David Coleman: When the dinner table turns into a warzone between parents and kids

Healthy eating is not an issue that I often get asked about. Most parents do feel that they offer their children a healthy mix of different foods that have protein, carbohydrate, fats, vitamins and so on. What parents seem to worry more about is fussy or picky eating. Parents feel they do their bit of offering healthy food, but their concern is that their child just doesn’t seem to want to eat it.

In my experience, however, the issues that parents have with their child’s eating habits are more to do with the dynamic that has grown between the parent(s) and child, rather than being about food, per se.

Children instinctively know that they need food to survive. The smallest of infants, the most active toddlers, and the most laid-back teenagers all know that food is essential for life. And so, all children eat. The trouble only arises when they don’t eat what their parents want them to eat, or they don’t eat when their parents want them to eat.

I think it is entirely wise for children to pay attention to the signals from their bodies and to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. In other words, like a grazing animal, they eat as hunger comes upon them and they stop eating when they have had enough.

Ironically, while eating is an instinctive act for children (and adults), we must also remember that a desire to feed our children, to both nurture and sustain them, is an equally, instinctively, powerful dynamic for parents.

However, when children react instinctively to their hunger signals, we parents can often misinterpret or misjudge those signals (because we are determined to make sure they eat and stay healthy) and so even when they don’t want to eat, we encourage, cajole and force them to eat anyway. Similarly, when we put them off, delaying them till a meal is ready, we may end up overriding their instinctive hunger signals.

If it is the former, children may try to show us that they don’t want any more of the food, by turning their heads away, or spitting out food. Parents might misread those signals as signs of obstinacy or oppositionality. If that is what we perceive, we often then try to make our children eat, by promise of reward or threat of punishment, since we want to show that we are still in charge.

If it is the latter situation, and a child has to wait for their dinner, they may either lose interest in the food, or they may feel resentful towards their parent and so they may resist eating whatever it is that they then get offered, as a subconscious means of showing their own power.

In either situation, what develops is a power-battle at the dinner table.

The battles can be legendary. For example, parents end up shouting, banging dishes around, or perhaps coldly ignoring their child. Children may end up in tears, running away from the table, or stubbornly sitting there, feeling resentful and angry.

The negative associations that children then build up with food and mealtimes come, most often, from these repeated fights and disagreements with their parents about what they “should” be eating. After time, the conflict about food is as much habit as anything else.

So, as with any habit, we can only change it by changing our behaviour. Especially with food battles and fussy eating, the change first needs to come from us parents.

To achieve this, parents must take a risk. We must take the risk that if we stop trying to control our children’s eating that they will find their own natural balance, and that they will, in fact, still keep eating enough to maintain a healthy weight and enough nutrition. We can only be reassured about this when we see that their energy and activity levels don’t drop. Taking this risk of letting your child be in charge of what they consume may mean that you have to actively manage, or regulate, your own anxiety that they won’t consume enough.

It may also mean that you have to actively think differently about the mealtime and to see the mealtime as an opportunity for positive social interaction, rather than as a warzone where victory is measured in spoonfuls.

So, we do still want to encourage our children to sit at the table with everyone else for a short while, even if they are not eating, as this will include them in the social aspect of the meal. But the key is that we have to stop arguing with them about their decision not to eat.

If you have a long established habit of arguing with them about food, you may find that when you stop rowing with them, they may become even more provocative about their non-eating, trying to goad you into your old habits of rowing with them. Rowing about food may be the only script they have for how mealtimes can go. It can take some time before they realise they don’t need to fight with you anymore.

We are trying, therefore, to offer food in a genuinely open-spirited way. If a child doesn’t want it at that time, we need to be confident they will want it sooner or later. This is not an “eat or starve” approach; so do let your child eat at a later time even if they didn’t choose to eat with you at the original mealtime.

Taking this kind of approach aims to take food from being a weapon in your power battles, to being something that can (and probably will) be enjoyed by everyone. When the atmosphere at mealtimes improves, you will probably find that your child becomes more confident and adventurous with food.

Even if that doesn’t happen, they will certainly become happier at mealtimes. This allows positive and healthy attitudes to food to develop.

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