There once was a time when I would go into full-blown panic mode if my boys hadn’t eaten a green vegetable all day. That meant that, come dinnertime, I was a mama on a mission, stirring chopped broccoli into their mac-n-cheese or trying to cajole them into eating just one of Trader Joe’s almighty spinach bites. As you might imagine, my efforts failed, and as I sat there, dejectedly watching them dip their fingers in ketchup, I’d wonder what actually constituted malnutrition in toddlers.
I was committed to my children’s healthy eating, so I’d plan their meals, laying out hearty servings of protein and veggies and some kind of whole grain carb. Toddlers are fickle little suckers though–one day they’d only eat the protein, or only the carb, or shockingly, just eat their carrots and then ask for apple sauce. It’s like they were screwing with me, and it became a game. Although I had always sworn that I would never allow food battles to happen at our house, mealtime had become a three-ring circus.
Over time, I just started to get over it. I mean some kids barely eat, but mine are legitimate chowhounds. And despite the fact that there have been many days where all they ate was pizza and grilled cheese and more cheese and then ketchup, they’ve continued to thrive. I mean, would a starving, malnourished child have the verge to scream, “Nooooo!” with gusto, and the energy to tear off down the street, faster than legs that short should take him?
So, a few months ago, I decided that I was done fighting with them at meals. I didn’t want food to be a big deal or a negotiation. I didn’t want mealtime to be a test of wills anymore…or a test of my patience. It was too stressful, and I knew better.
In other words, I just stopped caring so much. And, let me tell you, it was liberating!
My new attitude became, “Whatever they eat, great, and whatever they don’t, oh well.” I’ll ask them what they want at each meal and I’ll make that one thing, but the rest of the plate, I choose. Yes, they can have dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, but then I’ll add a veggie, whole grain, and fruit to the mix. Occasionally, i still get a “No, I no want this!” but instead of making something else, I just push their plate to the middle of the table and say, “Okay, you don’t have to eat it, but this is what’s for dinner. So let me know when you’re hungry for it.” Literally, 30 seconds later, he’ll ask for his plate back. And if he doesn’t, that’s okay too.
I also stopped making labor-intensive food for my kids. Why bother? It became a whole other source of stress as I threw away barely-eaten, homemade salmon burgers with lemon aioli. Now, they get easy-to-make meals or leftovers. No fancy new kid-friendly recipes, no elaborate ways to sneak in greens. It was never worth the trouble.
I admit, I still try to make deals, but I let it go if it’s not happening. For example, I might ask him to eat one more cucumber slice before I get the fruit. Or, I won’t give him a second helping of pasta until he’s eaten at least one meatball. If I get any push-back though, I give up. I know, it might sound like my kids are just running all over me at mealtime, that I’m some pushover. Surprisingly though, it seems like they’re actually more willing to eat their dinner when they’re not getting any argument from me. There’s nothing to rebel against, nothing to prove.
Research backs all of this up. According to toddler expert Tovah Klein, PhD, the more we battle with our kids at meals, push “healthy” eating and overtalk food, the more they resist. So maybe we need to just stop fighting the battle and let the rebels think they’ve won. And let’s be real here: You can’t force a child to eat anything, so we need to stop thinking we can. We can control what we give them, but not what they actually consume.
I’ve got to say, mealtimes are now a whole lot more enjoyable. Not perfect, not without mess and stress, but easier. I can actually sit down and talk to them, without racing back and forth to the kitchen to see what else we got. I’m not staring at the pile of green beans, wondering if just one will make it into his mouth. It’s more how a family meal should be, or how I imagined it would be. And all I had to do was just let it go.