Dori Fern

Digital content marketing strategy and editorial leader who uses data and insights to grow marketing programs that resonate with brand audiences.

Always game for new adventures and good food.

Award-winning latke maker

The 4 Commandments of Dinnertime

Every time a new article about kids and healthy eating comes out, I wait (hope!) for someone to state what seems so obvious to this mother of two: that picky eating is at least as much, if not more, about independence and control than it is about taste buds and well-being.

I want to see my kids as satisfied and vitamin-fortified as the next parent but, even more than that, I don't want to LOSE MY MIND from the non-stop complaining at every meal. Assuming there's a few of your out there who might appreciate a more no-nonsense approach to the problem of picky eating and mealtime kvetching, I've decided to share my Four Commandments of Dinnertime. But, first, a little context.

In the olden days of 1996, when I became a parent, there wasn't nearly as much written about the topic of picky eating. There was Dr. Spock and Dr. Sears and a few others, but there was barely an internet, no mommy bloggers, no foodies, and every last one of my friends hated cooking. Now, barely a week passes without another new chapter in the ongoing tale of "How will I ever get junior to eat the roasted kale?" 

The latest is Selling Kids on Veggies When Rules Like Clean Your Plate Fail from NPR's food blog, The Salt. The true-enough thesis, based on research, is that parents' strategy of strong-arming kids into eating well doesn't work.

In our new poll, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 25 percent of families tell their children to eat everything on their plate, and 45 percent report setting restrictions on the types of foods eaten. Increasingly common are rules like "clean your plate," as well as newer strictures such as "no second helpings of potatoes," "no dessert until you eat your vegetables" and "sodas and chips only on special occasions."

No disagreement that a war of wills between parent and child is typically not a winning battle. But I can't get behind "creative negotiation" solutions, like "Try It Tuesdays," suggested by Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, Kristi King, either. 

On a "Try It Tuesday," parents, along with their children, pick out a new food to sample. It helps to involve the kids in preparing the dish as well, she says. This investment in the new food increases the likelihood that the child will try it and even enjoy it.

If they still say no, King suggests "no-thank-you bites" — something her friends made up for their 3-year-old daughter. It goes like this: The child just has to take a bite, and if she doesn't like it, she can say "no thank you," and that's that. But typically in this family, the "no thank you" turns into a "thank you," as the 3-year-old watches her parents eating and enjoying the food.

I've come to terms that "Do what I say or you get yer ass whooped" is not the current strategy in vogue for child-rearing. Having tried and failed, I get that brute force isn't going to lead to any real or beneficial change. Still, I'm old school enough that the idea of negotiating with my kids over dinner makes me cringe.

The approach suggested in this article seems like too much work and makes a lot of assumptions about how a child is going to respond. My observation is that kids don't want to eat foods for all sorts of circumstantial and ego development-driven reasons, not least of which because you tell them they must. Think about it: what's the very first thing a kid can say "no" to and really have the power over you to mean it? Food. Unless you're a sadist, chances are you're not going to force feed your child. 

This is true no matter how good or middling a cook you are. I went to culinary school, have worked as a food writer and editor and, still, when my daughter was around four, she decided she hated everything I made for dinner. Great restaurant chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton of New York City's Prune, have written about having kids who only eat buttered pasta. It's not you, it's them. Or maybe it IS you, but it might not be your cooking  (and if it is, there are plenty of posts and articles to help with that problem).

So, when my four-year-old whined every night for months that she didn't like what I'd made for dinner and I, unsuccessfully, tried all the techniques parents in the above-mentioned poll tried, it dawned on me that what I wanted most wasn't for her to eat all of her dinner or that I seriously worried that her health was at risk. No, what I really wanted most of all was PEACE. 

How then to get to a place where I could eat a nice dinner with my daughter, without having to listen to her complain about every single meal put in front of her? I wasn't going to "sell" her on veggies or anything else on her plate, and I wasn't going to try and be a fearsome dictator. My kid also had to be given a framework within which her young and stubborn self could safely grow and flourish. What I needed to be was a powerful-yet-loving god/mother.

And so I drafted the Four Commandments of Dinnertime*:

  1. You don't have to eat dinner if you don't want BUT

  2. This is the only dinner I'm going to make. Getting yourself an apple or carrot or the like if you're hungry is acceptable. And, down the line, when you're not such a pain in my behind, you can contribute to the conversation about what you might like to eat on any given night. (I didn't actually say this last part, but I meant it)

  3. If you don't eat dinner, you don't get dessert. Why? Because having sugar as a meal replacement is not a healthy way to eat, and--as your mother-- I'm not going to feed you in a way I think isn't good for you. Having a balance of foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, is the way I try to eat (in addition to having treats!), because I feel good when I do that. You're going to have to make decisions about how you want to eat and what foods you like and the more open you are, the more options you'll have. I'm always here to help you make those choices but, ultimately, it's your body and what you choose to eat is your decision.

  4. Please don't insult what I've cooked. It hurts my feelings. This one's a biggie. Kids take out a lot of frustrations on parents. (That four-year-old is now a raging 16-year-old. Trust me, not eating veggies is the least of our current issues) It's still remarkably effective to remind them that in addition to being unacceptable (which they pretty much know), that it makes you feel bad besides. Sometimes they forget you're a human being. Sometime you do, too.

I sat my girl down--not during mealtime--and preached the gospel according to Mom. After some consideration, she agreed to the terms put before her. It wasn't easy, but she kept up her end of the bargain. Once and a while I even helped her put peanut butter on her apple when she was especially hungry after (politely) declining dinner. 

In time, she began to try more foods put before her, knowing she had the power to choose. And she never again insulted my cooking. She's still bull-headed and sometimes surly, but she is also a terrifically adventurous eater. Just the other day she came home from school and baked a delicious Clementine Yogurt Loaf, just because. We ate it for dessert, naturally, after dinner. 

 *works for breakfast, brunch and lunch, too