The right strategy to get kids to eat: Put gas in that car

Jan 28, 2010 by

“Is this wrong?” my new friend Ginger asked me today.

Last night, she said, her kids had refused to eat dinner. She knew it wasn’t that they didn’t like it. Rather, they just wanted to have power over her. So, at breakfast this morning, she made them eat the food they didn’t eat last night.

Right or wrong, Ginger’s strategy is about as useful as any when parent and child are locked in a battle of wills about eating. It’s not so much a question of whether the strategy itself is sound. What’s wrong is that such strategies are used at all and that a power struggle has formed around food.

Getting in the game of making kids eat is like running out of gas and deciding you want to save money by never buying gas again. So you ask whether it’s better to push your car or pull it down the road from then on. Pushing’s probably a bit more effective of the two options, but both ways are highly ineffective. That’s working against the natural order of things. It’s like carrying a boulder down a hill when gravity could take it down for you.

So, Ginger, it’s not that this particular battle strategy needs to be improved; it’s that you need to end this war. It’s going nowhere.

The more kids are pressed to eat or not to eat, the more food resistant they’ll tend to be. New strategies will continually have to be found on both sides to show who’s boss, with no end in sight until someone surrenders.

Like Ginger’s kids, they may refuse to eat even when they want to. (see “Foolish freedom”)

You might even find yourself dealing with food disorders or obesity.

The real problem is that, like attempting to move your car when it’s designed to move on its own, you’ve taken on something that’s not your responsibility. It’s hard. It doesn’t work very well. It’s just not necessary. It’s like nagging your husband when you want him to be more romantic: it’s not only extra work—it’s also counterproductive.

There are plenty of things we parents have to make children do, for their own good and for the good of everybody around them.

Eating is not one of those things. Eating is a self-propelled, self-regulating natural urge. Kids have to eat and they naturally want to eat, so you’ve got them where you want them. That’s what a parent needs to know, without talking about it.

A child’s appetite is a supremely well functioning system if it’s not messed with. The growing appetite is your main tool in getting a child to eat whatever it is you want her to eat. Any other methods—rewards, punishments, bargaining, begging, forcing—risks causing the appetite to malfunction and the power struggle to kick in.

When a kid’s appetite is small is the time a lot of parents start getting pushy, and it’s an uphill battle from there. Urging is the most counter-productive thing a parent can do with feeding. It’s a wide-open invitation for children to assert themselves against the superfluous control.

I’ve had my share of battles with my kids, but it has never been about food. If they don’t want to eat, let them get hungry, without being unpleasant about it, and believe me, unless you tell them what you’re up to and turn it into a power struggle again, they will eat whatever there is to eat.

The parent giving up the food fight is the best strategy for everybody to win.

Other posts about effective strategies to get kids to eat:

“How to use ‘negative reverse selling’ at the dinner table”

“Just work around it: how to neutralize a child’s food resistance”:

“Taking a detour: one good way to neutralize a kid’s food resistance”

“Masterly Inactivity: using sphinx-like repose to end the food fight”

“The best way to the stomach is through the heart”

The false dilemma of controlling what kids eat”

“How to get kids to the dinner table: Get an attitude”

“Why children should learn to tune in to their own bodies”

“Hunger: To Fear or Not to Fear” (Leveraging the appetite)

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 28 January 2010 / All rights reserved

2 comments
Jen
Jen

I have a question. My 2 year old eats really well most days, and we only have real food in the house. There are times though, when I'm moments away from having a meal ready, and he has the refrigerator open pointing at the yogurt or applesauce. I often tell him that after he eats the soup, spaghetti, red beans and rice, or whatever it is we're having, then he can have the yogurt. I'll say, "First we're going to eat the soup, then we can have some yogurt". Is this wrong? Is this like offering a reward? He usually complies without much of a fuss, though occasionally he throws a bit of a tantrum. I think the problem is he's hungry, but the food isn't on the table yet. If it's going to be a while before dinner is ready, I'll let him have the yogurt or applesauce to tide him over. Thought? Thanks!

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