If you are anything like me, you've probably tried to force or even bribe your child to eat their dinner on many, many occasions. It just doesn't work. Not only that, you can end up damaging their relationship with food in the long run. Years ago, I came across this handy little flyer for the division of responsibility in feeding and I have kept it and loosely referred to it on occasion. If only I had truly emphasized it's importance and actually followed it earlier!
The Division of Responsibility in Feeding is simply this: at mealtime, the parents have specific jobs only they should do, and the child has specific jobs only they could do. Notice the difference in should and could. You cannot force your child to do anything, let alone eat their food - let that be their job. Don't allow these responsibilities to sway back and forth between parent and child, that could make for a nasty power struggle. Only you should be the one to do your job as the parent, and only your child could do their job:
It is the parent's job to decide
- what is being served at each meal,
- when the meal takes place, and
- where the meal will be eaten.
It is the child's job to decide
- if they will eat what has be served, and
- how much of it they will eat.
If you allow your child to make the decisions on what is being served for mealtime, you could be putting their health at risk. That may sound dramatic, but they're just not mature enough for that job. Children don't typically make healthy meal choices on their own. (I don't know about you, but if I let my boys choose what they ate for each meal they would eat nothing but pancakes and noodles) That's too much responsibility for a child anyway. Besides, do you really want to be making separate meals for your them every day for the unforeseeable future? That's a habit that is hard to break. Children should grow up eating what their parents eat. What you should do is teach your little ones why they can't just eat pancakes and noodles (for example) and what they should choose instead. Don't be afraid to talk science. Discuss vitamin and minerals and nutrients with your littles, they understand more than you think. Maybe even have your elementary age kids help with the meal plan and work together to find meals that everyone likes, but are still well balanced and healthful.
Also, more than that, if you allow them free reign as to when and where meal times are taking place, you are now no longer in control of meals and chaos will ensue. That dynamic doesn't make for healthy eating habits in the long run and definitely not a healthy parent child relationship. You can allow their input, but ultimately it's your decision, momma. Children need and crave structure and boundaries, even though they may not know it. Plus, how much fun is it to clean food out of the carpet and couch? Do you like walking through the house barefoot, collecting oats and seeds on your feet the whole way and ending up with a granola bar on your foot by the time you get to the kitchen? Meal time should be at the table. It's a reasonable request.
Diving in further to the parental responsibilities during meal time - it is also up to you to make sure that meal time is structured and supportive. You are providing your children with opportunities to 1) try new foods, 2) learn how to be responsible over their own health and nutrition, and 3) make good choices regarding their behavior at the dinner table. If they see that you are healthy and satisfied with your meals, they will be more likely to try new things. They learn by following your example, so behave in a manner suitable of imitating and show your children how much you enjoy eating your food. Families should all sit down together, eat together, and help clean up afterwards (according to their abilities, of course).
In order to make the most out of meal times, snacks should be limited. Don't allow your child to have unbridled access to the fridge or pantry between designated meal and snack times. This could lead to a habit of continually grazing and them not being hungry enough to eat the meals you serve. There are exceptions to this rule, for example, if your child is underweight and the doctor is encouraging them to cram in all the calories they can (which is where we are at with my oldest). But for the average child, they typically graze because they are bored. Parents should set healthy boundaries around snacks and teach their kiddos why those boundaries are there. Children will not learn how to do this if their parents never teach them. They also cannot learn how to take responsibility for their own bodies if they're never taught.
There is so much in the life of a child that they do not get to control, and eating the food given to them is one thing they do get to control. Don't take that away from them. It took me a long while to learn this lesson with my own boys, But I should have realized it before I became a mom. My parents forced me to eat all my dinner when I was a child. I wasn't allowed to leave the dinner table until my plate was empty, even if it took hours. It would be cold and stale and I would be crying but that didn't matter, I had to eat it. I believe this caused me to develop an unhealthy relationship with food (which I have since dealt with) and I was having flashbacks each time I would try and force my oldest to eat all of his dinner.
As the parent, if you do your job with feeding, your child will do their job with eating.