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Get Kids to Eat? That’s Not the Goal

stubborn boy; get kids to eat

Do you find yourself getting anxious as the dinner hour approaches? Planning for World War III? Wondering how you’ll get kids to eat? This child to eat vegetables and that one to eat more than just pasta? 

You’re not the only one. Getting kids to eat is on a lot of parents’ minds. Parents today report using all sorts of tricks to get kids to eat, or not eat. Unfortunately, it’s turned the dinner table into a battlefield, rather than the pleasant and nourishing space it’s supposed to be.

A Story about Getting Kids to Eat

Sarah learned her lesson the hard way. When Joey was three, he started to refuse the foods he loved, especially vegetables. Sarah started to entice him to eat with dessert and more of his favorite foods, which worked for a while. But then Joey got older and expected dessert after every meal, and wasn’t always good about eating his veggies.

Before long, Sarah and Joey were in a food battle every night, negotiating which foods would be eaten. Sometimes the battle escalated to punishment when Joey acted out or wasn’t fully cooperating.

Both Sarah and Joey felt badly about this. Sarah felt guilty and frustrated. Joey felt angry and ashamed.

Over time, Joey became pickier, refused anything green, and was often sneaking sweets behind Sarah’s back. All the bribing and discipline to get Joey to eat better was not working—in fact, it was having an opposite effect—Joey was not eating (or liking) vegetables, and he was increasingly drawn to sweets.

{Read: 12 Reasons Your Child Won’t Eat}

This is just one scenario, but it showcases some common challenges when parents try to get kids to eat. 

When You Focus on Getting Your Child to Eat

When parents flex their ‘eat your veggies’ muscle and use all sorts of trickery to get kids to eat, kids may come up with their own battle response–avoiding veggies, faking pleasure (and hating it all the way down) or worse, refusing to eat the healthy stuff and sneaking the yummy stuff instead.

Why are kids not cooperating?

It’s simple: the goal is flawed.

Getting a child to eat (at all costs) is the wrong goal.

Yet, some parents believe that getting kids to eat, no matter what, is their job. And, somehow, some way, in doing so, it will lead to a happy, healthy, eat-everything-kid.

Newsflash: It doesn’t work this way. Pressure and negative associations with eating do not make a healthy eater or a happy kid.

Why You Shouldn’t Try to Get Kids to Eat

Kids know how to eat all by themselves, without prompting, pressuring, bribes, or rewards. They can stop eating without being told to do so. Why? Because children are born with an inherent mechanism to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

In other words, they are programmed to instinctively know when to eat and when to stop.

If this ability is naturally present at birth, how does it get messed up?

Getting Kids to Eat Messes with Self-Regulation

Yes, in fact, we know from research that the following negative tactics may do a number on kids’ abilities with eating:

Pressure to eat more or try new foods is notorious for having an opposite effect than the one intended. In picky kids, pressure can lead to less eating (because pressure may physically turn off appetite) or in the kid who is compliant with parent requests, overeating.

Rewarding or bribing with food may change a child’s outlook or mindset about food, leading them to favor the reward food (which is oftentimes dessert).

Punishment or shaming may imprint a child’s mind with a negative association about food, eating and coming to the meal table. Research shows this negative association can last well into adulthood.

Sometimes parents mess up their child’s natural ability to manage food intake without even realizing they are doing so. It’s almost never intentional, nor is it solely a parent’s fault or the parent’s doing.

It can be quite a complicated parent and child dynamic.

In the end, the goal is not to get kids to eat, rather the goal is to raise a child who is able to regulate his own appetite and eating, while having a healthy and positive outlook on nutrition.

If you’re having trouble with your child’s eating, you may want to start over and get back to basics. My 6-step method for helping your child eat without negative practices may be just the guide you need!

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