Eat Your Food or Else

by Naveen Agarwal

in Helpful Tips

Welcome to the July Carnival of Natural Parenting: You Are What You Eat

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have written about their struggles and successes with healthy eating. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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Josiah Juxtaposed
Creative Commons License photo credit: timsamoff

Eat your food or else…

…you will not get your dessert
….you will not grow up strong
….you will stay hungry all day
….I will be very disappointed

Let us face it. Even though we don’t mean to, we often find ourselves using such tactics to push our kids to eat their food at mealtime. And when it doesn’t work, we try to bribe them with a reward at the end. Sometimes that works, but soon we realize that children become used to this system of reward and punishment and find a way around them. Maybe we cannot follow up on the threats, so they don’t sound credible anymore. Maybe the reward we offer is no longer enough and they want more. Whatever it is, the mealtime struggles with kids never seem to end!

It is so natural to fall in this trap that most parents – us included – don’t even realize it. We all live busy and stressful lives. We return tired from work, already feeling overwhelmed by so many things that need to be done before kids are in bed. We do not get enough sleep, we do not eat well and we do not get enough time to exercise. As a result, our patience runs thin and the last thing we want is an unhappy child throwing a fit at what we manage to put on the table. We just want to get it over with dinner as soon as possible.

No parent is mean or selfish. They simply want to do what is right for their child. They do not really mean to manipulate their children by promising a reward or issuing a threat. It just seems to happen on its own, and before you know it, you have established a pattern you cannot easily get out of. That is why it is good to be mindful of this risk when trying to encourage your kids to eat well and develop healthy eating habits.

We are a big fan of Dr Spock, who advises parents in his bestseller Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care:

Don’t ask a child to eat to earn his dessert, a piece of candy, a gold star, or other prize. Don’t ask him to eat for Aunt Minnie, to make his mother or father happy, to grow big and strong, to keep from getting sick, or to clean his plate. Children should not be threatened with physical punishment or loss of privileges in an attempt to get them to eat.

What should a parent do if not use rewards or threats?

First, it is better to look at the process of eating from the child’s point of view. If you observe carefully, you will find that your child will eat pretty much anything you give him when he is truly hungry. And if you try to feed him when he is not hungry, then he

  • Wants to play with his food rather than eat it
  • Wants to have fun rather than sit quietly in one place
  • Wants to do his own thing rather than follow your instructions
  • Wants to test how much misbehavior you will tolerate at the table
  • Wants  foods that he knows taste good (aka sugary, salty and fatty processed foods)

The problem here then, is to figure out the natural eating patterns of your child and gently encourage her to build a rhythm of eating that is consistent with the rest of the family. It is no easy task because children at this age have very unpredictable requirements for food. One day they seem to want to eat a lot, while on another day they may take only a few bites at a time. There are 3 important tools you can use to develop a pattern and sense of continuity:

  • Play and physical activity
  • Rest
  • Timing and amount of snacks

Naturally, the first purpose of food is to provide energy to your child for daily activities and growth. The timing and level of activity combined with periods of rest determine when and how much energy is needed. There is a reason why building a regular daytime routine is an important priority at daycare. This way they can establish a pattern of play, feeding and rest so they don’t have to chase the individual needs of every child. Even if you take care of your child at home where you can attend to his every need, it is useful to build a routine.

One problem we face is that our kids are very hungry when we bring them back from daycare at the end of the day. We have no choice but to give them a snack at that time. It delays our dinner time because they are not hungry for at least 1-2 hours. We have learned that there is no use trying to get them to sit down if we happen to eat an early dinner. Key lesson – plan your dinner about 1-2 hour after your child’s last snack!

When we do want them to sit with us, we try to make the experience as much fun as possible. No bribes of threats – although at times, we do have to watch and take a step back. What seem to work for us is engaging them in a conversation by telling stories that tickle their imagination. Recently, we played the my little stomach, what would you like to eat now? game, which worked very well in getting the twins to try our favorite green beans with olive oil recipe. Eating salad like a giraffe got them eating salad greens while diesel food for a diesel engine story was a hit with my train-crazy son to get him to sit at the table with us.

By no means, I want to imply that this is easy. It takes a lot of energy and creativity on top of trying to figure out what to put on the table after a long day at work. Here are a few ideas to have a perspective keep it under control:

Don’t give in and don’t give up – if it doesn’t work one day, move on and try on another day
It’s not about you – the food is going in your child’s body, not yours. You are only responsible for offering food, not getting your child to actually eat it
Don’t be pushy, don’t be a pushover – feeding a child is not power play. Respect their feelings but also don’t let them run you over with their demands
Practice BVM – balance, variety and moderation. Food is not good or bad, it’s how it is eaten that makes it a problem. Sweet treats and yummy snacks all have a proper place in your child’s diet
Feeding kids is teamwork – don’t do it alone, engage your spouse to balance your parenting style

There is a lot of talk about food these days. We read and hear about all kinds of new food labels -natural, organic, locally-grown, minimally-processed, wholesome and so on. People are becoming more aware of what they eat, and food marketers are working hard to make food packaging scream out such labels at them. It is perfectly fine to pay attention to these labels and the what of food; but the how of feeding is equally important.

Next time you find yourself in another eat your food or else battle with your child, stop and take a different approach.

©2010 Littlestomaks.com

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Why I Love The Real Food Community — Much like many people who follow AP/NP values, Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite! takes the parts of the “real food” philosophy that work for her family and leaves the rest. (@bfmom)
  • Feeding a Family of Six — Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children gives helpful tips for feeding a family of six.
  • Starting Solids at 6 Months — Did your doctor recommend that you give your baby cereal? Sheryl at Little Snowflakes discusses how whole foods are so much healthier (and more delicious) than traditional cereal. (@sheryljesin)
  • Am I What I Eat? — Andrea!!! at Ella-Bean & Co. has figured out a way to avoid grocery stores nearly altogether.
  • Are We Setting Our Kids Up To Fail? — Megan at Purple Dancing Dahlias found that cutting out the junk also transformed her sons’ behavior problems.
  • Changing your family’s way of eating — Lauren at Hobo Mama has techniques you can try to move your family gradually toward a healthier diet. (@Hobo_Mama)
  • Real Food — What kinds of fake foods do you eat? And why?! Lisa C. at My World Edenwild talks about why she chooses real food.
  • A Snackaholic’s Food Battle — Julie at Simple Life wants to stop snacking and get into the old ways of cooking from scratch and raising her own food. (@homemakerjulie)
  • Food, Not Fight — Summer at Finding Summer doesn’t want her kids to grow up like her husband: hating everything green. (@summerm)
  • How Do You Eat When You Are out of Town? — Cassie at There’s a Pickle In My Life wants some tips on how to eat healthy when you are out of town.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting: Food! — Sybil at Musings of a Milk Maker hopes that by serving her children healthy, balanced meals, they will become accustomed to making good food choices. (@sybilryan)
  • There’s No Food Like Home’s — NavelgazingBajan at Navelgazing revels in the Bajan food of her upbringing. (@BlkWmnDoBF)
  • This Mom’s Food Journey — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment made a journey from not paying attention to food to growing her own.
  • Who Knew Eating Was So Hard? — The challenges involved in changing to healthier eating habits take on a whole new dimension when you have a child who has difficulties eating. kadiera at Our Little Acorn shares her own experiences. (@kadiera)
  • Loving Food — Starr at Earth Mama truly believes food is her family’s medicine and is willing to spend days preparing it the traditional way.
  • Food Mindfulness — Danielle at born.in.japan details how her family spends money on each category of food. (@borninjp)
  • Food for Little People — Zoey at Good Goog wants to bless her daughter with happy traditions built around good food. (@zoeyspeak)
  • Eat Like a Baby — Have you been told that you should not equate food with love? Kate Wicker at Momopoly shows us why that’s not necessarily true. (@Momopoly)
  • Food — Deb at Science@Home tries to teach her children three rules to help them eat a healthy diet. (@ScienceMum)
  • Healthy Eating Lactose-Free — MamanADroit gives us tips on how to eat healthy if you are lactose intolerant (or just don’t want cow milk). (@MamanADroit)
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  • http://littlegreenblog.com Mrs Green @littlegreenblog.com

    Wonderful post- thank you so much for this. I have worked with numerous clients who are obese and compulsive eaters. When we begin to look at their innermost thoughts, feelings and language patterns, you can bet your last pound that Mum's voice is in there telling them that they are a good girl for finishing everything up or that they won't get pudding unless they've eaten their main course or that they can have some sweets as a treat for doing well…

    Even with this knowledge and seeing grown women in tears as they fight their inner struggles I have STILL slipped into this pattern when I'm tired / stressed / angry / hormonal with the language I use with my daughter. But there we are – we're not perfect.

    Your post was very thought provoking, a great reminder to be more present and aware and an honour to read – thank you!

  • http://codenamemama.com Dionna @ Code Name: Mama

    I love your reminders not to create a battle over food with your child. For the most part, our little ones have healthier eating habits than we do, given the right food choices. We just have to figure out how to work with them!

  • mrshart03

    Very, very good post. Thank you so much! We don't make our son clean his plate – I put together a healthy array of foods, some protein, some carbs, some fruit or veggies or both, at each meal, and when he says he's done, I look at his plate, and if he hasn't eaten enough protein or veggies, I will sometimes ask him to eat two more bites or something like that, but not to finish his dinner – sometimes people just aren't hungry, even as adults, right? :) Whenever we have grandparents or people over who tell him he can't get down because he's not finished, I always jump in and say, 'Oh, we don't make him clean his plate.'

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  • calima

    We have trouble with this, particularly because my behavior towards my daughter's eating is very different from my husband's. We definitely have different parenting styles when it comes to dinner time. We also have different attitudes towards food in general, even though we have the same BMI. I think my daughter is growing getting mixed signals when it comes to food. I have found that withholding dessert does not work at all! In fact, if there is an assortment of food in front of her, including, say, a cookie, she will nibble it as well as eat the other foods available, and no big deal is made of the cookie itself.

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  • BeanMa.com

    Haha. I wish my mom could have read this when I was little. I remember the days of sitting at the table until dark when all the dishes had been washed with one big ugly stalk of gross broccoli on my plate that I kept trying to feed to the cat! :(

  • tisworthwhile

    I also try to not make a big fuss if he eats all his food. I found myself saying things like, “Good job, sweetie!” when he'd cleaned his plate and realized I was laying the groundwork for potential issues re: fulfillment and satisfaction vs. perception. So now I'm careful to ask him, “Are you full?” if his plate is hardly touched and he seems finished, or “Did you get enough to eat?” if his plate is empty and he wants more. It's a little thing, but I definitely think it makes a difference – especially later on.

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  • TwinToddlersDad

    I really like your approach! Thank you for sharing this excellent idea.

  • TwinToddlersDad

    Hi Calima
    It is ok to have a different parenting style – in fact it is very healthy because it can provide a good balance. But you need to have a good agreement on how to manage your differences especially in front of the kids. Even young kids are smart to pick on these differences. They can tailor their behavior with each parent depending on their style.

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  • http://edenwild.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/wordless-wednesday-the-sailor-suit/ Lisa C

    We never try to coax our son (now two) to eat anything. We provide a variety of healthy foods every day, so that's what he eats. One day he may eat tons of veggies or fruit, and the next he wants lots of cheese or meat. I figure he gets what he needs one way or another…he is listening to his body…so I don't need to worry about him tasting everything on his plate.

    If I want him to eat something new, and he's uninterested, then I try to get creative with it. I serve it in a new way (who knew mushrooms were so much yummier raw? or that spinach was delightful dipped in dressing?). When he helps me chop veggies, he'll try anything…so I definitely recommend involving them in the food prep, as well as picking food out at the grocery store or the garden.

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  • hobomama

    I love this post! Thank you so much for joining us for the carnival. I wholeheartedly agree that our job as parents is to provide the wholesome food, not make it a huge power struggle. I was thinking about this yesterday as I prepared some of my favorite toddler-eating photos for a Wordless Wednesday post — I wondered how many silly, funny, laughing eating photos parents have who make a battle over what their kids eat, how much, when, and in what manner. I'd rather have the community and enjoyment aspects of food shine through for my son, and let him develop his own tastes and perceptions of how much and what he needs to eat.

    I'm enjoying reading through your other blog posts on silly, fun ways to get kids to try new foods and sit to eat. I think they're great! I really love your perspective on all this. Thanks!

  • http://www.KateWicker.com Kate Wicker @ Momopoly

    Well, we were on the same wave length, weren't we? Very helpful post. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Cheryl (EasyPeasyBlog.com)

    This post couldn't have come at a better time. my 3yo is going through a thing where she “forgets” how to swallow. this leads to my getting angry (of course you can swallow, everyone swallows!), then she gets upset (crying), then I get even more angry. So now mealtimes start off with her crying at the very thought of food. I have NO desire to start off down any path that could lead to an eating disorder or food phobia, so I have freaked my last freak out. I'm going to try to take deep breaths, and realize that she will eat when she's hungry. and that this too is a phase.

  • TwinToddlersDad

    Hi Cheryl
    Thank you for sharing your story. This is certainly a tough situation and I understand your frustration. I think your approach of letting it go and wait until she gets hungry is right on track. Keep a close eye on it and see if her behavior changes when she realizes it doesn't bother you anymore. Good luck!

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