Why Bribing, Forcing And Pressuring At Mealtimes Don’t Work (And What To Do Instead)
They say with parenting you need to “pick your battles.” How true this is with little ones. We don’t want to make everything a battle, but how do we know where to draw the line? I advise my clients that one place that should not, and need not, be a battle; is at mealtimes.
Mealtimes should be about fun, laughter and family. But, if you have little ones at home, you know this is often not the case. Let’s start by talking about what’s common.
Fits and Tantrums: New toddler preferences and budding emotional expression and language skills can often collide at the meal table. It’s totally normal that your little ones struggle with sitting at the table for anything above 10-15 mins.
Picky Eating: Picky or selective eating is a common developmental phase that children go through. The more we can remember this, the better off we will be.
Bribery or “forcing”: With any of the above, especially after you’ve just arrived home and had only a few minutes to think about how to get a nutritious meal on the table, it’s easy to get desperate. Offering sweet treats or threatening to take them away “unless you finish your XYZ” are understandable emotional responses.
It’s important to think about the messages we are sending to our children by forcing or bribing. When we put pressure on our child they tend to pull back. Children don’t respond well. Pressure at mealtimes has been linked to disliking the actual food and unwillingness to eat the food. I have found in my practice, and with the hundreds of families I work with, that anytime parents put pressure on their child to eat, the child will eventually develop a dislike for that particular food.
Think about the downside of bribing or negotiating when it comes to food. What are we teaching our kids? For example, when a parent asks a child to “eat one more piece of broccoli and then you get a cookie” what a child hears is “I HAVE to eat the broccoli (yuck) to get my cookie (reward = yum).” We need to reframe that.
Ideally, we want our child to grow up enjoying the right foods, liking their bodies and themselves. Eventually they will be on their own, making their own food choices, right? We have the power to start shaping that relationship with food now.
So, what we can do instead?
1. We can trust our children when it comes to feeding them. When we trust our children, many of our feeding anxieties melt away, and soon you’ll begin to notice that kids will become more acceptable to the food you’ve put in front of them.
2. We should think about short vs long-term goals. Right now we want our child to be meeting their nutrition needs and growing adequately. But, our long-term goal is to help our children love the foods we love. Many parents are eager to have their children try something new, and a lot of the time it’s vegetables and fruits, but I remind parents to proceed with caution. It can take many attempts of offering a food until a child actually eats it (research shows it can take 20 or 30 exposures). So think about eating those foods as a long-term goal. If you continue to expose your child to those foods, and they interact with those foods, they are on their way to trying them!
3. Set respectful limits and boundaries. Although we don’t want to put pressure on our child to eat, we still have the responsibility to set limits when it comes to mealtimes. The behaviors at mealtimes that we don’t want to see (i.e. throwing food, not sitting at the table) need to be met with respectful boundaries that kids can grow into instead of running from. I recommend a 3 part formula: we state our expectations, we acknowledge and set limits and we follow through.
4. We should set feeding routines. Most young children do best with meals and snacks every 2-2.5 hours, while older children do best with meals and snacks every 3-4 hours. But observe your child. Some younger children can go longer stretches without food, while some older children need meals and snacks to be closer together. Build a feeding schedule based upon this observation. Children work well with a routine. This helps parents too: setting a routine for kids will help them to understand their day and keeps them relaxed.
Kanupriya Khanna, a Senior Consultant Nutritionist & Dietitian with over 18 years of experience in child nutrition, can provide expert advice. Kanupriya Khanna is regarded as one of the best dietitians in Delhi because of her unwavering commitment to making a difference in people’s lives by instilling good eating habits and lifestyles.