8 Ways Parents Teach Kids NOT to Eat Dinner

There's a gap between what you want to teach and the lessons your kids learn.

Posted Mar 04, 2016

click60/DepositPhotos
Source: click60/DepositPhotos

Every time you feed your kids, you're teaching them something about what, when, where, why, and how much to eat. But are you teaching your kids the lessons you think? If your children don't eat the way you wish they would, then the answer is probably "no."

In many cases, there is a gap between the lessons you think you're teaching and the lessons your kids are actually learning. It’s in this gap that eating problems are nurtured.  

"Two more bites," the mainstay of many family food interactions, is the perfect example. Parents think making their kids take two more bites of broccoli teaches kids the importance of eating vegetables. But what do children really learn?

  • I have to eat veggies, even if I don’t want them. This makes me dislike them even more.
  • Mommy knows better than I do how much I should eat. I should always look to others for clues about portion size.
  • Dessert is usually eaten on a full stomach. Feeling full isn't a sign to stop eating. It's when the good times roll!
  • How much I eat is open to negotiation.

Your lessons are probably missing the mark if your kids' eating "issues" don't seem to improve—because when lessons hit home, behaviors change.

Parents often complain that their kids don't eat enough at dinner. Here are eight ways you may be unintentionally teaching your kids not to eat dinner. You…

1. Provide cheese and crackers or hummus and chips just before dinner. 

Lesson Learned: Dinner isn't really important. I am supposed to fill up whenever I eat. Snacks are tastier than meals.

2. Let your child drink plenty of milk with dinner, especially when he's thirsty. 

Lesson Learned: My parents like it when I drink milk; I can fill up on anything I want.

3. Prepare your child's favorite dinner when she refuses even to taste what you've cooked (or eats so slowly that you want to tear your hair out).

Lesson Learned: When I'm stubborn, I get my way. Sometimes it takes a good fight to get the "good" food, but it's worth it.

4. Give in to your child’s request for an after-dinner snack (even though last night you swore you would never do that again), because you’re afraid she’ll get hungry sometime during the night.

Lesson Learned: Why eat dinner? There's always something better later. Saying "I'm hungry" is a great procrastination technique. My parents fear my hunger; maybe I should too.

5. Put so much pressure on your child to eat that it’s a point of honor for him to resist.  

Lesson Learned: Eating is a power struggle, and I usually win.

6. Negotiate the number of bites your child has to eat. Then spend the rest of the meal continually negotiating down the number of bites. Before long, the number of bites approaches zero.  

Lesson Learned: My parents think they know better than me how much I should eat. My parents don't really mean what they say. If I hold out, I get my way—eventually.

7. Tell your child he should eat something because it’s healthy, because he wants to grow up big and strong, or because his big brother eats it.

Lesson Learned: I know I don't want to eat that food. My parents never even said it tastes good. I know only "bad" food tastes good.

8. Insist your child sit at the table when there’s something really, really exciting happening in the next room.

Lesson Learned: The quicker I can convince my parents that I'm not hungry, the sooner I can get back to the fun.

Want your kids to start eating dinner? Start to see the world through their eyes. Then adjust the message accordingly. Try:

  • Setting up eating zones—times when food is available, and times when food is not available.
  • Eliminate milk at meals, and reduce milk consumption throughout the day.
  • Serve very small portions, and encourage your children to let you know if they want more.
  • Neutralize dessert. Everyone gets dessert whenever it's served, regardless of how well they ate. Worried about too much dessert? Don't serve it every night. Make sure portions are small.
  • Make sure there is always at least one thing on the table that you can reasonably expect your children to eat.
  • Make the before-bed snack routine, not a response to begging. Never serve your child's preferred foods at this time.
  • Make meals enjoyable. Stop begging, bartering, cajoling, or otherwise convincing your kids to eat. 
  • If you want your kids to try something new, put your science cap on and explore a bite-size sample together.

Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.

© 2016 Dina Rose, Ph.D. A version of this article previously appeared on Dina's blog.