Six ways to insure kids eat dinner whether there's dessert or not

Aug 22, 2010 by

Are you using dessert to get your kids to eat meals?

KIDS WILL EAT DINNER if dessert depends on it. But at what cost? –– photo by Anna Migeon

It’s not normal for a child not to want to eat dinner.  If they don’t, something’s gone wrong.  They can and should be hungry for real food at dinner time. If they’re not, maybe they’re not feeling well.

More likely, either they aren’t hungry because they’ve had untimely access to food or they are ignoring their hunger and refusing to eat because of some other reason. Maybe they want to jerk their parents around, or maybe they’ve dug in their heels about the dinner that’s served because you’ve forced them to eat it in the past. Maybe they’ve been pushed to eat so they tend to resist out of principle. Or maybe they just know they can get attention and emotional fluttering from their parents by refusing to eat.

So you try to make them eat by using dessert to motivate them to eat their dinner. Or maybe you’d just like to have dessert sometimes. But when you do have it, your kids resist eating dinner and just want to eat dessert. Maybe you require them to eat a certain amount of dinner before they can have their dessert.

You wish you could just have a nice dinner and have a nice dessert, without either a battle or feeling like you’re giving in.

It is possible! There are better ways to get kids to peacefully and willingly eat their dinner, day in and day out.

The main principle is: Never, ever make them eat. Instead, don’t let them eat.

Six strategies to break out of the dessert dilemma

  1. Let them eat only dessert, but a limited amount: one serving, not nearly enough to fill up on. Then when they are still hungry later, do not allow them to eat anything else. Be consistent on that policy. The rule is: you never have to eat anything you don’t want, but you cannot eat whatever you want. Dessert is always limited, and eating is restricted to certain times. Hunger will teach them. They don’t suffer for their bad choice and learn better if you save them from those consequences. Let hunger alone cure the problem. Limited desserts is not a bad idea anyway. Not that we never eat seconds of dessert, but we have the opportunity with a small child to set up the habit of restraint with stuff that’s bad for you and of realizing we don’t pig out on dessert and consider ourselves nourished. Babies are born with no self-restraint or understanding of why they should restrain themselves, so we have to keep them away from harm when they’re little.
  2. Serve dinner, take your time and enjoy your own dinner. Let dinner drag on for awhile. Without anybody pressing them to eat dinner, hungry children will feel free to eat dinner because they want to. They should be too hungry to wait for dessert.
  3. Don’t dignify with your attention any fussiness or refusal to eat. Pretend you don’t notice or care. Ignore any fussiness or attempts to engage you in a food power struggle about dessert (or anything else). Otherwise, they lose face if they do eat. Once the battle starts, it’s almost impossible for them to just eat because they want to.
  4. Never require bites of anything, ever. That only serves to get something down an unwilling child’s throat, which I’m never in favor of. While it seems to work, short-term, it’s just asking for long-term trouble. Kids never need to be made to eat. It’s never the answer. It develops food resistance. At the same time, it sets up meals and real food as the thing they don’t want and that you want them to eat. It sets up a situation ripe for food struggles, and once that starts, it’s all downhill. Instead, tell them they do not have to eat anything at all, ever again.
  5. Don’t let them know there is dessert ahead of time. Doesn’t really take care of the root of the problem, but it can be one way to improve the situation temporarily.
  6. Arrange for them to be very hungry. Having set meal- and snack times, with no random snacking, is the best way to insure a good appetite for what’s served. If it’s too difficult at this point to restrict them from snacking at will (a bad habit that lets kids survive while refusing healthy meals), keep them busy and active from lunch or snack time until dinner. Make sure they don’t eat anything. Don’t tell them what you’re doing. Be nonchalant. This one may not be practical very often either, but can help move things in the right direction as you improve family meal habits.

For more specific suggestions for breaking out of the dessert bribe trap, see my Aug. 17 comments on Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain

Coming soon:

How to Deal with Food Tantrums

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Dessert

Related posts:

Leveraging dessert to get kids to eat dinner every night

Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain

Eating power struggles with kids: Why they’re useless and how to end them



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