How to force children to eat dinner

Dec 20, 2010 by

Children should be forced to eat their dinner. Or at least forced to want to eat their dinner, and allowed to eat it.

Many cards and letters have come in asking whether or not children should be forced to eat their dinner.

The short answer is that of course children should be forced to eat their dinner.

The long answer is that they should be forced indirectly, not directly. We need to gently and in all cheerfulness block off all other means of eating and therefore, of survival, so that a child is forced to eat dinner in order to survive. It sounds more brutal than it need be.

The examples of two different little girls will illustrate:

When little Meredith, who is human and growing and therefore tends to find herself hungry every day, wants to eat, she eats. She finds food in the fridge, in the pantry, on the counter. She eats what she wants, when she wants. No one ever tells her not to eat. Goodness knows she needs to eat more, so telling her to stop is out. Her mommy provides the foods Meredith favors and requests, because otherwise she might not eat at all. When it comes time to eat dinner, Meredith isn’t hungry for Mommy’s broccoli and lettuce. So Mommy tries to force her, and makes her eat a few bites before she can get dessert. Meredith objects and even screams, but then eats a few bites so she can have the chocolate cake. When the dessert comes out, Meredith fills up on that. Before bed, she’s a little hungry, so she eats some more cake. Meredith starts over the next day, holding out when necessary to get her own way in various ways, and managing nicely. She survives and doesn’t suffer visibly. Visitors to her house feel awkward and are secretly happy when Meredith leaves the table and goes to watch TV. This is not the scenario of forcing a child to eat that I recommend.

Little Corinna, on the other hand, isn’t allowed to nibble and snack. She gets hungry every day, too, but isn’t allowed to eat anything at all unless she is sitting at the table when her Mommy says it’s time, and behaving.  Mommy holds out to get her own way. When Corinna gets to the table, she is forced to eat dinner, because she wasn’t allowed to eat anything else since snack time.  What choice does she have? She is hungry and finally she’s allowed to eat something. So, she goes along with the forcing with surprising good will.

The forcing is indirect: all other routes to meeting her needs and satisfying her hunger are cut off. She’s denied junk food, she’s denied random snacking. She’s denied food if she throws a fit or throws food or hits her brother at the table. She’s denied food if she complains and fusses at the table or picks at her dinner. She’s denied food left and right. The only food she’s not denied is the food her mommy wants her to eat and when and where and and how her mommy wants her to eat it. No one ever makes Corinna eat anything, and her mommy is sweet and gentle all along. And yet, Corinna is forced to eat her meals, because she has no choice if she wants to survive. The window of opportunity to eat is tiny. It’s narrow and restrictive. So she is forced to eat her dinner, and her lunch and her afternoon snack and her breakfast. It’s the only way she can get anything to eat at all. She doesn’t seem to mind, though. She wants to eat her dinner, every single day, unless she is sick or gets into an untimely snack somehow, because she would starve otherwise. She blandly goes along with her mommy, who never actually threatens to starve her. Corinna is generally cheerful at dinner, no matter what Mommy serves her. She likes all kinds of healthy foods. She’s pretty happy and her mommy is, too. People who find themselves at the table with her find her pleasant. They enjoy her company.

So yes, children should definitely be forced to eat their dinner. How they’re forced, however, is like the difference between trying to shove an alarmed cow into a trailer while leaving all the other gates open, or quietly closing off all escape routes and putting the cow’s dinner, at feeding time, in the trailer, and gently letting them figure it out.


Related posts:

11 Ways to Raise a Picky Eater

Picky Kids and the Codependent Mom: Three Tips to Break the Cycle