Here's Your Dinner Option, Kid: Eat It Or Starve

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
KatarzynaBialasiewicz / iStock

At any given time, I’ve got roughly 90,000 things on my to-do list, and the vast majority of them are for the benefit of other people — mainly my children. Like any parent, I act as my kids’ personal chauffeur, housekeeper, psychologist, pediatrician, and a laundry list of other duties (laundry itself being on that list). But you know what’s not on the list? Short-order cook, because considering everything else I do for them on a daily basis, ain’t nobody got time for all that.

Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I present my children’s meals with an unwavering “eat-it-or-starve” philosophy. Clearly I would make an exception if my kids had some sort of special need or a food-centered sensory issue, but they don’t. If they balk at what I serve, they’re just being picky — a luxury I don’t indulge. There are no mealtime arguments because they know this one unequivocal rule: It’s their prerogative to turn up their noses at the food I prepare for them, but if they do, they’re going to be hungry — simple as that.

The way I see it, they’re fortunate to have a mother who is willing to cook for them, one who cares (well, most of the time) to offer them a variety of foods and make sure they’re getting the necessary nutrients. So if I’m going to expend the effort of searching for recipes, meal planning, and actually cooking, they’re damn well going to try what I’ve made.

At our table, there’s no pushing away of the plate without what we call a “no-thank-you taste” — one bite of each thing in front of them. If they truly don’t like it, they can choose not to eat it. At least 95% of the time, though, that one bite is enough to convince them that I’m really not trying to poison them and that it is, in fact, tasty even if by looking at it they’ve proclaimed it “yucky” or “lumpy” or “like it came out of a butthole” or any other disparaging adjective.

Any parent knows that for the first few years of your child’s life — sometimes upwards of a decade, if you have kids one right after the other — your own dinner comes last, losing its appeal while you cut their food into little bites and pour their milk and fetch them napkins and utensils and second helpings and drink refills. By the time you can finally sit down and eat, your food is cold and unappetizing. So I’m not trying to add to that by tacking individual meals onto my dinnertime workload. Let the perfectly adequate meal I’ve prepared get disgusting while I dish out scrambled eggs to this kid and a PB&J to that kid and plain pasta with butter to the other one? Every “nope” that ever noped. Nuh to the uh. Sorry, not sorry.

You’d be surprised at how much the eat-it-or-starve rule cuts down on picky eating. Are there foods my kids don’t like and won’t eat? Absolutely – they’re human, and even the most adventurous eaters find something occasionally that doesn’t agree with their personal preferences. But limiting their mealtime options to what I’m serving has led them to try – and enjoy – things they may have shunned without taking the tiniest nibble before. My kids eat tofu and fried calamari; curry and colcannon; banana peppers and coconut and broccoli. And if they don’t? Well, there’s always next mealtime, buddy — I hope it’s something you find more palatable.

It may sound harsh, but trust me, there is no starving in eat-it-or-starve. I know you’ve heard it before and now you’re going to hear it again because it’s true, and I know this from personal experience: Kids will eat when they’re hungry. And they’ll eat what you give them, if it’s their only option. Nobody is going to waste away. Child protective services is not going to come knocking at your door because you refused to make chicken strips when little Hayden didn’t want his pork chop. Your child is smarter than to boycott dinner until the hunger reaches life-threatening levels. It boils down to a battle of wills, and you are the parent.

Make sure your child is hungry at mealtime. Get their input; let them help you pick out the veggies, clean off the fruits, prepare the food. Learn all the tricks for sneaking nutrients into more kid-friendly dishes, like slipping some pureed squash into the mac and cheese. All these things will help. Kid still not eating? Give them a multivitamin gummy or one of those nutritional shakes (just not right before dinner!); they’ll be fine. I don’t know a single solitary person who ever grew up to be a malnourished and underdeveloped adult because their parent employed the eat-it-or-starve credo. Instead, they grow into people who know there’s nothing bad about trying new things — at the table and, hopefully, beyond.

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