Dinnertime can be full of drama, can’t it? It’s the end of the day, and everyone’s tired and hungry — including mom and dad. And children can be adamant about what they will and won’t eat.
But there’s one common practice that I think makes dinnertime even harder, and it may be something you’re doing. Do you ask your kids what they want to eat? Here’s why I think that’s not a good idea.
One child wants macaroni and cheese, another chicken soup, absolutely no peas insists one, while another can’t decide what she wants. Negotiating and persuading and arguing leave at least one child whining, and a parent frustrated and exhausted. Meal time becomes a battlefield instead of a happy recollection of the day’s events.
Why is this happening?
As a parent, you genuinely want to please your children. We want our kids to eat well and we know they’ll eat what they like. We are more into food and nutrition these days than in the past. And we like for our children to have choices.
But wait a minute. There are some unintended things happening in this practice that can be unhealthy.
Children should not be in control.
Young children should not be determining the meals. It’s not their call — it’s the parents’. This decision puts the child squarely in control in the family, a control they were not created to have nor emotionally equipped to have. It subtly places the child in the role of “boss” and the parent relegated to “short-order cook.” This is unhealthy for the child and undermines the control of the parents. A child who calls the shots in the home will become insecure, not secure, because that child should not have that much authority over his parents.
Our children are stressed out with all the choices they have to make.
Our children are growing up in a world of choices with a greater freedom than ever to make their own decisions. While this may be good, the level of stress it creates in a child can become burdensome. Throughout the day at preschool or school they are faced with an unprecedented plethora of choices which they have to make. They don’t need to be faced with this again when they come home to dinner. Their stress will be relieved when the dinner is decided for them.
A kindergarten specialist says, “I have had several children throughout the years that couldn’t deal with uncertainty. One little boy kept disrupting the class at different times. It took me a while to realize that he needed to know what was coming next so I began to give him a “heads-up” if I was about to change activity or location. I didn’t give him a choice. I just let him know what was coming. The problem was solved. Children like to know someone is in charge. If you make them think they are in charge they will expect to be in charge when you least expect it.
We want to raise our children to be good guests.
Training in manners begins at an early age. How will your 7- or 8-year-old respond when invited out to someone’s home and they don’t like what they are served to eat? Or what about a teenager invited to a dinner party? How will you expect them to graciously accept what is put before them when they are have been used to accepting or rejecting food at home? If we want to raise kids with good manners, they must be taught at home to graciously accept what is put before them, taking a few bites of everything they are given.
We don’t need unnecessary conflict.
This is usually what happens when dinner choice is put before children. It is very hard to avoid negotiating. Wouldn’t you as the mom love for food not to become another battlefield? This is one conflict that can be avoided.
A few tips
If you’ve been allowing your kids to dictate the meal plan and you want to change, here are a few pointers to make the transition easier:
- Explain the changes that are going to take place. Be as specific as possible and with older kids explain “why.”
- Expect dissension. Your kids may not eat what you have prepared. Simply insist they stay at the table until everyone else has finished and let them know they cannot have anything else to eat until morning. Prepare for the complaining to last for 4-5 nights. Our kids will not believe we mean what we say until we have persisted for several nights. (They have to see we are trustworthy!)
- Keep a long-range perspective. We are building character for the future and we want to raise polite adults.
- You can still inject some freedom into your dinners. Occasionally declare one night “free choice” night and make it a celebration. On each person’s birthday let the birthday child or adult choose the family’s menu for their birthday meal. This will make choice special rather than merely a burden.
- Plan for good table conversation. Ask questions that call for more than a one-word answer. “What was something good that happened to you today? Who is someone you admire and why?” Place a basket on the table with pens and have each person write down some good questions to use. You can take turns drawing from the basket at future meals.
- Be sure that smart phones are left in another room, TV is tuned off and everyone stays at the table throughout the meal.
Family meals provide us with the opportunity to share in each other’s daily lives and build relationships that will last a lifetime. When dinner is overtaken with arguments about food, we can lose what’s really special about our time together.
I hope this is helpful. And may your kids clean their plates!