Eating With Children


by: Mona R. Spiegel, Ph.D.
“My Family Coach”
Helping Women and Their Families

Introduction: What’s for Supper?

Long before your child comes home and asks, “What’s for supper?” you’ve already asked yourself that question. You might have had an idea or two, but then you started to think: ‘She doesn’t like _____,’ ‘He won’t taste anything green/red/fresh,’ and ‘I’m on a diet.’ Then you ask yourself again, “What should I make for supper?”

Why has food preparation become so complicated? As a result of the plethora of nutritional information available, we are more careful than ever to prepare a properly balanced meal. However, we enter a virtual minefield when we try to match nutritional standards with children’s preferences.

Nutritional information is like a glass of wine; it is not to be taken and swallowed in one shot, but smelled, tasted and experienced. If you like what you’ve learned and it makes sense to you, then make it part of your family culture. Try different foods on different nights and, above all, make your meals simple. Don’t over-invest in time, cost or emotional energy. Then you won’t resent it when one or more of your children reject that night’s menu.

Appetizer: Getting the Children to the Table

You: “Supper’s ready!”

Child #1: “I’m not hungry.”

#2: “I’ll be there soon.”

#3: (No response)

This is the beginning of a potential battle between a parent and one or more children. It seems to be about supper but, in fact, it’s a voice recognition test. Your children hear your voice, recognize the signal, and respond negatively or not at all. You may try requesting again, with the same results, until you get fed up and finally force them to come. If this pattern continues, they will learn to wait until you reach your frustration level before they comply.

The way to resolve this conflict is to regularly follow up your words with actions. This means taking the time to:

1. Go to wherever your children are and make sure you have their attention. This includes not just auditory attention, such as, “Yes, Mom, I hear you,” but also visual attention – full eye contact. If they’re on the computer or reading a book, wait until they look at you. Then deliver your message. Don’t walk away but wait for them to follow you or do whatever you’ve asked. Patience in this case, as in many others, is a virtue.

2. Use your physical presence for positive interactions as well. For example, go to your child to give a compliment, deliver a message, or show them a new purchase. Try to avoid long-distance communication within the confines of your home. By taking the time to walk over to your child you highlight the significance of your words and establish a relationship through your actions as well as your voice.

3. Build trust. In the same way that you want your children to do what they say they’re going to do (for example, coming after a brief time when they respond, “I’ll be there soon.”), be careful to do what you say you’re going to do. If you promise to get off the phone in a minute, do it; if you say you’ll pick them up at a certain time, be there on time. In that way, you demonstrate the importance of your speech and the reliability of your actions.

4. Develop good “listening skills.” This means looking at your children when they talk to you, and showing interest by asking questions or by commenting appropriately. From the youngest to the oldest, our children want and cherish our attention. Listening to your children will encourage them to reciprocate and listen to you.

5. Establish a routine. Although supper does not need to be at the same time every night, it is very helpful when it has a consistent place in your children’s evening schedule. That way, they will expect your summons to the table and will be more likely to cooperate.

Salad: How to Satisfy Different Tastes

How does one keep supper simple when every member of the family wants something different? Think of supper as a salad. They may not like every ingredient in the salad but, more often than not, they will like something in it and be willing to eat part of it. After you offer your version of a dinner “salad”, think about the following:

Lower your own anxiety about food. Physicians are unanimous in their opinion that children eat when they are hungry. Forcing children to eat or, conversely, prohibiting them from eating certain foods, teaches them to ignore their own internal sensations. They may end up hating the healthy foods and craving the forbidden ones, setting the stage for future eating problems.

Decide who’s in charge of the kitchen. If you are the appointed cook then you get the privilege of choosing the menu. However, your children may enjoy helping you prepare the meal and, in that way, feel that they have participated in the choice. In fact, the more fully they participate, the less likely it is that they will refuse to eat the food that’s being served.

Allow children to choose what they want to eat, as long as it’s on the table. Once they start hunting in the refrigerator, they belittle the importance of the meal and focus instead on alternatives. In the end, if someone doesn’t want to eat anything that’s being served, then they are probably not hungry.

All of this works if both parents follow the same guidelines. If one or the other, however, follows a special diet or rejects what is offered, the children are likely to follow suit. Discuss your preferences in private. If something special has to be given to one person, because of a food allergy or illness requiring a particular diet, allow others to partake of it as well. Alternatively, that person might be better off eating at a different time. The goal is to have everyone share the family meal.

Entree: Enjoying the Meal with the Family

We are now ready for the main part of the meal, the entrée. We really want our families to enjoy the entrée while, at the same time, provide them with nutritious food. So what can go wrong? A lot. Some children may refuse to eat, while others may choose only the starches. They might decline the protein and vegetables, both of which we’re told are essential to their diet, and instead want pasta every night. In addition, children may have special needs that have to be taken into account. Many children, for example, have specific food allergies or are overweight.1 How do we satisfy everyone’s needs and still enjoy the meal?

First of all, it is important for us to examine our own feelings about food. Do we use food as a means of satisfying our emotional needs; for example, to calm down, feel nurtured, or feel in control? Do we serve the food begrudgingly, resentful of the time it takes to prepare and clean up from it? Conversely, do we invest so much of ourselves into its preparation that a child’s rejection of even a minor part of the meal upsets us?

Secondly, what model of eating do we present? Do we sit and converse during the meal, or eat on the run? How many times do we answer the phone during the meal? Most of us don’t realize that the ringing of the phone is not equivalent to an alarm bell and that the phone can usually be ignored.

In contrast to common wisdom, nutritional benefits are not the most important part of the entrée. People’s nutritional needs are generally met over the course of the day and children, in particular, can satisfy their needs across several days without impairing their health. Rather, the psychological aspects of the dinner meal are its true “nutrients.” Many studies indicate that “kids who eat dinner with their families regularly are better students, healthier people and less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than those who don’t.”2

Given the importance of the family meal, it is crucial to create an atmosphere that will motivate children to want to be present at the dinner table and not avoid it. Here are some strategies:

Prioritize dinner time and, as much as possible, do not allow other commitments to interfere. This means that soccer practice, tutoring or dance class should not be scheduled during dinnertime. If necessary, have one dinner for the younger members of your family and another one for the older ones. This may sound cumbersome but actually works quite well for both sets, with much less snacking and greater flexibility for different age groups.

Let the extended members of the family know that you will not answer the phone during dinner. Alternatively, if you do answer the phone, ask the caller if you can speak later because you’re eating dinner with the family. The response will usually be positive, and your children will hear the message clearly: You value their company.

Train yourself to omit saying anything during the meal that does not induce a positive atmosphere; including reproaches, reminders of forgotten tasks or homework assignments, and comments on etiquette or manners. Instead gear the discussion to the day’s events and encourage (but do not compel) your children’s comments. Share your own day and express interest in your children’s activities, irrespective of their ages.

Deal immediately with behavior problems that cannot be ignored, such as spitting, kicking, or throwing food. If necessary, ask the child who misbehaves in this fashion to leave the table.

On the other hand, ignore all verbal comments that might escalate into an argument. Learn from your children’s best teachers and do not allow unimportant distractions to interfere with the atmosphere of your home.

Finally, dinnertime is not the time to deal with sibling rivalry or marital tensions; save these and other problems for a more appropriate setting. View your kitchen as a public arena where one treats others with courtesy and respect.

Dessert: To Bribe or not to Bribe

Dessert can be the highlight of the meal or its downfall, as far as children (and calories) are concerned. When our children anticipate a delicious dessert and it is not served, either as a punishment or because of a dietary restriction, they can react as if they are traumatized:

“You promised!”

“I don’t care about allergies.”

“Just this once, please?”

“I’ll listen better next time, I promise!”

“It’s not fair!”

A child’s disappointment will be especially intense if a sibling gets dessert but he or she does not. Does this mean that a child should get dessert no matter what was left uneaten during the main part of the meal? Conversely, should we bribe a child to eat the entrée by promising him or her a tasty dessert?

The answer is a categorical no. Dessert should not be used as a reward for eating behavior, either in terms of what was consumed or how it was consumed. If you serve dessert as a regular part of your daily meal, don’t withhold it from one child and give it to another. In general, you should separate meals from any other reward system that you have in place. Thus, if you choose to use candy or cookies as a reward, serve it at a different time.

Furthermore, while you should put yourself in charge of what you serve, do not demand that the food be eaten. Do not compel or bribe a child to eat. If you find that your child is not hungry at dinnertime, examine your evening schedule: Did you serve a snack before dinner? Did you serve dinner too late or did you allow it to drag on too long? The problems that arise during dinner often occur because of our own anxiety that children not leave the table hungry.

In sum, think about the messages that you send to your families together with the food that you serve.

1. Jane Brody reports in the April 5th edition of the NY Times that 15 percent of American children ages 6 and older are overweight and another 15 percent are headed in that direction. http:///

2. “Family Matters” by Hilary Stout, Wall Street Journal, Thursday, November 11, 2004, p. D8.

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  1. so…..the question was not answered: Does this mean that a child should get dessert no matter what was left uneaten during the main part of the meal? what if all the child wants to eat is sweets? what if the child hates protein? what if the child changes his preferences from meal to meal? or insists on raiding the fridge while i’m cooking dinner?
    honestly i really don’t want to make an issue of food, but we have low blood sugar issues (well, my child does) in our family, directly related to behavior, and i’m the one that has to deal with the meltdowns when he refuses to eat. which he does. often. or he wants to survive on string cheese and jerky and sweets.
    i don’t even keep sweets around the house that much and that’s all he talks about…he wants dessert after breakfast, even, and he justifies it by saying he ate one soy sausage and should deserve dessert!

    so…..what’s a mom to do?

  2. This reply is for Pamela”
    I’m not an expert but this is works for me:
    We sometimes get home late weeknights (usually just after 6pm) and we are really hungry so before I start cooking supper, I’ll take out carrots and low fat dip so we have something to munch on while supper is cooking so there is no fridge rading.
    If my child asks for dessert I’ll tell she can have it only if she eats her supper. Healthy food first! By the time she does have her supper, she’s usually not hungry anymore and cookies or candies are forgotten.
    But every situation is very different. My nephew wouldn’t eat protein for the longest time and my sister had to find ways for him to get some in his daily diet. Thank goodness for soy milk! He’s started eating more protein now but it was a struggle for years. Good luck!

  3. I have 5 healthy kids. They are not overweight, and a few of them are downright picky. This is what we do.

    We have a sit down lunch every afternoon and supper every single night. It is generally around the same time, but I am not a Nazi about the time schedule, I have to be flexible for hubby’s schedule as well. We turn on some soft music (right now it’s Christmas music) and we sit around and discuss our day.

    If a child does not want to eat something, then they may sit at the table and visit with us. They do not rummage through the fridge and find themselves soemthing to eat. I usually have a few things to choose from, so they can at least find something to munch on. But they are expected to wash hands and be at the table during supper.

    I don’t bribe with dessert, I have found it only creates contention and stress, when that is the opposite of the types of feelings I want to create. We only have dessert on Sunday and sometimes on Monday, it is not linked to whether or not they eat supper. The rest of the time, it’s just family supper…no dessert.

    I try not to make too much of a fuss over whether a child is eating only bread, or veggies, or pasta…etc… They will find their balance. The more I seem to fuss over it, the more the children see this as a way to get attention (the bad kind) we don’t want this.

    I have several boys who will not eat a salad if it has even one tomato in it. I have other children who adore tomatoes. So I make the salad with cucumbers etc… and put it on the table, I put the tomatoes in a seperate bowl, and those that want them can put them on their salad. I have one child that will only eat his salad plain, with no dressing. I don’t push it, as long as he eats the salad, I am glad.

    Many times I make meals ahead of time (casseroles, or sauces, sometimes even just cooked meat) and freeze it in airtight bags and keep it in the freezer. If I need a quick meal, I have casseroles available, if I need spaghetti sauce (homemade is all we eat) I can take the precooked hamburger out of the freezer, and put it in the sauce and it heats up. Then some noodles, veggies and salad, and we have a nice spaghetti meal.

    I have used the crockpot many times, and many times find ways to cut corners, and make cooking easier and quicker. I homeschool 4 of my 5 kids (the oldest is in college) so I don’t have a lot of time for cooking.

    My kids do love to help me make homemade bread, and love to feed the wheat grinder and watch the wheat kernels turn into flour for our bread. What a neat thing.

    Having a sit down dinner has proven time and time again, to connect the family, and help keep children from being obese. If we are eating on the run, it isn’t good for the tummy to not really taste your food, because you are in such hurry.

    I hope you enjoy your meals with your family.


  4. Thank You Ellen (in deed) and God bless you and all of your associates for all of your good work. It feels satisfying reading your articles and taking them with a grain of salt. You offer solutions to age old problems. Something positive to focus on, rather than the insanity. Once more, thank you all in deed.

  5. I love what you posted Debbi and kudos to you for being a great and caring mom.

    I can only add one thing we do as far as salads go; I have 3 sons and all like different things so I picked up an old lazy susan at a thrift shop and small bowls. We then put each topping (cucumbers, onions, tomato, etc) in its own bowl on the lazy susan. The boys love topping their salads and I have noticed they actually pile more veggies themselves that they would get if it was pre-tossed. We also but the dressing in a bowl with a teaspoon. They seem to use less that way.

    Hope this helps someone.


  6. Pamela,
    We have low blood sugar issues in our family, too. I’m very bad about needing to keep my blood glucose stable, and I’m afraid my oldest son, now 8, has inheirited it from me. It’s a terrible feeling to be craving sweets all the time (I know) and it’s a terrible feeling to have your blood sugar get low, too. I simply don’t bring foods into the house that we can’t have and I’m trying to help my son to see how sometimes his behaviour is due to something like having not eaten for hours. In a loving manner I will point out to him, this is how it feels…it’s awful to feel this way, isn’t it?…this is how you can/what you do to keep your blood glucose steady. Just as if he were a diabetic and needed to monitor his food intake, I try to help him appreciate he has, not a blessing, but a drawback when it comes to his personal makeup, and he can’t go as long as others without food, and he can’t eat the same kind of foods as others eat, either. I keep snacks prepared, cut up apples, carrots, etc… and try to display them attractively for him (for all of us, really) and I figure it’s my responsibility to not only feed him, acknowledging his special needs, but also to teach him how to accomodate them for himself, too. We eat whole foods and try to emphasize with postive-ness what we CAN have as opposed to pointing out ALL the foods we cannot have because they are SO off our list. If it’s not food, we don’t eat it. That eliminates a LOT of junk-foods right there. That doesn’t mean he’s stopped asking for them, though. Don’t think I’ve gotten him to that point yet. But just as I would with a person who’s diabetic and might be asking for things that are off their list, because they’re craving them; I protect him by not giving them to him. HTH

  7. Hello!

    Here are two quick ideas.

    For us, dessert is only to be served an hour or later after dinner. That way, if my son is still hungry, he has to eat something healthy or leftovers and cannot use dessert to fill his stomach. Sometimes he forgets dessert altogether by the time an hour rolls around.

    Also, I recently put a globe in our table and we’ve used it in many discussions during dinner.

    Thanks for letting me share my two cents!

  8. We have a family dinner every night. dessert is reserved for the Sabbath, festivals, and to mark the beginning of the new month ( a minor Jewish festival) which would otherwise get ignored. When my kids were little I used to have them change into pajamas before dinner. It saved on getting clothes stained and was one less step in the battle for bedtime.
    Having a designated supper helper who can help cook and choose the menu also helps stir their interest and appetite.
    I find I am making some foods over many times, but as long as it has a balance of protein, vegtables, etc. I don’t mind since these are the favorite dinners.

  9. I really enjoyed reading all of the wonderful ways of creating a healthy and fun enviroment at the dinner table. One thing that we have done at our table is to play the best and worst part of our day. Either myself or my wife starts it off and I have enjoyed finding out how my child is doing. I also think that they connect with what myself and wife deal with as well. Anyways thanks for all the great advice!

  10. Thanks for sharing your tips, its tips like these that actually do make a difference to the individual readers of this blog. Thank you and well done.

  11. Your site is great and I really appreciate it! I have always enjoyed reading your site.