A mom asked me recently, “If my kids don’t like dinner, should I let them eat a bowl of cereal afterwards?”.
The answer is not a simple yes or no.
I subscribe to theory of Division of Responsibility in which parents serve their kids a meal or snack every few hours. The parents are responsible for deciding what food is going to be served, where it is going to be eaten, and when.
And, children get to decide how much they are going to eat from what has been served and whether they are going to eat anything at all.
Research shows that all children have the natural ability to eat the amount of food that they need to grow up healthy. And, as long as we do our jobs (what, when, where), children will easily fulfill theirs (how much and whether).
The beauty of this model for parents is that we no longer have to play food cop! Our job is essentially done once we sit down for the meal.
Part of our job in preparing the food, however, is to do so in a way that supports our children without catering to them. The way that works is by serving familiar foods with unfamiliar foods.
For example, if the main dish is going to be a favorite, like quesadillas with salsa and guacamole, then you might serve a new or less favored side dish, like roasted vegetables. That way, your children will feel calm and supported knowing that they will have something on the table that they can eat. And, it also shows them that mom and dad believe that they can learn to like new foods. Doing so tells them that when they are ready, they can try them, without any pressure.
Additionally, parents should be providing a meal or snack for their kids every few hours. For toddlers and preschoolers, that should be every 2-3 hours, and for school-age children, every 3-4 hours. Children’s jobs remain the same for both meals and snacks: they get to decide whether and how much.
What’s so supportive about this schedule is that parents and children no longer have to worry about how much the children are eating. They both can take comfort in the fact that if the child doesn’t eat enough in one sitting, there will be another opportunity just a few hours away.
So, if your kids have at least one or two familiar foods on the table and they still choose not to eat, chances are that they really are not hungry.
And, if bedtime is a couple hours after dinner, you’d simply be doing your job by providing them with that bowl of cereal before their little heads hit the pillow.