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Stefanie Tsabar

10 Mistakes Well-Meaning Parents Make at Dinner


picky_eater_big2I have a question for you… When you were a child, did you ever feel anxious at dinner?

I usually liked the food we ate growing up and no one explicitly forced me to eat anything.

However, I was not a big eater, and my family always seemed shocked when I was done eating. I felt so awkward being the odd-man-out, so instead of saying I was done, I pretended that I was “just resting”. Then, I’d force myself to eat more.

As a new mom, I wanted to empower my son with eating, and for years, I thought I was doing a great job. However, many of the strategies I’d been using started to backfire when he was in preschool.

He resisted eating vegetables, begged for me to make his favorite meals, and refused to try new foods.  

As you know, feeding our kids can be so emotional! It took me years of research and trial and error to correct my approach.

I am so grateful that I’ve learned how to truly empower him with eating by trusting himself to make great choices rather than blindly following my eating rules.

I don’t want you to have to spend all that time and energy figuring it out, too. So, today, I’m giving you a shortcut. Here are the 10 most common mistakes (and their solutions) well-meaning parents make at dinner.

1. Insisting on taking “x” bites

Whether it’s two-bites or a no-thank-you bite, kids feel violated by having to put food into their mouths that they don’t want to eat. However much we believe that they might like it, kids will always feel forced by this approach and can develop lifelong aversions to the very foods we insisted that they try.

Instead, serve new and comforting foods at every meal and allow your kids to eat until they are full. Without pressure, they will naturally be curious to try new foods.

2. Making kids clean their plates before getting dessert.

This approach positions dessert at the prize and the main meal as drudgery. It also teaches kids to ignore their feelings of hunger and fullness in order to win the prize.

Instead, neutralize sweets by serving a small dessert WITH the meal and allow your child to eat it whenever they’d like.

3. Reminding kids to eat.

This strategy teaches kids that being hungry is scary rather than a natural alert mechanism to eat. Kids need to learn that it’s okay to feel hungry for a little while, and when we provide a daily structure for meals and snacks, they will learn how to self-regulate their eating rather quickly.

4. Hiding vegetables.

The inherent belief behind this tactic is that kids cannot learn how to like vegetables. While, it’s true that many preschoolers are averse to bitter vegetables, this phase doesn’t naturally last too long.

Offering kids a variety of vegetables without pressure along with other more comforting foods will tap into their natural desire to taste new foods more readily. Plus, they will not lose their trust in you.

5. Encouraging kids to smell or lick new foods.

So many of us try to get our kids to taste new foods by making eating into a game. We think that we are eliminating pressure by having them simply smell or lick new foods.

However, even though our intentions are in the right place, kids can feel manipulated. Instead, allow them to pick and choose what they want to eat from a variety of foods, including those that are familiar and comforting.

6. Making alternative meals.

When we cater to our kids, no one wins. We implicitly teach them that they cannot learn to like new foods. Then, they lose faith in themselves as great eaters, and become “picky”.

The most effective, proven way of teaching our kids to eat new foods is twofold: 1) serve new foods alongside comforting foods and 2) remove any pressure to try them.

When there is no longer a power struggle, kids will be more connected to their natural desire to try new things, including food.

7. Withholding certain foods.

Even bread and pasta lose their thrill when kids are given opportunities from time to time to eat as much as they’d like to have. Their natural desire for variety kicks in when they are no longer feeling defensive and anxious about wanting to eat their favorite, comforting foods.

8. Praising kids when they try new foods.

It’s natural to want to cheer on our kids for doing a great job. With eating, however, we need to be careful not to connect our acceptance of our kids with what they eat. They will worry that we don’t accept or approve of them when they don’t want to eat something new.

Instead, save the praise for behaviors such as sitting still or using good manners and allow their eating to be neutral.

9. Serving vegetables first.

Kids want to please their parents, so if they are not eating vegetables, then there is a reason.

Often, toddlers and preschoolers use food to show their independence, which is a natural and healthy developmental phase. Other kids can taste the bitter compound in green vegetables during the ages of 2 – 6.

Instead, learn how to undo negative associations with vegetables and teach kids how to like veggies without any pressure.

10. Restricting certain types of foods or portion-controlling.

Any form of restriction will eventually backfire. Kids will find opportunities to eat the foods they crave, and they will eat more than they would have if they hadn’t been restricted.

Allowing our kids to overeat and find their own limits is more empowering and nurturing than distrusting them to find their way.

It’s not easy to relinquish control because we worry about our kids weight, their health, and most of us were taught that controlling what our kids eat makes us good parents!

However, our biggest mistake is trying to prevent our kids from making their own mistakes, and that includes with eating.

The only way they will learn how to make healthy choices and eat in moderation is through trial and error, and our job is to support their journey, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

[Was this article helpful? If so, please share it with all your friends and family so they can get the help they need, too!]

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