Why I Let My Kids Eat Dessert First

by Sara Farrell Baker
Oksana Shufrych / Shutterstock

Dinnertime used to be a nightmare in my house. Not only is it at the end of the day when my energy is sucked dry, and I’ve been running on patience-fumes since 3 o’clock. But my son is an absolute turd about eating his supper. Breakfast and lunch? No problems. He eats quickly and doesn’t fuss. But once dinner is on the table, it is a nonstop battle.

Every bite must be chewed until it is mashed down to a saliva-puree. The same bite can remain in his mouth for upwards of 10 minutes. For those 10 minutes, I am telling him to swallow. I am telling him to empty his mouth. I am wringing my hands and yelling. Why the hell do families do this every night?

Sitting at the table together for this meal is my least favorite part of the day. I research how to install a small flap into his bedroom door, so I can lock him in there and deliver his food through it while I enjoy my own dinner at the table and without my blood pressure rising sky-high.

We tried everything. Setting timers only gave him anxiety, so he would spend his allotted eating time freaking out that the seconds were ticking away instead of putting food in his mouth. Taking away dessert if he didn’t finish his meal or didn’t finish it in time never changed the behavior, just added an enormous tantrum onto the end of the already shitty part of my day.

Cooking him a separate dinner that I knew he would like didn’t fix anything. And yes, we tried that.

It took a while for me to realize that as exhausted as I was at this point in the evening, so was my son. We both needed a solution because we were both miserable during what (I have been told) should be a pleasant time with our family.

So I went against all of my instincts, threw my rules out the window, and tried to make the meal more enjoyable for all of us.

For breakfast and lunch, because I knew he would eat well, I made sure to fill him up. I piled on the healthy stuff and watched as he cleaned his plate. When we sat down for our dinner, I had his plate already filled. The dinner foods that the rest of the family were eating were there, but in smaller portions than he was used to. I figured, if he wanted more, he could ask for more.

And in addition to his dinner, I also placed the one thing I knew he looked forward to. The only reason he would even eat some of his dinner most nights.

His dessert.

I told him that he could eat the dessert when he wanted. He could eat it first. I explained that there was less dinner than usual on his plate and if he ate it all and wanted more, he could ask.

And I was explicitly clear that when dinner was done, it was done. No timers or reminders. But when the family was finished eating at a reasonable pace, it would be time to clear the table. We were not sitting there for two hours.

As I expected, he ate the dessert first. My son looked around, expecting the new rule to suddenly change and to have his treat taken away. I told him it was all right and gently encouraged him to try more foods.

And he did.

He cleaned his plate. He wasn’t asking for extra vegetables, but he did reach for more food when he was done. By the time the rest of us had finished dinner, so had he.

No tears.

No tantrums.

And in record time compared to what we were used to.

Game changer. The most pleasant family meal I could recall.

I thought back to my own childhood when dinners were less enjoyable for my parents, I’m sure. I didn’t like most vegetables. I played with my food endlessly. Forcing me to eat something I didn’t want never ended in that food magically becoming palatable. And the all-or-nothing rules between me and dessert were frustrating, and made me dread seeing something I didn’t like on my plate. Dinner was a chore to get through, not a meal to enjoy with my family.

Something as simple as letting my son eat dessert first has taken away his anxiety about finishing a meal because he no longer has to finish it to get a reward. He feels “free” to make his own food choices, and that has reduced the battle of wills between us. I can see now that the endless chewing was a way to stall the process, and I wish I had realized it sooner. It would have saved us all a lot of grief.