The dinnertime battleground

My son was sitting at the table, ready for his dinner. We had a vase of flowers on the table that he had picked from the garden, and we had lit several candles. I placed his plate in front of him, smiling at my lovingly prepared wholesome meal that would meet all of his nutrition requirements… And he just shook his head and refused to eat it.

Now, if I had followed my own advice, I would have smiled and said “That’s okay, sweetie.” But the thing with being a dietitian is, you’re actually also a human. This particular human had spent all day being rushed off her feet, and desired nothing more than to eat in peace, shower, and crawl into bed. So I did the opposite of everything I tell parents to do: I groaned at my son, I implored him to at least try it, I shoved the spoon at his mouth with no success. It wasn’t until I was very nearly about to scream that I caught myself, took several deep breaths, and turned my eyes away from his untouched plate. “Do you want to blow out the candles?” I asked. A big smile spread over his face, and the dinnertime battleground I had made suddenly became a fun place again.

But the thing with being a dietitian is, you’re actually also a human.

There’s a lot of pressure on parents for their kids to eat well. If you happen to be a dietitian you can increase that pressure by about 1000-fold, too. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, judging me by what my little one eats and doesn’t eat. Everyone assumes my kid must sit quietly at the table and munch on his vegetables like a little angel. And sometimes he does! But there have also been times when he’s refused to sit anywhere but on my lap, he’s declared everything on his plate is yuck, he will only eat with a giant tablespoon that doesn’t fit in his mouth because an appropriately-sized spoon is “for babies”, and yes, there have been times when he hasn’t eaten at all. Welcome to parenthood!

Like everyone, kids are hungrier on some days and not on others. Some kids are real morning-eaters and not very hungry later in the day. Some are interested in food at a really young age and some aren’t so much. And they all have an inbuilt ability to know when they’re hungry and when they’re full, that hasn’t been messed up by years of dieting. I try to get parents (myself included) to change their focus from what their child eats at this meal, or on this day, or even this week, to focusing instead on making mealtimes enjoyable and getting kids involved with their food as much as practicable.

Here are some tips:

  • Get your child into the kitchen to help cut the veggies, stir things, etc. The more they help out, the more likely they are to actually eat the finished product. That goes for gardening, too. My garden is an absolute shocker, but the rare times we have managed to grow something and harvest it from the garden, my child has tried that food. Or get them to help pick things at the supermarket. Kids love getting to make decisions! Don’t go wild with “What you do want for dinner?” though, or you might get “Chocolate cake” in response (I speak from personal experience here). Instead limit the options to healthy ones, e.g. “Do you want broccoli or peas?”
  • Make mealtimes fun. Set the table nicely, set up a chair and plate just for their favourite toy if you like. Whatever will make it more enjoyable.
  • Don’t comment on what they eat or don’t eat, or spit back out. Instead, show them how much you enjoy eating your food. Smile, say things like “Mm, these carrots are so crunchy!” and talk about anything non-food related.
  • Don’t offer anything else. If they don’t want dinner, that’s fine. Maybe they’ll get hungry hours later and will eat a snack, or you might have saved their dinner for them. Maybe they won’t get hungry and they’ll just have an extra-big breakfast the next day. Just try not to offer them alternative food when their dinner is still sitting in front of them, or you’re just teaching them that by refusing their dinner they can have a special meal instead. There was this great study in a feeding clinic with about 100 kids that found 100% of “fussiness” was attributable to if the parent would make a special meal for their child if they refused the first one.
  • Don’t stress about it. If they don’t eat, they’re not going to starve. You can always try to serve one thing on their plate that you know they’ll likely eat – a safe food. But even then, they might have a day when they just don’t eat. That’s okay! Maybe today isn’t a hungry day – just ride the wave. If they’re still growing and are healthy, then it’s all good.
  • And cut yourself a break. You’re going to screw up, like I did when I groaned at my son and tried to force his food on him. Screwing up is part of the journey, we’re all human. Take a breath and start again.

As for me and my toddler? The next afternoon we stopped at the fruit and veggie store on the way home from preschool. I got my son to pick the capsicums he wanted, and grab a red onion and some cherry tomatoes off the shelf for me. He also pointed out some delicious strawberries he wanted for afternoon tea, so we got those, too.

At home, he ate the whole punnet of strawberries, then he helped me to make pizza. We got flour everywhere but I just smiled at his smile as he rolled the dough. He helped cut up his chosen capsicums with his kids safety knife. He ate a lot of the ingredients as we worked. Whenever he was close to making too much of a giant mess for me to handle gracefully, I got him to do a task for me that gave me a few seconds alone to sort everything out. “Can you open the drawer and get the rolling pin, please?” “Can you get me a big spoon?” “Can you use your step ladder to reach the grater, please?”

When we were ready to assemble the pizzas, at my son’s request I washed his excavator toy thoroughly and let him use it to deliver his chosen ingredients on to his pizza dough. He laughed with joy.

While the pizzas were cooking we picked the candles we wanted on the table and set everything up. And when we finally sat down to eat, what do you know, he ate half of his pizza in one go. Then we blew out the candles, re-lit them, and blew them out again. But what if he hadn’t eaten anything? I don’t think I’d have minded, because I wasn’t focused on what he was eating or not eating, instead I was focused on having a great time.

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