“You will sit right there until your meatloaf is gone, young lady!” (3 hours later, the meatloaf, and the child, are still sitting at the table).
“Ok, corn dog for Lucas, PB&J for Emily, and cobb salad for the rest of us!” (By the time Mom or Dad is done with food prep and sits down to eat, the rest of the family members are already finishing up their meals).
It seems like when it comes to dinner time, parents fall into two camps: The Iron Fists and The Short Order Cooks (or maybe those are 80’s band names...can’t be sure). There are relevant points supporting each approach, to be sure. However, proponents of either side are eternally loyal to their method and often refuse to consider the other’s perspective. The funny thing though, is that when I look at both of these philosophies, neither one seems all that effective in practice!
Do the iron-fisted parents enjoy listening to their child cry and whine at the table straight through until bedtime?
Do the short order cooks feel good when their child adamantly refuses (for the thousandth time!) the healthy and tasty meal that they have prepared for the rest of the family?
By falling into a hard line approach to meals, parents are setting their families up for long-lasting mealtime dysfunction. I find that by refusing to yield to their preconceived notions of how meals should play out, parents lose sight of the behaviors they actually want to see from their kids. It becomes more about the rules, and less about the goals and outcomes.
“When I grew up, my mother made one meal each night, that’s it! Sure, I had to gag down hamburger surprise once a week, but I turned out juuuuust fine!”
“I will never force my child to eat something that he does not want to eat. I grew up being forced to eat hamburger surprise, and it scarred me for life.”
Both approaches are problematic in terms of expectations and trust.
In terms of expectations, it’s important to consider your child and create reasonable expectations for the meal. If the “clean plate” rule is actually about ensuring that they consume a reasonable, healthy portion (and not meant as a means to torture!), then come to a decision for what will likely work for your child and start there. Ask their pediatrician or do some Googling to determine what a typical portion size should look like for your child’s age, size, and activity level. If it’s pretty far off from what they are currently eating, work up to it gradually. Wait for successes before moving on. If your child is not a huge meat-eater, make sure that the majority of the food on the plate is made up of other food types, with just a few bites of the more challenging item. This will help to encourage your child and build their confidence, rather than discouraging them from the moment they look at their heaping plate.
DO NOT make your child sit at the table for 3 hours at a time. Nothing good will come of it, I promise that. Not only does it make mealtimes punitive, but it doesn’t often get the results you want. If a child is no longer making progress with a meal after 30-45 minutes, it’s probably time to wrap up and move on. This will make life more enjoyable for you and your child. Offer a dessert, after-dinner TV show, or other incentive to finish “x” amount of portion, and leave it up to them to earn it or not earn it.
On the other hand, when you consistently give in to requests for custom meals, you child learns to expect that they will never have to eat with the family. Yeah, in the moment you may have an easier time at dinner. However, it will become increasingly difficult to change your child’s expectation of mealtimes to become more flexible and accepting. By creating these expectations and avoiding all situations in which your child may have to contact new foods, your child’s anxiety related to unknown foods may grow over time. This can result in some very emotional meals, missed opportunities to take part in meals with peers, etc. Sure, they may independently decide to try new foods at some point. In the cases in which they don’t, it can be really heartwrenching to watch a child struggle through their anxiety to accept a new food.
The iron fist approach breaks trust with your child because it communicates to them that you don’t believe/don’t hear/don’t care that they are having a difficult time with the meal that you have presented. It lets them know that you will not acknowledge or act upon their complaints, even if it is a reasonable request. I know that kids are expert-level excuse makers, but when you indiscriminately ignore what they are telling you (through their words or actions), communication and the ability to make positive change really break down.
The short order cook approach creates trust in a way that is detrimental to increasing a limited food variety. When you refuse to nudge them out of their comfort zone to experience new foods, you are validating their belief that new foods are bad or scary. When you normalize a wide variety of foods during mealtimes, your child will take their cues from you. When you perpetually exclude your child from food variety and expose them only to their most preferred, most familiar foods, your child will take their cues from you. So give them the foods that you eat, supplemented by foods that are familiar to them. Lead by example, expect reasonable (for your child) flexibility and tolerance of new foods, and they will learn to trust that you are not setting them up for failure.
Once you understand your child’s needs, the areas that need improvement, and what they are capable of, you can conduct mealtimes with a more nuanced approach. Don’t be afraid to make changes if things are not working! Re-examine what matters most to you when it comes to your child’s feedings, and act in a way that supports those goals. Then, get ready for happier, healthier mealtimes!