How to Take the Struggle Out of Mealtime

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I struggle with getting my 8-year-old to eat dinner. I have taken tons of advice and done what doctors and other experts have suggested: not allowing him to eat anything beside what I prepare, allowing him  to eat whatever he wants, taking away TV, allowing him to eat whenever he wants, having him sit at dinner and snack later, bribing him to eat with candy. Nothing works. He sometimes refuses to eat at mealtime, then he says he’s hungry later, so I feed him. What now? -Gemma, New York, New York


Isn’t it frustrating to have people who are supposed to be experts giving you two “expert opinions” that tell you to take two diametrically opposite pieces of advice? Does it make you feel like perhaps the “experts” may not be experts at all? Maybe that they are just taking wild guesses?

Here’s the truth: from your description, 100% of everything you have tried either encouraged the exact behaviors you are trying to avoid or was not done well enough or for long enough to change these behaviors. I’m going to give you a way of getting the behavior you need to get from your kid that is easy enough to do so that you can actually do it. Here’s how I would train your kid while sitting down to dinner:

Kid Whisperer: I owe you a HUGE apology. I think that, over the years, I have been really confusing about our meals. I have been acting really weird about food. I’ve tried to force you to eat it. I’ve tried to bribe you with candy to try to get you to eat it. I’ve yelled at you. I’ve gotten angry and frustrated. That must have been awful for you, and I am so very, very sorry. Do you accept my apology?

Kid: Uh, I guess. What is going on?

Kid Whisperer: I feel better. Thank you so much for being forgiving. From now on, I promise to be calm about meals. Here’s how meals will go from now until you are 18, when you leave the house forever: I will be preparing one meal for everyone. You will have the choice to either eat that meal, or choose from one alternative meal that you can make yourself, or you can choose to not eat at all. I will put your main meal at your place at the table and I will place the ingredients for your alternative meal on the counter. I will love you no matter what you choose, and I won’t get upset.

Kid: I will do none of those things, and I will snack whenever I want.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, dear. You may notice the locks on the cabinet and on the fridge. They are there to remind both of us that there will be no snacking between meals. You will have three opportunities to eat each day.

Kid: You are a tyrant, and I shall not accept such tyranny!

Kid Whisperer: Okey-dokey. Today I will be serving meatloaf for dinner with sides of asparagus and french fries. Your alternative meal option will be peppers and hummus and bread. If you choose your alternative meal, feel free to prepare and eat those items any way you would like.

Kid: My doctor feels that I should be able to consume food whenever my little heart desires nourishment!

Kid Whisperer: I hear ya. I will be serving dinner in ten minutes. The ingredients for your alternative meal are on the counter. If you would prefer that meal and would like to eat with the family, you may want to start making your meal now.

Of course, initiate conversations about favorite dishes and foods that your whole family can enjoy, BUT only do this when everything is going well! Make sure the alternative meal is healthy. If Kid keeps picking the alternative meal, change it so that he has a chance to get other nutrients into his body.

You will soon be able to start enjoying meals with your family, perhaps for the first time.