This week, I reached out to readers on my Real Mom Nutrition Facebook page asking for their most frustrating feeding dilemma when it came to their kids–and promised that feeding expert and parent educator Dr. Dina Rose would address one of them on this blog. Dr. Rose, who is full of effective strategies for diffusing mealtime angst and teaching kids healthy habits, has a brand new book called It’s Not About the Broccoli. (You can win a copy by entering this giveaway.)
The dilemma I chose comes from dad Michael. Not only does this happen in my own house, but it’s also something I frequently hear from other parents: “My son doesn’t eat much dinner, says he’s full, gets up from the table, and asks for a snack 10 minutes later.”
So to Michael–and all of you who experience this snack-after-dinner request as well–here’s what Dr. Rose’s says:
by Dina Rose, PhD
The easiest way to fix a parenting problem is to see the world through your child’s eyes. So let’s jump inside your son’s head for a moment to see what’s probably going on. I bet he’s thinking some version of the following:
- The food mom and dad serve at dinner is OK, but I don’t like it that much, especially compared to the snacks they give me after dinner.
- Dinner is no fun. We have to sit around forever. Plus, sometimes there’s pressure to eat stuff I don’t want—like veggies.
- I don’t get a lot of say about what’s served for dinner, but I get to choose my after-dinner snack. I like getting to choose.
- Saying “I’m not hungry,” is the only way I can be excused from the table.
We’ve got four separate, but related, issues here. That means we need four separate, but related, solutions. Taken together these four steps will produce change.
Step 1: Create an incentive for your son to eat at meals.
One reason kids can afford to refuse meals is that they know there’s always another meal (aka a desirable snack) waiting in the wings. Eliminate snacking on-demand by creating a schedule that includes general times for eating—dinner is sometime between 5 and 7; after dinner snack is sometime between 8:30 and 9. I call these Eating Zones. Meals and snacks get offered once during each Eating Zone. If they’re refused, or if your son doesn’t eat enough, then he has to wait until the next Eating Zone to eat again. Let me be clear: This is not a starve-him-out approach. It’s a structure for eating that will give your son a chance to experience the consequences for passing up dinner. And learning to live with mild hunger is a valuable life skill.
Make sure the snacks you serve are snack “size,” not meal “size.” And, it will help if snacks are not your son’s favorite foods.
Step 2: Take the pressure off dinner.
The best way I know to eliminate pressure at dinner is to serve a few bites of fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack…most days. That way you know that when your son gets to the dinner table he’s already eaten a lot of the good stuff (or at least more than you’ll get by trying to coax a few more bites just at dinner). Then, start serving very small portions at dinner so that it’s easy for your son to to tackle the task. And vow never to ask your son to eat even a few more bites. Don’t worry that this will leave your son hungry. You’ve already covered that problem with Step 1.
Step 3: Incorporate more choices during dinner and fewer choices at snack time.
Reduce the choices at snack time by setting some parameters: snack can be only a fruit or a vegetable; you can’t have the same snack two days in a row; snack must be eaten at the table.
Step 4: Give your son a legal way to end the meal.
Most children learn to say, “I don’t like it,” and “I’m not hungry,” to get out of eating because they know it’s the statement their parents will accept. Imagine what would happen, though, if you gave your son an alternative way out—”I”m bored; May I be excused?” “I’d like to go back to my trucks; May I be excused?” That wouldn’t just keep him from “using” his hunger to manipulate the situation. It would give you an opportunity to discuss what’s really going on!