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The only problem I have with dinner is that it comes every night. Every 24 hours, my husband and I have to prepare a meal that four people—including our two children, 11-year-old Hadley and eight-year-old Harrison—will eat. We typically serve a protein, a starch, and vegetables…and then take turns prompting the kids to eat “a few more bites.” This, of course, dissolves the magic of dinner conversation as they obediently but joylessly shove morsels of broccoli into their mouths before skipping away. I want them to be “good eaters,” but I wondered: Is there a better way?
According to the latest research and local experts, the answer is yes. “I look at this from two perspectives: What is the outcome of the nutrition that a child takes in? And, What’s the quality of the interaction at the dinner table and with the family?” says Dr. Matthew Haemer, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado who specializes in nutrition. That interaction, he adds, should not include comments about food consumption—not even “one more bite.”
“Another way of thinking about ‘good eating’ is having good appetite awareness,” says Richard Boles, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado whose focus is child behavior related to nutrition. “That means a child eats because he’s feeling hungry and then stops when he’s no longer hungry.” When parents force bites, the child learns not to pay attention to internal cues and instead eats in response to external factors, which can lead to such things as overeating, “boredom eating,” and battles with parents for control. What parents should do is provide regular meal and snack times, offer a variety of high-nutrition foods, and expect kids to sit at the table. (If a child refuses a whole food group for months or a parent has concerns about a child’s growth or development, it’s important to consult a medical professional.)
Armed with this info, I launched a one-week experiment: no commenting or encouraging. No bargaining for dessert, either, because research shows “rewarding” kids for eating healthful foods actually diminishes their appeal. On night one, Harrison announced, halfway through the meal, “I’m going to eat my peas.” My husband said, “Good idea,” and I gave him the side-eye. After telling some funny stories from school, our son said, “May I be excused? I ate 25 peas.” Ouch. I realized my “one more” requests over the years may have prompted my child to count his peas.
Later, on taco night, Harrison pushed his avocado aside. In response, I handed him a bowl of red peppers. He raised one eyebrow. “So you can choose!” I offered. (Per my sources, giving kids a choice of healthy foods is a good strategy.) He seemed to accept this as a win. Another evening, after mostly ignoring her chicken noodle soup, Hadley—buoyed, perhaps, by the strange new lack of negotiation—tried, “Dessert?” Before, I would have told her she hadn’t eaten enough, but instead I just smiled: “Nope.” She nodded and wandered off to read a book.
The rest of the week progressed mostly the same way. The kids ate some of everything on their plates. Some nights they got a little dessert; others, they didn’t. The biggest change was how relieved I felt. I had long thought that compelling those last little bites into my kids’ bellies was the right thing to do. Instead, all I have to do is provide good food and time for us to be together—and that is a delicious way to live.