When my older son was 18 months old, he stopped eating what I put in front of him. He fussed endlessly at mealtimes, pointing to the cabinet where we kept the crackers and bread. He refused fruits and vegetables. He would eat only meat, cheese, and bread. I felt like I was feeding a Viking—all he needed was a tankard of ale and a case of scurvy. In desperation, I hid vegetables in scrambled eggs and smoothies and chased him around the house with spoonfuls of peas. Every dinnertime felt like roping a calf, a calf who would shake his head no and chuckle as I missed yet again.
I complained about our mealtime struggles to a friend with a 6-year-old daughter, and she said, “I know what you mean! Last night Ava said she wanted noodles for dinner, so I made noodles, and she didn’t touch them. Then she said she wanted edamame, so I made that, and she didn’t touch it. Then she said she wanted a bagel, so I made that, and still she didn’t eat a bite. Can you believe it?”
It was like the next 10 years stretched before my eyes. Three fucking meals she made? Even I, with my tricks and cajoling, could see that that was batshit. I already hated dinnertime, the constant pleading and negotiation with my then 2-year-old, coaxing him to eat just one more bite and then rewarding him with dessert. I already felt nuts. I didn’t want to continue down that road with a 6-year-old or a 10-year-old or, God forbid, a teenager.
Somehow I stumbled across Ellyn Satter’s groundbreaking 2000 book Child of Mine: Feeding With Care and Good Sense, and it was literally a life-changing read. Satter, a registered dietician nutritionist and family therapist, promotes a “division of responsibility” for meals: the parent decides when to eat, what to serve, and where to serve it, and the child decides whether and how much to eat. There is always something on the table you know the kid will eat, like rice or fruit or bread, so all new, experimental foods are paired with familiar foods. There is no pressuring a child to “just taste” anything or insisting on a number of bites. Dessert is not tied to if or how much the child eats. Satter promotes family dinner, so adults eat with kids, and children see their parents enjoying a healthy variety of food.
This has worked like a charm—all the drama went out of dinnertime like air from a balloon. I make a meal and set it in front of him (Satter advises parents to let kids serve themselves from serving dishes, but we don’t do serving dishes here—it’s straight from pan to plate), and he can eat what he likes with no comment from me. He can have seconds on anything, if there’s enough. There are no other options for dinner, and two years into this program he knows better than to ask.
My son is nearly 5 now, and he’s still more fond of meat and bread than he is of fruit and vegetables, but because we’ve stopped pressuring and bargaining with him, he’s tried more green things voluntarily than I would have thought. (It’s also an incentive for me to make greens as enticing as possible, which has increased my own vegetable consumption.) He likes things I wouldn’t have expected: lentil stew and brown rice, zucchini and basil soup, green beans and roasted broccoli.
He doesn’t like things I would have thought he’d like, like lasagna. (I ask you, who doesn’t like lasagna?) And yes, sometimes dinner is “kid food”—chicken nuggets or pizza, because those are his favorites. Sometimes it’s Pad Thai, my favorite, because Satter notes that it’s good for kids to know that everyone, kids and parents included, gets their favorite foods once in a while.
Dessert is not linked to how much he eats. We rarely eat dessert, anyway, generally having our treats in the afternoon. If we do, I follow Satter’s instruction of letting him eat his dessert with his dinner, which works better than you’d think it would. (He generally eats the dessert and then a portion of dinner.)
So what are the six magic words? “You don’t have to eat it.” Our new system doesn’t mean that he never expresses dislike or says “yuck” or claims that he’s not going to eat anything. In fact, the other day he looked at his plate and said irritably, “Hey, I wanted a good dinner,” which, after an hour at the stove, made me want to sweep the whole table of food to the floor in an elaborate, screaming, Melissa McCarthy-esque breakdown.
But every time he says yuck or I don’t want that, I say calmly, “You don’t have to eat it,” and tuck into my own meal.
But the biggest revelation was that it gave me permission to stop hounding my son to eat—to even, really, stop monitoring what he eats. Because the meals I make are reasonably healthy and somewhat varied, I can enjoy my meal and let him eat, or not eat, without any Sturm und Drang. I don’t keep a (very limited) list in my head of “what my kid will eat.”
It’s also stopped the short-order-cook thing in its tracks. I cook whatever I want to eat, and if my son doesn’t want to try, say, squash and sausage casserole one night, that’s up to him—there’s garlic bread on the side, and carrots from the salad, and I’ve probably put a few apple slices on everyone’s plate. He may try a bite maybe the 20th time I serve it, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the casserole, my younger son is picking out the sausage and eating the squash, and it won’t go to waste. This system totally eliminates the power struggle that goes along with “getting kids to eat.” It also allows kids to pay attention to their body’s satiety cues—it turns out that my son doesn’t eat much dinner at all, ever, no matter what I serve. He’s just not hungry in the evening. So I try to make the earlier meals as nutritious as possible and don’t worry about dinner.
Sure, it’s not perfect. A lot of the meals I make are kind of lame and don’t tempt anyone. I wish we were all a little more adventurous with new foods. And family dinner doesn’t happen every night—sometimes it’s just one parent or no parent, because I’m often just not hungry when it’s the kids’ dinnertime. But the system has worked pretty well overall. It stops us from making food a reward or punishment, which I think sets up a lifetime of disordered “good food/bad food” thinking. He doesn’t have to choke down a portion of bok choy to get a bowl of ice cream, and we aren’t forcing him to ignore his body’s cues to eat something he doesn’t want to.
“You don’t have to eat it,” spoken in a mild tone, without rancor, has completely changed my life. I use it on our second son, a toddler now, with great success. Sometimes he too doesn’t eat even a bite of dinner, and I’m tempted to poke in a few spoonfuls while he watches a TV show. But I restrain myself. I mean, he doesn’t have to eat it…those are the 6 words that will end picky eating.
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