Family dinners, a tradition in most households, are a time when all the loving members of the family sit together and recount the adventures of the day. They’re full of light-hearted laughter, warmth and the joy of eating delicious, home-cooked food. At least, that is the Leave It to Beaver version. For many of us, including my three children and me, family dinners resembled more of a battleground than the peaceful event of TV fame.
The central issue was always the same: I simply could not get my children to eat the food that I KNEW was so important for their health and development. More times than I care to remember, they ended up eating things I didn’t approve of, and we all left the table in sour moods. Then one day it ended, and since then, I count myself as an expert on the important matter of ending food fights.
The solution to this common dilemma was both simple and unexpected. I can encapsulate it with one short comment. Food fights with children are NEVER about the food. Once you really get this, you are within a week of ending meal-time misery and food fights forever. Food fights are about autonomy, meaning, the freedom that every human being has to choose for herself or himself the food they wish to eat. This fight for freedom seems to be so important for children (and many adults) that they will do whatever is necessary to fight for and obtain this freedom.
My revelation was that this fight is just, and that parents will be well-served to let their children choose for themselves which foods to eat. No coercion of any kind: no punishment (“if you don’t eat your carrots, go to your room”), no rewards (“if you eat greens, you can have dessert,” or, “if you behave at school, you can have a cookie”), and (this is crucial and the sticking point for many parents), no subtle emotional coercion of any kind. This means no cheering if your child eats liver, no saying “good job” or any other such nonsense. The child gets to choose what they wish to eat with zero outside interference.
At this point, many parents will perhaps recoil in horror at the thought of their young charge eating only pasta and ice cream. But here is what I have found in literally every situation (and there are scores by this point with my patients): Once you, the parent, support their autonomy, you will have earned the respect of your child with regard to food. The fighting, the tension around food will end. That allows you to do the second and crucial next step, which is to choose what to serve them or keep in the house. Your autonomy matters, too! If you don’t want them to eat processed foods, don’t buy them and serve them. If you want them to eat fruit for dessert, offer only fruit. If you want them to eat a wider variety of vegetables, offer several kinds, or, add some of our vegetable powders to whatever they do like to eat!
It takes about a week for most children to become convinced that their parents won’t coerce them to eat. What generally happens at that point is that the child will then offer suggestions as to what they like most. For instance, one child might say that they like broccoli more than cauliflower. My suggestion is to thank them for the idea and serve them broccoli for as long as they like. The point is, you, the parent, can be flexible, and because broccoli and cauliflower are more or less the same from a nutritional standpoint, why not listen to your child?
Within a month, for the vast majority of children, they will be suggesting menus and snacks that they like and that meet your wholehearted approval. At that point, many children (like my son Joe) actually become interested enough in food that they start helping with cooking and eventually become a better chef than their dad. Your family meals and holidays will become events showcasing everyone’s culinary skills and food-sourcing expertise. And, then, you will have reached family-food heaven.
Tom Cowan, M.D.