Are You a Short Order Cook?

by kate on April 2, 2021

Oh, if only they made a tool that safely pried open my toddler’s mouth.

I didn’t intend to become a short order cook, but somehow it happened. Dinner is served and my girls find reasons why they don’t like it and won’t eat it. Then I make something else. And something else. And something else. Do you know that one night they said “yuck” to me and I about lost it. That’s when I realized something had to change.

Certainly you’ve experienced this. I do hope I’m not alone in this struggle!

Then a few days later I walked into my daughter’s preschool for lunch and there she was, eating spinach. YES! Spinach. Not a “yuck” in sight. Oh, the positive affects of peer pressure! When I asked the teacher how she manages to get the kids all eating their veggies, here is what she said:

Children can eat their veggies* - spinach even! - if ‘framed’ in a way to make dinner successful. In fact, you can get your child to eat what is on her plate, without complaining, fussing, or fidgeting. Most especially and importantly, without a land grab for control.

How? Rhythm and clarity.

1. Have dinner at the same time every night. Ex. after bath, 6:00 p.m. (it matters less the exact time and more the concrete reference of ‘after bath’). Having a predictable dinner time allows their bodies to naturally regulate. They will start to be hungry at the same time each night, reinforcing your dinner rhythm.

2. Cook the food and fix the plate, don’t give options. Here is where your inner authority reigns. Dinner is what it is. Period. Giving options is like negotiating with terrorists. Once they see you bend, they will not stop. Children like sameness, so do not shy away from cooking the same thing over and over again. Adults like variety, children don’t. Rice every other night is fine. Rice every night is fine. For a while anyway. Also, be sure to give appropriate portions - a bite or two of new items, that’s it. More of what you know they like. But keep in mind that you want them to ask for more, so don’t overload their plate. The point here is to set them up for success: seeing an empty plate.

3. Have a “no thank you bite.” Even if they moan about not liking something, tell them to take one bite as a way to say no thank you. If you ask them to taste it, they will say no. But a no thank you bite is a positive action they can take to get their way.

4. Clear the dishes when dinner is over. Whether or not the plate is clean, have your child take the dish to the kitchen. If there is food on it, have them scrape it off. This shows them, physically and visually, that there is no more to eat. They will have to wait until breakfast for more. If they are still hungry, offer some water - possibly milk. If your child is still hungry, that hunger will be a much better teacher than any words you offer. Let their tummies browbeat them into eating more - they can’t ignore their own tummies.

When working efficiently, this dinner time ritual will appear as if you have effortless control of the situation. Imagine! Effortless control!

You, as the parent, have set up a successful dinner. The what, when and how is clear. The how much is up to your child. Win-win. It’s like magic! Only it’s well rehearsed, thoughtfully practiced magic. It’ll take some time to get the rhythm down, but get it down you will.

Dinner time isn’t the only food related battle ground. In truth, it happens all day long and can be exhausting. So again, invoke rhythm to see you through.

Every 2 hours offer a healthy snack: protein + a fruit/veg + a grain. Small amounts are great. One almond, some popcorn, a few apple slices. Why so often? Physiologically, children’s bodies need to eat something every 2 hours. Not much, but something. For one, they are growing incredibly fast. But also, children are in constant motion, so they burn through their fuel easily.

Every 2 hours. Small bites.

Another reason this works for parents and children is that it takes the control and struggle out of food issues. If you know that you will offer more food within 2 hours, then it doesn’t matter if your child doesn’t eat. It also gives you a framework against which to stand firm. “No you cannot have a cookie now, but you will have a snack after play time.” The rhythm holds you. It doest the work for you.

*A quick note on how to get your child to eat veggies, ALL veggies. Cook them in butter and salt. Lots of both. Enough to make the veggies taste like butter and salt. No, this isn’t great for 30+ year old bodies, but the point here is to get the veggies in first, and then start making them a little healthier. If your child regularly eats butter with a little spinach thrown in, then it won’t be long before she’ll be eating it raw. Maybe she won’t be Popeye within a week of her first taste of spinach, but soon enough.

photo credit: kennymatic

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Busykidshappymom April 2, 2021 at 6:10 am

I’ll never forget when I finally put my foot down and said I wouldn’t make a toasted cheese sandwich fir my first born at every meal. No problems with my second son. He goes with the flow and eats everything !

Audrey April 3, 2021 at 8:14 am

In our home we have found that some of our rules are in place based on what we think is acceptable behavior when we are out in the world. If a friend or relative has prepared us dinner, it would be extremely rude for our child to insist on a peanut butter sandwich instead. Therefore, it is not acceptable behavior to practice at home either. You eat what is prepared.

I thought your idea of a “no thank you bite” was interesting and I might try that out when introducing something new but I think a few of your other ideas at the end are a bit off - 2 hours and butter?

Kate April 4, 2021 at 11:00 am

@Audrey. Amen sistah, on the practice at home what you want to see in public. I think that’s an awesome way to look at it. Also, with the butter + 2 hour thing, thanks for bringing it up so I can clarify. I’m talking specifically about children under 7 who are in all ways considered healthy, so butter in their diet isn’t going to cause issues. I say butter because it’s a known taste to kiddos so if you saute spinach in butter, it’s not so spinach-y at first. Then, after like 10+ times you’ve offered it, with each time reducing the butter to spinach ratio, then your kid might in fact be eating spinach readily. Also, every feeding your child every 2 hours - simple things like 3 almonds or a few apple slices - keeps their blood sugar mostly stable so they won’t experience dips, causing them to be more cranky and icky. Again, I’m talking healthy kids who get exercise regularly, play outside, run, skip, jump, etc. so they are burning their food as soon as they eat it. I know you’re skeptical - and I was, too when my daughter’s preschool teacher advised me to do this. But. I am pretty strict about it now and I completely see a difference in my girls. Yes, they still have tantrums, but I don’t let them get hangry. I know, in myself, if I don’t eat small bites often, I get hangry, too. Make more sense?

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