Nutrition | Parenting Tools | Child Health + Development | Ages 0–2 | Ages 3–5

Ending Power Struggles at the Dinner Table: Tips for Raising Healthy Eaters

Helping your picky eater become a healthy eater“What’s for dinner?” “Ugh, I hate green beans!” “Can I have dessert yet?” “I’m not hungry." The list of mealtime complaints can go on and on. And not many parents can forget the mayhem that ensued before your little one can even talk: the thrown food, the mess of the yogurt in the hair, or the game of “Watch mommy pick up my bagel over and over again.”

Food is a huge part of human life and most parents I meet cannot wait to dive in to the world of food with their babies. As the wife of a food blogger and chef, we must have spent weeks talking about what our baby's first food would be! Little did we know we were in store for a whole lot more than the idyllic family meals of The Cosby Show.

But what if there was a different way? What if we stepped back and looked at the big picture? Taking a long-term parenting perspective can help us let go of the power struggles and give our children the skills to develop a healthy relationship with food. I am not a nutritionist, so this is not be an article about nutritional content or what a healthy diet looks like. Instead, I offer a recipe for building healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.

Step 1 – Create Self Awareness

Children learn so much more from what we do than what we say. Given that we eat several times each day, your relationship with food is readily apparent to your children. They notice what you eat, how you talk about food, and how you talk about your own and other people’s bodies.

As a mother of two girls and someone who struggled with body image from about age 12, this was an area I thought about a great deal. If I could pick one area to be successful in as a parent, it would be for my children to know they are loved unconditionally for who they are on the inside, not what they look like on the outside. This meant being very aware of what my eating habits looked like. Was I eating a healthy diet? Did I have a lot of variety on my plate even before they were eating table food?

It is critical that we think about not just what our children see now, but where our values and beliefs around food came from. Were mealtimes pleasant in your own childhood? Were you plagued with body image issues as many in our culture are? Even if you are one of those people who can live on donuts and nachos without gaining an ounce, that’s worth thinking about as well. Sometimes parents who have never had to give a thought to maintaining a healthy weight find it challenging to understand the body image issues that may come up for their teens and tweens.

Whatever our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on food may be, we need to be aware of them before we can help our kids be clear on theirs. If we don’t, we risk sending mixed messages to our kids.

Step 2 – End Power Struggles

Nothing can strip kids of a healthy relationship with food faster than power struggles. Kids are smart. They know what they want. They also know their bodies are their own. The more we try to control, the more they will resist. Anyone who has spent some time with a toddler knows they can outwait us grown-ups every time.

I know most parents have heard this before, but at least once a day I want to slip a piece of paper stating it to a parent deep in the dance of wills with a child. So here it is: Your job is to put healthy food options on the table, their job is to choose whether or not to eat and how much to eat. Seems simple? It might be, if we really have worked at step one, examining our own relationship with food. Let me say it again: parents decide the what and when of eating, kids decide the how much.

Once upon a time, we too had an innate ability to listen to our bodies, know what it craved and know how much our bodies needed of it. From years of using food as rewards and comfort (and whatever else we believe has contributed to obesity in America) we have learned how to override our amazing self-regulating system. Let’s not do this to our children! Here are some of the most common power struggles I see around food along with tools from Positive Discipline that can help avoid them from the start:

Tips for turning picky eaters into healthy eatersDisarm the power of treats. Kids want them. All of the time. Of course they do! We often have made it the source of all happiness and the forbidden fruit at the same time. All of life’s big events seem to have them. Birthday parties, holidays, celebrations have them. We use them as reward for big things and small. Pee pee in the potty? Yay, you get an M&M! Bad day? Let’s go get cupcakes.

What if you decided on some clear rules around the role of treats in your family, shared those with your child, and then followed through with kindness and firmness at the same time?

Here’s an example of what this looks like in our home. First off, we took some time to talk about our own experiences with treats. We were both clear that we love treats and think they are a normal part of life. We knew from our life experience that if we feel deprived of something, we just want it more. We all pick our battles based on our core values. For us, we felt that battling over treats was not going to be helpful to our children in developing a healthy relationship with food.

We decided when our first child was around 2 and started regularly asking for treats that a small treat each day was absolutely fine. Some days there are birthday parties or special events or some other opportunity for a bigger treat. If we know those are coming up, we make sure not to have bigger treats on the days around then.

We very clearly explained this to our two-year-old, and have had virtually no struggles around treats in our house. We have gone through both children’s toddler and preschool years with a candy bowl in an open cabinet at their level. They know what a small treat is because we have taught them. It is one piece of candy, a few chocolate chips, or a few M&Ms, and they rarely ask for more.

Dessert tactics. There’s another part of the treat power struggle that I see frequently. “You can have dessert when you finish dinner.” I often see this as an invitation for kids to either rush through dinner to get on to dessert or not eat enough dinner just so they can move on to dessert.

This was not a struggle I wanted to spend time on. I wanted meal times to be calm and focused on eating a well-balanced meal together as a family. Again, I also wanted my children to have a healthy relationship with treats. . For this reason, our children often have their treats after school. If after school is not a good fit for your family, I would consider putting dessert on the table at the same time as dinner. If desserts are an appropriate size, it shouldn’t matter the order they eat it in.

No short-order cooking. While I often see families put their foot down about finishing dinner before dessert or taking a required number of bites, they send the opposite message about mealtime when they make special food for their children. If you have prepared a meal for your family and your children immediately rejects it, how often do you make them something else? In our home, the answer is never.

Thanks to a friend with a child older than my first, we embraced a fantastic rule for addressing the inevitable rejection of what’s for dinner. If our children do not want is made, they are welcome to have fruit or yogurt. Now that our children are old enough, we took it a step further –- they need to get it themselves. This means if the fruit they want is an uncut melon, that’s not going to fly. They need to pick something they are able to manage by themselves so that we may continue enjoying our dinner. Not only is this a lifesaver for power struggles, it is also an opportunity for kids to exercise the essential life skills of independence and self-sufficiency.

No forcing food. Children who are exposed to lots of different flavors will eventually eat a varied diet. They may reject foods many times before agreeing to try them, only to decide that they actually like it. Our second child rejected tofu, a staple in our vegetarian home, for a full two years! We just kept putting it on the table with no pressure to try it, knowing she would when she was ready.

Put the food that you make on the table, allow them to choose whether or not to eat it, and you go ahead and enjoy it. The quickest way to get a child to try a new food is for the parent to sit down and eat it and not even ask if they want to try it. Just the fact that you are enjoying it is enough to pique their interest!

I love vegetables. I loved that our first child ate any and every vegetable for the first four years. Then her adventurous palette went in to hiding, as is common of four-year-olds. If I forced her to eat vegetables that she doesn’t like, I would have likely sent that former veggie lover in to many years of hating vegetables. Instead I know that she gets almost as many nutrients from fruit, she takes a daily multivitamin, and she will eat the few vegetables she likes with glee. We continue to make a variety of vegetables and put them on the table, and I know that she will enjoy them when she is ready.

Encouraging independence. Along the same lines as forcing food, another common issue I see in my practice are parents spoon-feeding kids way too old to be fed. From the time your child starts solid foods, they are old enough to practice feeding themselves. Yes, it may be messier, but they cannot develop the skills without practice. I understand that it may be longer before toddlers can use a spoon with runny foods, but by all means, they need to be feeding themselves everything else! Put the spoon down, and trust your child will get enough to eat.

Parental fears and guilt plays a huge role in these struggles. There is the dreaded fear that if they don’t get enough to eat, they will wake us up at night. This is a self-correcting problem if we let it be. Missing one meal will not have any long-term impact. But what about the long-term impact of saying: “This is when our family eats,” instead of rescuing our children from the choices they make? If we rescue them from discomfort and frustration, they will believe they are not able to handle those emotions. Believe in their resilience and they will believe in themselves.

Then there’s the guilt. Food represents so much more than enjoying taste and sustaining our bodies. It represents care. If I deprive you of a snack when you didn’t eat dinner and you are supposed to be sleeping, I must not care for you. Is that really the truth, though? How about “I love you enough to believe you will survive this night.” or “I love you enough to know that if I resist the urge to say ’I told you so,’ I will be giving you the space to evaluate for yourself if you want to make a different choice tomorrow.

If we let guilt run the show, we may do all sorts of things that deprive our children of critical life skills. As parents, we owe it to our children to sit with our own feelings instead of always rescuing, so our children learn to sit with theirs.

Tips for involving kids in the kitchenStep 3 – Involving Kids in the Cooking Process

Many of us fondly remember cooking with our parents. For my husband, it was the inspiration for a lifetime of cooking. He lost his mother to breast cancer at a young age, yet cooking with her and then for her as she fought cancer shaped him profoundly. He now has an amazing blog and cookbook to show for it. The connection he had with his mom, through cooking with her as a child, is still what keeps him connected to her today.

When people feel connected and valued for their role, they are much more likely to be an active participant. How much better does food taste when you worked hard to create it? How much more do you appreciate what went into creating something when you saw the process? Involving kids in meal preparation not only helps them feel needed, but also helps them appreciate the meal that follows.

Children can join in with meal preparation at a very young age. Our first child was experimenting with modernist cuisine at the age of three by making asparagus spheres with dad! No, they may not julienne the carrots perfectly, but there is much even an 18-month-old can do to feel a part of making the meal.

Involving kids can start before the actual cooking. Families who involve their children in meal planning and shopping are giving their kids even more opportunities to feel connected. The learning opportunities are overflowing when we teach them about planning ahead, selecting ingredients, weighing produce, learning about money, and all of the steps that bring food from farm to table. They develop a sense of pride from contributing to the family work right up through setting the table.

The biggest bonus- when they are involved throughout the entire process, they are more likely to eat it!

Step 4 – Bon Appetit!

When we step back and take a long-term parenting perspective on the role of food in the lives of our children, we quickly realize that controlling and rescuing are not going to give our children a healthy relationship with food. If we want our children to find joy in food and love their bodies, we must let go and put an end to power struggles around food.

I know I am not the first to suggest our culture’s love/hate relationship with food is literally killing us. I also know that we want a better world for our children. We want them to be healthy; we want them to love themselves unconditionally. All of this is possible when we widen our parenting lens and start with ourselves. When we are able to develop a healthy relationship with food as adults, we will let go of the guilt and fear that clouds our parenting choices. Only then can our children truly develop a healthy relationship with food.

Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She is co-owner of Grow Parenting and the wife of Michael Natkin, a chef and author who writes the blog Herbivoracious, where this post originally appeared.

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