How to get kids to eat at the table?

Apr 1, 2010 by

You want to have harmonious family meals. You want your kids to willingly eat your home cooked dinners and have peaceful conversations around the table. Problem is, the kids will have none of it. They will only be quiet, sit still and eat in front of the TV or a video game, maybe. Or they just won’t come to the table at all and forage in the kitchen when they want to eat. Maybe they’ll come to the table but won’t eat. You push and they resist.

What I’ve done with my kids has worked like a charm. My 17- and 19-year-olds have eaten dinner with us at the table every day of their lives, if they were at home. We eat home cooked meals every day and my goal has been to introduce them to as many different healthy foods as possible. They have always eaten whatever I’ve served, from exotic (beef tongue, seaweed) to plain (turnips, beets). They ate every kind of raw and cooked vegetables, fruit, fish—you name it—starting as toddlers.

The one time I remember them saying they didn’t want to try something, within 30 seconds they were begging for it (see that story here: “The Good Eater”).  I haven’t ever served them octopus but I know they would try it. They are healthy and slim. They have never been afraid of new foods. There’s really nothing they won’t eat. They do actually try to avoid fast food and junk food, though.

Through observation over the years, I’ve pinpointed the main differences between my methods and those of moms who have problems getting their kids to eat well.

The rules I’ve followed, and that you can follow, too, are:
1. Build the habit of regular meals and snacks, without random snacking allowed. Otherwise kids are less motivated to come to the table and aren’t hungry for what you want them to eat.
2. Expectations of good behavior and staying at the table during the meal. Otherwise kids don’t value mealtime as an enjoyable and social time.
3. No pushing to eat anything whatsoever. I have never asked a child to eat anything or given them any incentives (rewards or punishments) to eat anything. Otherwise, kids don’t value the food we want them to value. They get resistant, lose their appetites and will refuse to eat just in order to have their own way. (“Foolish Freedom: Why some kids refuse to eat even to the point of harming themselves”).

Nonchalance is the best attitude to take about how much or what your child eats.

4. Make the tastiest and healthiest food I can, without making any lesser alternatives available. Without being ugly and confrontational about it, don’t make available whatever it is you don’t want them to eat. Otherwise, kids are likely to eat what you don’t want them to eat instead of eating what you do want them to eat. Hunger makes any food look good. You lose the leverage of their appetites if you fear their hunger.

Answers to reader’s question following this post: “How to get kids to eat at the table, Part II: Lindsey’s question”

How to get kids to eat at the table, Part III

Related post: “Getting kids to the dinner table: what is the parents’ job?”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 1 April 2010 / All rights reserved