How Do I Get My Kid To Eat Dinner Without Complaining?

How Do I Get My Kid To Eat Dinner Without Complaining? July 22, 2019

It’s dinner time. You’ve sweated in the summer heat over a pot of mashed potatoes just because it’s the only thing your kid seems to want to eat this week. You’re in the middle of a heatwave, the air-conditioner’s on the fritz, and you’re boiling potatoes and mashing them in a steam bath anyway because you’ve just got to get this kid to eat. Something. Anything. It’s the fluffiest, butteriest batch of mashed potatoes you’ve ever made, so good it’d make Wolfgang Puck sob into his crisp, white chef’s jacket. You put one scoop of this semi-precious substance in a bowl and place it in front of your child. You hold your breath. This is going to be it. This is the one. This is the meal he’s going to eat, you think to yourself. I’m a good mom! I’m not starving my child!

You wait for him to pick up his spoon and start eating the one thing he’s been demanding for weeks; the dish no one in their right mind would be cooking in this weather with no A/C. He’s about to take a bite. All that sweat, all the effort and the dehydration standing over a hot fire are about to pay off.

Your kid slowly raises a spoonful of mash to his mouth, and you wait, holding your breath. It’s so close, now. He’s about to take a bite!

And that’s when it happens. The nose scrunches up. The head cocks to the side. His other hand points at his spoon. You can almost hear his eyes focus in on something microscopic and then he says it,

“Mommy, what’s that?”

Your heart sinks, but maybe there’s still hope.

“What’s what, honey? I don’t see anything.” and you don’t, it’s true.

“That little green thing.”

All you see is white. Creamy, fluffy white.

” I don’t see any green, hun.”

“MOM! THIS!” and in his fingers go to the perfectly-made spuds, little pincers and sure enough, out comes a nearly-non-existant fleck of green so small you’d need a microscope to identify it.

“It’s a piece of potato.” You said, exasperated. But you know, deep down, that this is it. The potatoes are for nought. Your kid isn’t going to eat a goddamned bite, and the hunger strike continues.

As parents, we’ve all been there. We’ve all struggled to get our kids to eat nutritional food regularly. We’ve pored over Google results for “easy, kid-friendly dinners”. We’ve tried the meal-kit delivery services and new restaurants when they appear in town boasting healthy, cheap and easy take-out (LOL). We’ve tried asking them what they want; we’ve attempted to have them help cook dinner; we’ve tried everything save for feeding them in their sleep, but sometimes, it just seems like nothing will ever work. It’s as though your kid is never going to eat again.

I got this email from a fellow sufferer last week,

I have tried everything I can think of to get my daughter to eat. She refuses just about everything I give her. The only thing she will eat without an epic struggle is french fries, and I’m so close to just letting her eat them for the rest of her life! The worst part is that she is nine years old! How do I get my kid to eat nutritional food without exhausting myself?

I feel this. I’m a food-obsessed mom who loves to try new, exotic foods and cook new recipes all the time. To have someone in my home who not only does not appreciate that but who actively turns their nose up at everything I make is heartbreaking. I also know that when my son overeats junk food and doesn’t get enough good stuff in him, he gets grumpy and loses focus at school. It’s super important to me to have him eating well, but sometimes that feels like the impossible.

That is, it did. Until I came to a significant, life-altering realization. Before I had this revelation, I struggled, friends. Every night, dinner was an ordeal. It got to the point that I was making two entirely different dinners every single night. I was doing just about anything to avoid the dinner table confrontation; the begging; the bribery; the pleading. I’d make a delicious, savoury stir-fry with care for my husband, daughter and I and then a bowl of rice, with a side of raw veggies for my son. If we were having a green, crispy salad for dinner, he’d have it deconstructed, without the dressing and the lettuce. If I tried to serve him anything that he suddenly decided he didn’t like, we were in for it. Pouting, whining, crying. It was as though I was torturing my own son.

One day, though, I’d just had enough. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t slave over two separate dinners only to have him turn his nose up at his. I couldn’t take the arguing or the whining or the crying. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I just goddamned stopped.

Fellow parents, I dared to just make one dinner.

My friends, I put that dinner in front of him.

What’s more, my lovely heathens, when he told me he didn’t like it and wasn’t going to eat it, I said okay.

I looked my kiddo, this tiny force of nature, square in the eyes and said, “k”.

He was thrown for a loop. The whining stopped while he pondered what I’d said. You could almost see the little cogs spinning in his mind before he finally asked, quietly,

“What can I have for dinner, then?”

I looked at my little man, let out an apathetic chuckle and said, “that’s hilarious.”

“Huh?” He looked at me, clearly confused.

“Hun, that’s for dinner.” I pointed to his plate. “That’s all that’s for dinner. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s your choice, but there is no other dinner, and nothing else until this dinner has been eaten. If you don’t eat it, I’m going to put it in a container in the fridge, and when you’re hungry, we’ll pop it in the microwave. If you don’t eat it tonight, it’s going to be your lunch tomorrow and then your dinner after that if you still won’t eat it. This is the only food in your foreseeable future, kiddo, so if I were you, I’d get over the fact that it includes green things, take a bite and eat until you’re satisfied.”

He looked at me in disbelief and tears spilled out of his cute, little eyes. He tried to plead. He tried to negotiate, but I stood my ground. He refused to eat dinner that night, and I packed it up and saved it for the next day. Sure, it was one more night of tantrums and incessant “I’m hungry”s, and he pushed it well into the next day, but finally, his hunger got the best of him. Finally, that little tummy said, “Kid, if you don’t eat something, your body’s going on strike.” and so he sat, defeated, at the kitchen table and ate his dinner from the night before through sobs and pouts and protests.

The next time this happened, though, it took less time for him to give in and eat the offensive meal. He ate it with less protest and fewer tears. By the third time we went through this routine, he just ate it after a minor objection, and he ate it at the same time we did. Now, he doesn’t object anymore, and the only time I ever make him a separate dinner is when mine is so spicy, I’m afraid it’d kill my offspring.

The life-changing realization I had come to is that he has the same instincts as the rest of us. He has the same subconscious drive to survive, and as such, his very biology will not allow him to starve himself. Eventually, his instinctual need for nourishment will take over his mind and body, and he will eat.

My revelation was that kids won’t starve themselves. Of course, there are exceptions in kids who are not neurotypical and kids with other mental health concerns, but if these things are irrelevant to your kiddo, she is not going to starve herself. Eventually, she’s going to eat. You’ll have to cope with the fights in the beginning, but it’s all in the name of lasting dinnertime peace and healthy eating habits.

You also want to be cognizant of when your kid has had enough to be satisfied. Urging your child to eat new foods is different from forcing them to eat an entire plateful of food when they may have legitimately had enough. It’s important to let your child determine when they’re done.

I’d love to know how you deal with this, parents. Let me know your pointers and tips in the comments!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • wannabe

    What if your kid is a type-I diabetic and has to eat regularly?

  • Jim Jones

    I still won’t eat Brussels sprouts – or lambs’ brains.

  • Anne Fenwick

    Myes. When our daughter was small we often let her get her own dinner. She could have anythjng we’d got, provided it included a vegetable, a protein and a carbohydrate. If it needed cooking and we weren’t cooking it already she could cook it herself (e.g. eggs). Or she could eat what I was making. She actually got her oan dinner pretty often but it was always healthy and no trouble to me. As a teenager, on the other hand, she is well in to eating whatever we cook.

  • Waski the Squirrel

    This is a great solution. Dinner turns into a power struggle in too many families. The easiest solution is not to have that power struggle and not to give in. They’ll figure it out eventually.

  • Raging Bee

    Good on ya. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that a lot of kids’ intransigence over food is caused or exacerbated by parents’ inability simply to disengage from the emotional conflict and simply, calmly, matter-of-factly make a decision and stick to it. The same seems to hold true for temper-tantrums: the best response is none at all — just let the kid scream and cry until he/she is exhausted, with no moves to appease them, then calmly get on with whatever needs to be done.

    I suspect a lot of these conflicts are about control; and when parents get angry or frustrated and add to a vicious spiral of escalating emotion, they’re ceding control to the kids — who of course aren’t in control either. Kids understand, at some level, that they need to be led; and when parents show a calm demeanor, that tells the kids they can trust their parents to lead them.

  • ElizaD

    In general I agree with this; but the dinner needs to include something for them. If you are doing quinoa over kale leaves, and your kid hates both of those- that isn’t really fair. But cooking two dinners isn’t fair either. When I was trying to get my stepkids to eat more veggies when they visited, I found things like chicken & veggie stir fry that worked for all of us. Of course sometimes they’ll just refuse everything. But if you follow the strategy in the article, just make sure you’re feeding them something they at least find halfway palatable.

  • ElizaD

    that falls into the exception category. She didn’t mention it, but yes, if there is something physical – like they have PKU syndrome and can’t eat protein – you need a different strategy.

  • Chakat Firepaw

    It sounds like she has discovered the wonderful spice of “somebody else cooked this.” Which is even better than “someone else is doing the dishes.”

  • Clancy

    We were there exactly, from the time our daughter was diagnosed at age six. Food could not used as either a punishment or a reward. We consulted her in meal planning, and if she wouldn’t eat a meal, we would just cook something different. Diabetes trumped every other consideration. But she was easy. For instance, she liked vegetables. He favorites were broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. She wouldn’t eat peas, carrots, or green beans.

  • wannabe

    Good to hear some real-world experience.

  • Clancy

    This experience was before pumps and fast-acting insulin. This year is her 25th with T1D. No complications yet.

  • a_b704

    We always got: ‘Shut up and eat your food. There are people starving in India that would love to eat that food.’ It must have worked, since I am a fat_bastard now!

  • wannabe

    But IIRC, at least one close call with low blood sugar.

  • Clancy

    Yeah. There have been others, but that was the worst. I was so relieved when she found Mr Rev Clancy, because living alone involves increased risk.

  • SecMilChap

    Sometimes it’s simply preparation that’s the problem. I despised liver until my secretary encouraged me to try it at a French restaurant. Surprise! It was great stuff. Don’t like lamb? Try it after a good Greek cook prepares it. I thought that I would never like veggies, but found that they were good when I cooked them less time and without cream sauces that my dear Mom used. My kids are now in their 50s, and prospered in part because I involved them in food preps from a very young age, enabling their own preferences to be included. OTOH, they’ve only partly recovered from abuse by their stepfather, who’d force-feed food they didn’t like and beat them if they resisted. Five years of maneuvering to keep custody out of court was overcome by a few hours in the judge’s chambers and we’ve been quite comfy ever since. Now they’re at grandparent age and enjoying life, including good restaurants and their own cooking. And, they used logic and cooperative parenting to develop their own kids’ tastes.

  • Jim Baerg

    For a long time I thought I didn’t like salad before I figured out that I didn’t like the salad *dressing*. If I had tried the salad before the dressing was added I would have been eating salad as a child. Possibly related is that I don’t like spicy hot. If that burning sensation is detectable at all it reduces my enjoyment of an otherwise tasty meal. In some cases the child might be more sensitive to certain tastes s/he doesn’t like & a reasonable comprise can be reached once the problem is determined.

  • MadScientist1023

    I’m not a parent myself, so take this with a grain of salt, but I’ve known parents with young kids who had good luck getting their kids to eat by having them help make the dinner. Even if it was something simple like rinsing off vegetables or salad mix, it made them more inclined to eat the food.

  • persephone

    When my kids were small, I’d take them shopping with me. I worked fulltime, their father didn’t, and it was our time together and away from my now-ex. I always let them get a little item while we were out, a small toy or a sweet. But there was one rule: make a fuss, and we’re leaving. I had to do it once with each one, and that once did it. They never did it again.

    Never make empty threats69.
    Never threaten ridiculous punishments69.
    Never hit69 your children.
    Always be as honest as you can.

    Yes, I know, things happens, life isn’t guaranteed, yadda, yadda, yadda, but you should be able to stick to these behaviors at least 95%.

  • persephone

    My youngest sister threw up spaghetti with meat sauce as a toddler. She would not eat meat sauce after that, which, considering it even came out her nose, we understood. While the rest of us were eating spaghetti with the regular sauce, she would get noodles with a little butter on them.

  • persephone

    If the kids are sick, it’s understandable that they may not want or be able to eat certain foods. Otherwise, they can eat what everyone else is eating.

  • Littleblueheathen

    Yeah my mom did that whole thing too when I was a kid. It was really rough on her when she had to move in with me in her old age…

  • Ursula L

    It’s a bit old, but I recommend the blog “The Great Big Veg Challenge.”
    The family worked their way through vegetables, alphabetically, taking the time to try at least 4 different recipies for each veg.
    The attitude is important. The fussy child in question helped with picking recipes, shopping and cooking. And was allowed to rate recipes and keep an updated sort of veggies as like, dislike, or unsure. And to get in the habit of eating a variety of foods and different preparations.