Are you tired of stressing out about dinner? About trying to make something everyone likes? About going round and round on this little gem: “HOW MANY BITES do I have to take?”
So I changed two major things recently. And everything turned around.
Let me start with this though: they sound harsh. These are no-nonsense, take back dinnertime, Because I Said So sounding rules. But here’s the secret: they’re love rules. When I teach my kids how to eat a meal–even one they aren’t wild about–with courtesy and even a little fun, I’ve loving them as a parent.
These are Say it With Spinach rules.
I love these rascals with my entire being. Whining about dinner is not their best. Refusing to try new things? Not their best. Pouting through a meal instead of connecting with each other at the table after a long day? Not even close to their best. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to show them how to be their best.
There’s also a second part. An even more surprising part. Our kids don’t mind these changes at all.
I thought there would be whining. Slithering down in booster seats, boneless and dejected. But that didn’t happen. Instead, our small kids (I’m talking about the ones who are ages 3-6, not our toddler) understood the new rules pretty quickly. Yes, I had to remind them a couple of times, but after that it was smooth sailing. The kind of smooth sailing you only get when everyone understands where the heck their ship is headed.
Instead of flailing around, trying this and that, doing a little cheerleading here and there and otherwise hoping for the best, we’ve cracked down. Or maybe this: cracked the code. Now our kids know what to expect and that gives them peace. Even confidence.
Here’s what we did differently:
1. No afternoon snacks.
That’s right. I used to prepare lovely afternoon snacks for everyone. Smoothies. Cheese and crackers with fresh fruit. Freshly baked muffins. And guess what happened? Everyone totally enjoyed those snacks–except for me, with the effort of making ANOTHER fresh meal and dealing with the cleanup too–then when dinner came around it was always a mixed bag. People weren’t very hungry. Not very often. And that’s when I’d hear a lot of this: “No! I don’t like that!”
So we started skipping the afternoon snack altogether.
It’s really true. Here’s the schedule:
To be clear, our kids eat a pretty big breakfast and another healthy lunch. Add the morning snack in there and you’ve had a lot of eating all morning long. This turns out to be pretty good prep for a big long stretch without eating, one they do every day now without worries.
The big news happens at 5:30. Because they are hungry at dinner time. These kids want to eat. They aren’t starving. They aren’t crying. If anyone tells me “I’m hungry” around 5pm, I’ll say, “I am too! We’re eating dinner soon.”
It’s okay, maybe even good, for them to feel hungry. That’s how you know you’re supposed to eat again. Not just because the clock says it’s time for a meal. Listening to their bodies is a skill that will serve them well. It’s not a good habit to munch on snacks all day long, not as a kid and certainly not as an adult. I want to teach them that NOW so they’ve got it down later on.
In case of a total meltdown emergency, the kind where a preschooler might follow me into the pantry as I’m making dinner, pleading for a snack, I offer these: a few almonds or a handful of any raw veggies I’m already cutting up for dinner. But on most days we just sail on toward dinner, snackless and none the worse for it.
A word about timing. In order to pull this off, you have to eat dinner early like we do. Around 5:30pm. If you eat later than that, you’ll need to stick with the snack (And in that case, fruit is the ideal thing. Satisfying without being too filling.)
And you have to keep them busy. I read books with them. They roller skate in the garage. We do dance parties (thank you Taylor Swift!) And between all of them, there’s 1 sweet hour of screen time before dinner.
Which leads us to…
2. Start with a small portion at dinner. Expect them to eat it all.
That’s right! This is another new thing. I used to give my little guys 1 bite, maybe 2 bites. Then came the cajoling. The bargaining. Remember? I totally did this all the time…and encouraged you to do it too!
I’m not doing that anymore. (And I’m sorry for encouraging you to do it too.) Like Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We’re doing better.
Now I give the kids a small portion. About the size of their fists. The expectation is that they eat it all. For example, last night we had soup with a big loaf of crusty bread and salted butter. Everyone loves bread and wanted a second piece so here’s where the rule came in. You can have more bread after you’ve enjoyed everything else so far. Keep going on your soup and I’ll get a piece of bread for you.
We’ve only been doing this for a little while but already, they get it. There wasn’t any whining. Or crying. Just shrugs. And spoons clanging.
But what about all the bad things everyone’s heard about the Clean Plate Club? I thought you just said you wanted them to listen to their bodies?!
Here’s the key: It’s a SMALL portion. A reasonable amount of food for any child at that age to eat. Young kids aren’t ready to decide how much of what kinds of food they should eat. At this stage, that’s my job. To guide them.
But what if they don’t like it?
That’s okay. It really is! Don’t picture a giant mound of mashed potatoes heaped on a plate with a sad little face next to it. Consider a small bowl with a child-sized portion of lasagna, one spatula worth of roasted carrots, and so on. The point is, even if they don’t LOVE it, they will still be all right! There isn’t that much food to deal with here. And more importantly, learning to make do with things that aren’t your very favorite is another life skill.
What if my child goes to bed without eating anything at all?
That will be uncomfortable. For you, and for him or her. But it really will be okay. There will be more food tomorrow.
Here’s what I’ve finally figured out as a parent of four: It takes a MUCH firmer hand to guide our kids than I sometimes feel comfortable with. But that is what I’m here for. Not to be mean. Not to be uncaring. But to be firm about rules that are good for our kids in the long run.
There are also benefits in the short run. Because when you aren’t bargaining with everyone about every single bite, something magical happens. Dinner becomes more fun. You stop talking about food, and start talking about what happened at school today, whose birthday is coming up, what everyone wants to do on the weekend.
Something else may happen too: If your little guys are trying new foods easily, at some point they WILL stumble upon something they love. The odds are there. Try enough stuff and you’ll hit a winner. That’s just math.
Listen, when it comes to meal planning I take requests. I ask everyone what they’d like to have for dinner this week ahead of time. This Saturday I got a chorus of “spaghetti and meatballs!” in response. That’s on the menu for tonight, and everyone will be jazzed. That one’s easy.
Expecting the kids to eat a full portion of dinner is hardly torture though. If I can say it without sounding like a jerk, I make pretty good food. I use fresh ingredients. I notice what the kids have liked before and try to create spin-offs. Cooking is a passion of mine that I actually enjoy.
The only problem was, our kids weren’t enjoying it with me. That’s why we made these changes.
It turns out that teaching kids to love good food requires a stable of simple, fresh recipes. But more important, more crucial by a landslide, is the parenting part. It’s also the harder part.
Be nice, but be firm. There’s no fist banging. It’s a matter of fact. This is how civilized people eat, and we’re going to do it too. Put on music, or don’t. Pull out a table cloth, or skip it. The idea is to celebrate meals as a family, which is very hard to do when everyone is fussing.
If you this is ringing a bell with you (or hitting a nerve), maybe you want to give it a try too. Be brave! Like teaching them to clean their rooms, figuring out how to enjoy a meal, even when they might not savor every single thing on the plate, is a skill that will serve your kids well forever.
And it’ll feel good for you too.
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