It starts with a kid with a well prepared meal:
KID: “I don’t want anymore!”
PARENT: “You need to finish your dinner”
KID: “But I don’t want it anymore! I’m not hungry!”
PARENT: “You need to eat, especially those green beans you haven’t touched yet. EAT”
KID: (starting down at the plate with lip pooched out and hands holding his head)
TIME ELAPSES MAYBE WITH A LITTLE MORE BACK AND FORTH
PARENT: “You need to eat 2 of these, 3 of these and 1 more bite of that” (separating food on the plate into portions smaller than what was originally served) then you can have a cookie I bought for you today.”
Here is the problem:
Frequent complaining about not eating and the daily negotiation of what to eat, how much to eat and “when will I be “finished?” It leads to frequent arguments, frustration and not-fun family meals.
Truly, the the source of the problem is we often don’t really think about what “finished” means until the kid starts to complain about how much she wants to eat. We never think about how much we would be happy with if the kid did eat “enough.” We are usually OK if he eats most of his dinner or she tries a few of the brussel sprouts, but rarely is it the case (especially with families who suffer from this problem) that the kid is in the “clean plate club.” Actually, the idea of the “clean plate club” is increasingly difficult if we are always “supersizing” our own home meals and just hoping the kid eats a bunch at which time we will decide when they are “finished” or have had “enough” to earn that cookie.
What to do:
As you prepare your child’s meal, think then about what you want them to eat, how much of what items need to be eaten. Remember, this is not what you necessarily want them to eat in terms of quantity, but what they need. It is usually the amount of food you end up offering after the argument. When you say, “2 of these, 1 of those, and 2 spoonfuls,” that portion. Be honest with yourself. Put these things and only these things on the plate.
Here is my reasoning:
I want to avoid the confrontation altogether and take away the negotiation. You do that by defining what “enough” is right up front: it is what you put on your plate (based on what was said above). This might look like the portions you would see on a French restaurant, instead of the #6 at McDonalds, but it sets a very clear definition of what “finished” will be. At this point, you can have the preferred dessert or after dinner activity based on your child “finishing” because you have defined it very nicely for them. There is no argument about it…it is what it is. One less argument, one less opportunity for them to learn their arguing and refusal works. If they finish, they finish. If they don’t, they don’t. If they want more, they can have more.
Now, there are people out there that think teaching our kids to eat until the plate is “clean” is bad…the argument is that it leads to obesity. Different topic altogether. My point is that the “clean plate” is a very easy, very noticeable and measurable way to signify the completion of the meal for the kid. We make it so by being very deliberate in what we put on the plate in the first place. You might find your kids actually eat better when they learn they can’t negotiate their meals.