever eat this meatloaf and green beans unless there’s the promise of a reward (dessert) at the end! It fosters the attitude that healthy food served during the meal is something to be endured until he can get the yummy food he really wants and can create unhealthy long-term attitudes about food.

Rather than use dessert as a reward, you can…

  • Skip “dessert” all together.
  • Serve cut-up fruit or a homemade smoothie as “dessert.”
  • Save sweet treats for the weekends and serve only healthy “desserts” through the week.

4.  Avoid “I told you so’s” as you follow through.

Although it may be tempting to do so, there’s no good reason to deliver a lecture or an “I told you so” when your child is “staaaarving to death” because she didn’t eat her meal- you’ll only make her angry or invite a tantrum.  Instead, calmly and firmly tell her, “I’m sure you’ll be fine until your next meal.  Sometimes when I’m hungry I drink a big glass of water.”  Then stick to your plan – don’t rescue your child from her decision by allowing her a bedtime snack or “just a few crackers to hold her over.  Tomorrow night, she’ll be less likely to dawdle through her meal.

About “I told you sos’s….

Anytime we use “I told you so” – in words or attitude – it invites resistance from the other person.  It implies, “Well, if you would have listened to me in the first place, you wouldn’t be in this mess right now.”

Kids and adults immediately get defensive when confronted with an “I told you so” attitude and the learning opportunity is lost.  Instead of the person learning from the experience, his energy is focused on defending himself from the “I told you so” remark and his anger is directed toward the messenger.

We can help kids learn important lessons by avoiding the “I told you so’s” and instead allowing the child to learn from the experience.  Every parent knows that lectures aren’t effective in teaching important lessons.  Kids learn best from the positive and negative consequences of their actions.

5.  Control what you can – the pantry.

You can’t make your child eat, but you can control what’s available.  Keep sugary snacks and junk food out of the house so your kids don’t fill up on the bad stuff instead of eating healthy foods.  You can also control when food is available.  If you’re hoping your children will eat a good dinner, it’s wise to close the pantry (and the fridge) to “snackers” at least an hour before the meal.

Other examples of “controlling the pantry” are as follows:

  • Keep healthy snack options at a kid-friendly height in the fridge or pantry.  Allow your kids to help themselves to those “approved” snack items.  It will give them a huge dose of positive power when they don’t have to come to you for permission.
  • Prepare small, pre-measured, snack size bags in advance.  Instead of letting your kids graze through a half-box of crackers, control portions with pre-measured bags.
  • Serve smaller amounts of the less nutritious dinner items so your kids don’t fill up on those and miss out on the healthy foods.  For example, serve a small box of macaroni and cheese rather than the “family size” box.  That will ensure that the cheesy delight is a “side dish” rather than the full meal for your kids.

While you can’t force your kids to lovingly wolf down the tuna casserole you prepared, you can do a lot to inspire them to eat healthy meals without the power struggles.  It takes a little preparation and a lot of backing off, but pretty soon the battles over veggies and other good stuff will all but disappear.

For more information on how to avoid mealtime battles, check out the interactive module that goes along with this video.

Have a fabulous summer and visit us often for more helpful solutions from the Kids ‘R’ Kids Expert Parenting Advice video series.

Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions (linked to site:  www.positiveparentingsolutions.com) and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time (Tarcher/Penguin, August 2011).