“My kids just won’t eat!” Sound familiar?
As a mom of four small rascals who range from three years to eight, who’s also a family food blogger, I hear this all the time. I get emails, questions on the playground and have quiet conversations at birthday parties.
Usually near the cake.
With a mom who’s at the end of her rope.
Every family is different but in my experience there are a few common culprits when kids won’t eat dinner. Here’s what I’ve seen — and experienced myself — most often:
#1. They’re not hungry. I’ve been there. You pick the kids up after school, which just happens to let out at hangry o’clock. They’re STARVING. So you give them a snack. But they’re “still hungry”. So one snack leads to another and pretty soon they’ve been grazing all afternoon. By the time you put a nice warm (and probably pretty healthy) dinner on the table, no one’s interested anymore.
Suggestions: Our kids get one snack after school (and for a while we skipped it altogether!) Sometimes they get to choose, sometimes I have something prepped (veggie cups, smoothies, muffins). But the key is quantity and timing: It’s one snack served at least 90 minutes before dinner.
Then that’s it! I remind them that they’ll eat again later.
And also, it’s okay to feel hungry. Your body is supposed to feel hungry before a meal.
Then keep them busy! They’re tired at this time of day which doesn’t leave most kids in the most cooperative state, so the best thing is either sending them outside, getting a game together (we love Hungry Hippo, LIFE, Connect Four), setting up a dance party with either the Wii and Just Dance or just turn on Pandora and let them go!
Or flip your whole routine, stop white-knuckling it through the afternoon and serve dinner at 3 or 4pm when they seem to need it most. Save a small snack for 6pm or so for anyone who’s keen.
#2. They’re too tired to do anything but melt into a puddle of whiny I-don’t-like-it-ness. By the end of the day almost nobody’s at their best. If your kids are slinking down in their chairs, crying when you even mention what’s for dinner or refusing to take a single bite, they might just be exhausted. When tiny people hit that point, there’s not a lot that can bring them back. At least not right away. It makes for a long, annoying evening.
Suggestions: Our kids eat early and go to bed early. Dinner is usually around 5:30pm and bedtime follows up at 7pm. That might not be doable for many families but for us, it’s a lifesaver. At these ages, experts like those at the National Sleep Foundation recommend so much sleep: between nine and 13 hours a night! These guys get up early for school and without all that sleep, their behavior is really the worst. There’s no chance that dinner (or the rest of the evening) will go well with out enough sleep.
#3. They don’t understand your expectations. Complaining about the food? Hopping up and down from the table? Feeding the two dogs who’re lurking expectantly under certain chairs? We’ve faced all of these at our house too–about 1 million times each. If I’ve learned anything from the kindergarten teacher who’s so dutifully taught three of our four rascals by now it’s this: Calmly state the rules (print them on the wall if you need to) and refer to them often.
Suggestions: There have been times when I’ve literally printed out our Family Food Rules and taped that paper to the wall. Last time it was a lot like “The Cider House Rules” because most of our family couldn’t read yet, but still. The rules were there. And trust me when I say they helped!
Here’s the most important part: Go over the rules–what you expect your kids to do and how to behave at mealtimes–when it’s NOT mealtime. Pick three or four family food goals like this.
In our house we:
- Try new foods without complaining.
- Stay in our seats until we’re excused/the timer goes off (after 10 minutes)/everyone’s done.
- Say “Thank You” when dinner is served.
- Wait until the cook asks for opinions, then give a Thumbs Up, Thumbs Middle or Thumbs Down, instead of saying “yuck”.
Explain your expectations to the kids. I’ve even acted that stuff out for them. Sitting at the actual table.
Then later on, when you’re at the table and the kids forget how to be awesome–because they will–just point to the rules and remind them. Remember, this is how we act at our house. Gesturing to a set of rules takes some of the pressure off you as a parent, plus “the rules” is a language kids speak fluently. They’re used to being reminded of what to do at school, so you’re borrowing from a habit that’s already ingrained. (Thank you, teachers!)
#4. They don’t like the food. Sometimes kids don’t even like the look of the food. Trying a few crowd-pleasers can never hurt. Plus, there are a few simple ways to help coax kids into trying something new.
- Offer only two bites at a time. It can be overwhelming to have a heaping platter of weird looking food in front of you. When I’m not sure how kids will react to a meal, I literally dish them out two bites worth to start. They can have more of ANYTHING that’s still available after trying those two bites. (Why two bites instead of one? Because sometimes it takes getting used to a flavor/texture/idea before tiny tastebuds decide they like it.)
- Make it cute. I’ve got lots of little finger bowls and egg cups that I sometimes use to put just a few bites of something new in. The effect feels fancy and the whole plating effort took an additional 35 seconds.
- Serve at least one thing each person likes. So no one feels like their only choice is to starve or be pestered into eating foods they hate, try to get at least something each person can get behind. This can be easier than you think. A baguette is a major win at our house every single time.
- Ask the kids what they’d like for dinner ahead of time. Whenever I head to the store, I try to do a quick poll about what people are interested in having for dinner that week. When they’ve got a little skin in the game, they’re more willing to cooperate. Plus, it’s nice to have something to look forward to.
- Try a few of our Thumbs Up favorites. Because it’s my job to experiment with recipes and find out what kids think, I get a lot of feedback on what’s good (and what’s not). Here are some of the simplest, can’t-fail dishes EVERYONE seems to love:
- Stop talking about the food. This might sound contrary to the rest of this piece but if you can just start eating and talking like you would at a dinner party–even if it’s only sustainable for a few minutes before you’re interrupted–the kids will catch on. We turn on music and go around the table, asking questions. If I see someone having trouble with their food, I always start talking to them first. Who did you play with at recess today? How was lunch? Hey, if we have a movie night this weekend which movie sounds best? Once their minds are off the pressure of TAKING A BITE, they can relax into the experience. And that’s the point of family meals anyway. To catch up after a long day and enjoy some food together.
#5. They have sensory processing issues. Kids with severe limits on what they’ll eat may need more help, and the good news is: there’s plenty of help to be found. The book “It’s Not About the Broccoli” is an excellent place to start. Plus sites like Your Child’s Table have really helpful resources, starting with a simple explanation of What is Feeding Therapy? Children who are on the autistic spectrum often benefit from extra coaching at the table. The site 100 Days of Real Food has a great quiz that might help too: Is your child a picky eater or a problem feeder?
In the end, MANY parents decide it’s not worth it. That they’re willing to make individual meals for kids or just serve the children one meal and eat as adults later on. It’s up to every family to decide whether this is an area you want to invest in, and if so, when. Toddlers are notorious for being difficult to dine with. So if your kids are very small, maybe it makes sense to wait. The only catch is, waiting too long can lead to habits that are harder to break as kids get bigger.
The reason it matters to me, and why I’m willing to put the time and effort in now, is that I think these dinner table skills teach kids important life lessons about respect, empathy, curiosity and courage. Having the ability to sit down with people and try foods–especially delicious food that someone has freshly prepared for you–is a huge asset that will serve kids well. Forever.
That’s my job as a parent, to coach them toward being a person who recognizes the effort that goes into cooking, who has a basic understanding of what it takes to have a healthy body and the confidence to handle themselves in a variety of situations.
We’re still working on it. We’ve got a LONG way to go. But we’re working.
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