Trying to get a child to eat can be one of the most infuriating, aggravating, exasperating, frustrating and down right exhausting parts of parenting that nothing and no one can prepare you for ahead of time.
In general, parents prepare roughly 3 meals a day for their child(ren) and that doesn’t include all the prepped and passed out snacks too. Luckily, I happen to be a parent who enjoys cooking. I also appreciate and understand the importance of children eating healthy food to ensure they have the chance to develop to their optimal cognitive and physical aptitude.
Being able to be your best begins with what goes into the body, period. Child(ren) need to be taught good eating habits from the get-go.
Diet is a huge factor that directly and significantly impacts children and their mental health. Nevertheless, today I’m going to tell you why I chose to send my young children to bed without supper. Here’s the backstory.
Even though I love cooking, somedays the mere thought of getting into the kitchen wears me out. Not to mention having to come up with countless different ways to prepare tasty, healthy food from the short list of items my kids will eat.
Like most children, my kids prefer certain foods over others. Such as fruit over veggies, pasta over potatoes and chocolate over chips. Trying to broaden a child’s “go to” food(s) isn’t easy. That being said, it is paramount that parents continually offer new options to their child(ren).
It is in the process of offering these new foods when irritation and frustration usually enters the picture, in my home anyway. I spend time and money coming up with combos I feel my children will eat.
My spouse works until 7:30PM most nights and the children’s bedtime is 7PM so I usually end up making 2 separate diners. (On the weekends we have a “family meal” both Saturday and Sunday. This makes it easier for me because I make one meal we all share and I am able to offer more varied and interesting foods knowing my spouse will eat the meal even if the kids don’t.)
During the week breakfast is usually pretty easy and my spouse is home to help encourage the kids to eat so I am happy to prepare eggs and bacon every morning. (When she is gone I sometimes will give them cereal because they moan and groan a bit about having to eat eggs). A boiled egg with canadian bacon or smoked salmon, toast with honey followed by fresh fruit (sometimes yogurt) is an amazing way for the kids to start their bodies’ engines and get ready for the day. They moan a bit but comply with this meal 80% of the time.
To lessen the mental burden of needing to come up with multiple meals a day, for lunch I’ve chosen to offer my children their “preferred” meal, which is pasta (egg, rice, wheat noodle, etc). I mix up the different pasta shapes and sauces day-by-day often rotating them (butter and parm, marinara sauce, pesto, Asian teriyaki sauce, olive oil and garlic, etc., you get my drift).
I try to sneak a veggie or two into the mix whenever possible. (That means when I have enough energy to deal with the moans, groans, eye-rolls and lip I’m gonna get from adding 11 ½ peas to their dish. Most of the time I don’t wanna deal, so I don’t.)
This brings us to dinner. The final meal of the day. The meal where I struggle the most to decide what to prepare for my picky eaters. (My 4 year olddaughter will try most anything but refuses to eat more than a taste if she doesn't like it. My 5 year old son refuses to taste anything but if we can manage to get him to try a little and even if he doesn’t love it, he will eat a few more bites. Kids, they are all different.)
Dinner is the meal where I try to offer new flavors mixed with some familiar old standards (i.e. greek yogurt, sweet cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, cheese.) Because I’m adding extra time and effort to this meal I am more easily irritated hearing the kids say “Yuck, what is this?” and “Oooooo, no way I’m trying that!” when I present them with their plates.
When I was a little girl, in my house if I didn’t like the food that was presented to me my mother would make me sit at the table for hours on end. Sometimes my older sister would sneak into the kitchen and take bites of my dinner just so I wouldn’t have to sit all night and we could play.
This technique didn’t work to get me to broaden my picky palate. It merely made me angry and resentful. If I didn’t finish my plate within whatever time frame my mom deemed appropriate (time ranged from 30 minutes-3 hours) she took the plate away and sent me to bed hungry and mad. I swore to myself that if I ever had kids I would never send them to bed hungry.
Then a few nights ago I did that exact thing. I sent my kids to bed without supper. That decision was not easy for me to make and many times during the evening I kept questioning my choice. I even interrupted my spouse with a phone call while she was at an evening work event. Let me tell you how it all went down.
For the kids’ Friday night dinner I had prepared them yummy red beans and rice. I had never prepared this for my kids before, but I’ve had many people ask me for this recipe whenever I’ve brought it to share.
Thinking I was clever (and thought it would be fun for the kids) I decided to place tortilla chips throughout the beans and rice so that they looked like mountains sticking out. The kids were supposed to use the chips as “edible spoons.”
When I placed their bowls down my 5 year old son immediately and dramatically threw his head back howling “Ooooooo noooooooo, this is soooo grosss!” distorting his face is all sorts of ways. His sister screwed up her nose, made gagging noises at the bowl, and with much prodding reluctantly tried 3 small bites and refused to eat more.
The rage inside me started to rise up from the tips of my toes to my chest and right before I verbally exploded at my children in a reactive manner, a moment of calm and peace washed over me. To be honest, I think I was at a “comfortably numb” place after having expended so much energy during the week coming up with creative and tasty meals for the kids only to hear moans and complaints.
Walking away from the table I went out back for a few moments to collect myself and my thoughts. I prefer to be proactive rather than reactive in these types of situations because as a parent if you draw a line in the sand you’d better be ready to reinforce it.
I calmly and thoughtfully came to the decision to send the children to bed without dinner for the following reasons:
The kids never miss meals/snacks and had eaten well at breakfast and lunch that day.
Both are physically healthy and do not have any health issues that would be negatively impacted by them missing a meal.
I want my children to appreciate the food they eat, where it comes from (respect for land and animals), respect for time put into preparing food and the money it costs to buy. Teaching them these concepts doesn’t happen by saying “kids are starving all around the world and would love to eat what’s on your plate! Food costs money and I’m sick of wasting it!” Science has proven this approach doesn’t work because a child doesn’t have the cognitive capacity yet to comprehend that abstract concept. What a child can appreciate at the age of 4 and 5 is the feeling of hunger. Throughout the evening I highlighted for the kids that many children around their neighborhood and the world experience feeling hungry every night. My children are old enough to appreciate and understand that. Sending a child to bed without a meal should be a “one off.”
My children and I needed a “factory reset” when it came to dinner time. We had fallen into a negative pattern of behavior. I seriously could feel my body tense up with anxiety as dinner time approached and my children started to ask “What’s for dinner?” because I knew inevitably they would complain which in turn would seriously irritate me. We all needed a “night off” from the norm. Sending them to bed without supper was definitely that for everyone. I felt like shit most of the night even though I was comfortable with my decision.
After I came to my conclusion I walked back into the kitchen from outside, took their bowls away and calmly told them they would not be getting dinner.
They of course said “fine” and that they weren’t hungry anyway. I explained to them that refusing dinner is not only a waste of food but that it hurt their bodies when they don’t eat and my feelings when they say the food I present to them is “gross.”
The last few hours of the day I spent extra time with them as I knew they would not be at their “best.” When appropriate, I helped them identify their hunger and how it negatively impacted their moods (short tempered, irritable). I also reiterated (in a loving and kind manner not a derogatory or demeaning way) how moving forward I hoped they would have a more open mind to the food I presented at mealtime.
Do you know what happened the next day? They woke in fine and happy moods. They heartily ate their bacon and eggs without complaint. Were cheerful and chipper eating pasta for lunch. And at dinner time, when I gave them steamed broccoli and carrots with homemade pork schnitzel (they have never had the pork prepared that way) they sat down and said “Thank you” and ate each and every bite.
*****Cue the exploding confetti and release the balloons! PARENT WIN!*****
Holy moly it worked!! I have no clue how long it will last (we’re coming up to week 2) and they still sometimes make a small fuss or face but quickly get themselves in check.
I can’t promise if you do this with your children the next day they will show more respect to your time and effort. What I can tell you is that sometimes parents have to do things that feel counterintuitive at the time yet it’s the right thing to do.
In this day and age many parents are afraid to set a boundary/discipline their child(ren) for fear of being accused of abuse/neglect. I completely respect that and understand where it comes from. Once upon a time children were viewed as property without feelings/needs/etc and were treated very poorly. Even with the knowledge we have today children are still being abused and seen as “less than” but we now have laws in place to try and protect kids.
It took me 4 days to convince myself I needed to write this article. Why? Because I am human and fear judgment and ridicule. Someone out there may not approve of my decision to send a child to bed without dinner and might see it as a form of child abuse.
Nevertheless, I choose to push my fears aside and write the damn article anyway because I know there are thousands of parents out there struggling to get their child to eat a little bit healthier. It’s my hope that my story gives you courage to set firmer limits around food with your child.
Obviously common sense needs to factor into a decision like this if you chose this route. Also, when/if you decide to do this with your child(ren) make sure the choice is made during a time when you are calm and collected and ready to cope with any backlash that comes your way in a loving manner. We all know what it’s like to feel hungry and irritable.
If you’re not usually calm, just approaching the situation differently will throw your kids off their game a bit. :) I’m not an angry/shouting type parent but I do speak loudly and passionately and there is a lot of energy in the house on a regular basis. So when I come at my kids calm and zen-like they know something’s up.
Good luck with whatever meal you’re planning next. Present your child(ren) with healthy and tasty food choices they like but also push them a bit to try new foods. Ask your kid(s) to get involved in making the meal (they will be more invested in trying it) and/or ask them to set the table. Being an active participant in the family improves feelings of connection which inturn opens us up to feeling brave enough to try new things.
Sending the kids to bed without dinner will not become a family tradition. Many children all around the world go to bed each night hungry because they simply don’t have access to food. It is my hope that this “one off” incident with my kids is enough to help them recognize the importance of eating and help them develop empathy for others who don’t have enough to eat.
One cannot think well, love well and sleep well if one has not dined well. Virginia Wolf