Our daughter called in complete frustration. “Dad, Mom, how in the world am I supposed to get my children to eat their dinner? I’ve tried everything to get them to try new things and eat things they aren’t fond of, but nothing works. What did you do when we were growing up?”
I thought about when I was young. I had five brothers, most of them older than me. We worked hard hauling hay, changing pipe, and all sorts of farm labor. When we came in for lunch, we were starving. Though my mom would have huge bowls full of potatoes, plates of steak and roast, and enormous pitchers of gravy, it didn’t take long for everything to disappear. If we didn’t get in and eat, we got nothing.
I don’t remember ever being fussy about food. My parents insisted we try new dishes. “If you eat it, you’ll learn to like it,” was my mother’s motto.
“What do you do if they don’t eat it?” my wife, Donna, asked our daughter.
“We finally give in and let them eat a sandwich or something,” she said. “We can’t stand making them go to bed hungry.”
“You’re not making them go to bed hungry,” Donna replied. “They’re choosing to go to bed hungry.”
“That’s right,” I added. “I think that one of the best things a parent can do for a child is to let them face the consequences of their decisions. In life, when someone chooses not to do something because they don’t like it, there is not always going to be someone there to rescue them from getting fired or facing the consequences of their actions.”
“We also used desserts as an incentive,” Donna said. “If you didn’t eat what was for dinner, you didn’t get dessert.”
I had to smile at this one. When this daughter was young, she didn’t like green beans. When she was two years old, she used to slip them over the edge of the high chair tray to the floor when we weren’t looking. More than once, she had been praised for eating her meal, and been rewarded with dessert, only to find a small pile of beans under her chair.
We told her that was not allowed. So, one day, Donna and I were visiting as we ate. I had my arm resting against our daughter’s high chair. She could be very territorial, and even at two, she would usually push my arm away. But on this particular day, she just kept playing with my sleeve. When it came time for dessert, her tray was empty, and there was nothing on the floor. She received her praise and dessert. But when I stood up to take my plate to the sink, a whole pile of green beans slid out of my sleeve.
Now, with children of her own, she decided to try the things we suggested. Later, she called to tell us most of what we had told her worked. She said cutting out the snacks when the children refused to eat their meals took care of most of it. But her oldest daughter was very stubborn and sometimes was willing to be hungry if it was something she didn’t want to eat.
The dessert had taken care of most of that issue. Even if the children didn’t like something, they might eat it to get the dessert.
“But there is one thing that happens now,” our daughter said. “My oldest wants to know what the desserts are before she decides whether or not she will eat the meals. But I have even figured out what to do for that.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“I simply make her favorite desserts for the same meals I cook something she doesn’t like.”
I smiled. It’s fun seeing our children deal with things we had to face with them.