If You Want Your Child to Like Eating, Avoid This Mealtime Mistake
It’s meal time at your house, and you’ve managed to get food on the table for the whole family. It’s the end of the day, and tired is an understatement. You’re ready to crawl into bed, but there’s one hurdle in your way: dinner.
Your kids immediately scrutinize every morsel on their plate. You see it in their faces: the resistance, the complaining, the disapproval.
You may already feel irritated as you watch them poke around their plate, like their food is some kind of science experiment.
You try to remain calm. “Why don’t you just try one bite and see if you like it?” You’re hopeful that your cheery disposition will encourage them to eat.
Minutes go by, and they haven’t budged. Their food remains untouched.
You ask again, but this time, there is a hint of sternness in your voice. “You need to try at least one bite of that if you want to leave this table.”
The negotiations have begun. You start to feel the tension building.
Your child squirms in their seat and digs around their plate reluctantly, searching for the one bite of food they can swallow as their ticket out of the dinner table.
However this situation might play out in your own home, know that you are not alone.
As parents, we might try to encourage our kids to do the things we know are best for them, and eating is no exception.
We know their bodies need fuel and nourishment, but persistence often meets resistance in the most undesirable way.
The more we might push, the more they might pull away, even when we try to coerce them ever so gently.
Kids might comply, begrudgingly. Or their refusal might turn into an all out dinnertime battle, where you end up feeling like the bad guy.
Is all of that worth getting them to eat “just one more bite”, or try part of their meals?
Pressuring Kids to Eat
Trying to get kids to eat, whether in a positive or negative way, has been shown to actually cause a child to dislike the foods they’ve been forced to eat.
Pressuring kids to eat in any way or form can actually backfire and discourage them from trying or liking different foods.
Truthfully, we only want what’s best for our kiddos, and sometimes we put pressure on them to eat without even realizing.
Here are some examples of what it might look like to pressure or prompt your child at meal times:
Telling your child that they have to take a certain number of bites of any given food on their plate
Asking your child to try something new that is served
Offering to give them dessert or something sweet after they’ve eaten a certain amount of their food
Rewarding them for eating “healthy” foods, like vegetables
Warning them there will be a punishment if they don’t eat
Giving them “the look” (you know the one I’m talking about?) when they haven’t eaten a certain amount
Instructing your child to eat everything that is served them at a meal before they can leave the table
You can see that we may put pressure on our children to eat, sometimes inadvertently, in both verbal and nonverbal ways. These efforts are usually in an attempt to increase a child’s intake of nutrient dense foods or promote healthier diets in children (i.e. “Eat your vegetables”), but research has shown that this type of feeding practice can have negative effects on a child’s food preference and hinder their ability to self-regulate their appetite.
Studies have also found that rewarding kids for eating certain foods, (like vegetables), can actually cause children to dislike and avoid those foods. in my own work with mothers, I have seen time and again how being made to finish food that was unwanted as a child caused issues with listening to and honoring hunger and fullness cues as an adult.
So if pressuring, prompting, and/or rewarding kids for eating can cause more harm than good, what is a mama to do?
Helping Your Child Eat
The answer is simple: you don’t have to do anything to get your child to eat (including those veggies that you know are good for them).
Here’s the thing, mama.
Your child is born with an innate ability to eat. It’s hard-wired into their DNA, and when presented with regular opportunities to eat in a low-pressure environment, they are going to eat exactly what their bodies need to grow at a pace that is right for them.
The good news is this takes the pressure off of your shoulders.
That means you don’t need to force your child to eat so many bites of their veggies or finish a certain amount of the food that you serve them.
All you need to focus on is getting them regular meals and snacks that include a variety of foods and leave the rest up to them!
Ultimately, they will learn to eat different foods IF they are not forced, pressured, prompted or prodded.
Let them choose what and how much they eat, and this will help bring more joy back to the mealtime experience - for you and your kids.
When in doubt, just remember:
Parents provide, the child decides.
Disclaimer: For some kids that are struggling with severe feeding issues, eating can be hard for everyone. If you are concerned that your child may have a feeding issue or difficulty eating, please reach out to a professional for help and support.