The Battle of Wills at Meal Time

“When I was a kid, if I didn’t eat everything on my plate I just went hungry! Heck, I might not have even been given another meal!”

If that is what you catch yourself saying to your children at the dinner table, chances are you have entered the phase of life where you will be constantly fighting the battle of the wills, at mealtime and otherwise! One side of your parenting ego struggles with the fact that you worry your child isn’t eating enough. The other side, struggles with the anger and frustration that blooms from raising such strong willed brats, who don’t seem to do what their told. (Really, isn’t that what children are supposed to do? And what entitles them to all these opinions)

The bottom line is that you want to be able to fix a nice meal, sit down together like the Brady Bunch and not be forced to lose your appetite by watching your child pick through the brussel sprouts and fling the spaghetti sauce from their fork. Then of course, when you try to make your three-year-old pick it up off the floor (to teach them responsibility) not only does your spouse chime in or gives you the look, but mealtime has just turned into an emotional fiasco. The alternative, of making them cookies for dinner is not an option. Hmm. What is a parent to do?

The first thing is to look at this ‘issue’ from a developmental standpoint. The terrible twos bring with them a great deal of opinions from your toddler. Before then, they were pretty easy to please, and even easier to distract should they not like a situation. Now, they are learning that they have some control over their lives. They can decide for themselves whether they like brushing their teeth, eating broccoli or even going to sleep at a certain time. Developmentally speaking, this is an absolutely and necessary time in their life. They are pushing the boundaries back a bit, in their own favor. Unfortunately, when it comes to things that involved their health they don’t have the knowledge to know what is best. You do. The trick developmentally, is to find some balance that gives your child control, and keeps you in control. The solution is easier than you think.

Toddlers respond very well, even during the battle of the wills at mealtime, to choices. In other words, rather than sticking to the belief that children should do what they are told, allow them to do what you want them to do on their own recognizance. For instance, if you are having baked chicken, broccoli and mashed potatoes for dinner give them some choices. If they are about to stick the broccoli to the bottom of the table, tell them very clearly that they can have their dessert, if they choose to eat one bite of broccoli. Additionally, serve several items and instead of making them eat ALL of them, allow them to choose the foods they want on their plate. If all the choices are good ones, then mom and dad win no matter what. And your child will feel like they elicited some control over what they got to eat.

The same goes for behavior at the table. While in today’s fluff style of parenting, it isn’t considered acceptable to send a child away from the table hungry allow them to make the choice for themselves. If they cannot behave, or don’t want to do what they are told remove the food, cover it and dismiss them. This isn’t giving in necessarily, but saving you and your child from fighting over something that isn’t quite as important as you think. Here’s why!

Around 2 3 years of age, children do not require huge amounts of food. Actually, most kids at this age are able to meet their nutritional needs by grazing on healthy snacks every day. And, their tummies are still so small, that eating ‘3 hots a day,’ may not work for their system. Another thing to realize is that forcing a child to eat when they aren’t hungry, or to clean their plate defies the laws of human physiology. Each of us is born in knowing when we are hungry and when we are not. Sadly, one of the epidemics of childhood obesity is a result of parents forcing food, which disables this natural hunger instinct. Then, kids begin eating more, eating when they aren’t hungry, and eating for emotional reasons.

Believe it or not, children will also be more likely to eat foods they need for development than foods they don’t need. Just as a dog knows when they should be nibbling on a blade of grass, kids know what they need. This explains the whole dynamic of kids eating the same foods over and over again. Even though you want their palette to be expanded, it is often necessary to allow your child to choose their foods. (There’s that ‘choose’ word again). The trick here is to make sure that you have a refrigerator and pantry filled with foods that are healthy. This way, you know they aren’t filling up on snack foods that offer no nutritional value, and that they can find the nutrients their growing bodies need in the foods you have on hand. If they want a snack and it’s an hour or two before dinner, give them two or three choices of what they can have, instead of just saying no.

As for expanding your child’s menu to include something other than macaroni and cheese, be patient. Truth is there are lots of adults in this world who don’t care to eat multiple types of foods. Instead, prepare the food you and your spouse like, and offer for your toddler to try it. When you offer foods, but don’t force them you might be surprised how much more willing they are to take a bite. They may or may not like it, but it will at least become familiar to them.

It is also important to understand that it is often the parents who create the wartime dinner environment. If you force the food, you create a pretty negative environment that centers on the dinner table. The same is true if you force your child to eat when they aren’t hungry. After a few good dinner table tantrums and fights, your children (and you) begin expecting the worst at mealtime. You and your child probably start getting anxious before its even time to eat. Realize that toddlers are very narcissistic beings, and they have no desire to participate in things that feel uncomfortable for them. If dinnertime is always a struggle, chances are they won’t want to participate. This brings us to the next little solution to ending the battle of the wills at mealtime.

Young children are not good table partners. Sure, you want to have a sit down dinner for the whole family. Yet if you are spending the entire time arguing with your children, and they are constantly wiggling and whining dinner pretty much stinks! All around. Far too many parents expect young kids to remain at the table, exert massive amounts of manners, and participate in the whole fairy tale of dinnertime for far too long periods of time. Until a child is around 7, you have about ten minutes of pure attentiveness in situations where your child is not interested. The best solution is to get your child involved. Let them set the table and be part of the dinner routine. Also, don’t expect them to sit down until everything is absolutely ready to eat. This means that not only is their plate fixed, but yours is too. And, look if your toddlers eat a little better with Dora the Explorer on, then so be it. Despite the fact that it goes against every grain of your parenting quilt to eat with the TV on, give in just a little. Not only will dinnertime be peaceful, but also your child might actually eat.

Mealtime doesn’t have to be a big deal. Most often, it is the parents who become frustrated when their children no longer fit into neat and tidy little routines. As long as your child is healthy, they are growing properly, and you have clear boundaries between what is negotiable in life and what is not you shouldn’t make a huge issue over mealtime. Think of it this way. By giving your child choices, and not hovering over their every single move at the table you and your spouse might actually be able to finish and enjoy a meal.



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