Why bribing, forcing and pressuring at mealtime don’t work (and what to do instead)

They say with parenting you need to “pick your battles.” How true this is with little ones. We don’t want to make everything a battle, but how do we know where to draw the line? I advise my clients that one place that should not, and need not, be a battle is at mealtime. Here’s a deep dive into why bribing, forcing and pressuring at mealtime don’t work (and what to do instead).

Mealtimes should be about fun, laughter and family. But, if you have little ones at home, you know this is often not the case. Let’s talk about why we don’t want to fight at mealtimes and how to make mealtimes less about butting heads and more about family. Let’s start by talking about what’s common.

Fits and Tantrums: New toddler preferences and budding emotional expression and language skills can often collide at the dinner table. It’s totally normal that our little ones struggle with the model of sitting at the table for an hour.

Picky Eating: Picky or selective eating is a common developmental phase that children go through. The more we can remember this, the better off we will be.

Bribery or “forcing”: With any of the above, especially after we’ve just arrived home and had only a few minutes to think about how to get a nutritious meal on the table, it’s easy to get desperate, and sometimes’s we’ll grab hold of anything we know will work. Offering sweet treats or threateing to take them away “unless you finsih your XYZ” are understanbale emotional responses.

When my older daughter was 2, I attended a parenting class with a positive parenting approach. The teacher of the class talked about how sleeping, eating and potty training are three areas that we want to control, but ultimately we really can’t. I am going to leave sleeping and potty training up to the other experts, but I can tell you that in my years of professional practice and as a mom, I’ve confirmed really can’t force a child to put food into their body.

It’s important to think about the messages we are sending to our children.

When we put that pressure on our child they tend to pull back. Children don’t respond well. Pressure at mealtimes has been linked to disliking the actual food and unwillingness to eat the food. I have found in my practice, and with the hundreds of families I work with, that anytime parents put pressure on their child to eat, the child doesn’t want to eat. Think about the downside of bribing or negotiating when it comes to food. What are we teaching our kids? For example, when a parent asks a child to “eat one more piece of broccoli and then you get a cookie” what a child hears is “I HAVE to eat the broccoli (yuck) to get my cookie (reward).” We want to reframe that.

You may have read my past blog post about a healthy relationship with food. Ideally, we want our child to grow up trusting their bodies and themselves. Eventually they will be on their own, making their own food choices, right? We have the power to start shaping that relationship with food now.

Now that we have talked a bit about what not to do, let’s think about what we can do instead.

1. We can trust our children when it comes to feeding them. This is going to be a part of my upcoming 5 day challenge, but suffice to say here that when we get onto the road of trust when it comes to feeding our children, many of our feeding anxieties melt away, along with our kids anxieties.

2. We can think about short vs long-term goals. Right now we want our child to be meeting their nutrition needs and growing adequately. This may not be happening with a huge intake of vegetables, or meats, and that’s okay. Our long-term goal is to help our children love the foods we love. Many parents are eager to have their children try something new, and a lot of the time it’s vegetables, but I remind parents to proceed with caution. It can take many attempts of offering a food until a child actually eats it (research shows it can take 20 or 30 exposures). So think about eating those foods as a long-term goal. If you continue to expose your child to those foods, and they interact with those foods, they are on their way to trying them!

3. Set respectful limits and boundaries. Although we don’t want to put pressure on our child to eat, we still have the responsibility to set limits when it comes to mealtimes. The behaviors at mealtimes that we don’t want to see (ie throwing food, not sitting at the table) need to be met with respectful boundaries that kids can grow into instead of running from. I recommend a 3 part formula: we state our expectations, we acknowledge and set limits and we follow through. I write more about this here, here and will be helping parents to work through this in my Group Coaching Program.

4. We can set feeding routines. Most young children do best with meals and snacks every 2-2.5 hours, while older children do best with meals and snacks every 3-4 hours. But read your child. Some younger children can go longer stretches without food, while some older children need meals and snacks to be closer together. Having a feeding schedule builds upon this structure. Children know what to expect when it comes to feeding and when to expect meals and snacks. This understanding, built into a structure, helps parents too: setting expectations for kids will help them to understand their day, and reduce the urge to lash out. Parents can focus on feeding, not fighting.

Although bribing, forcing and pressuring at mealtime don’t work, there are things you can instead. Make sure you download my free guide, 4 steps to help your little one try new food. I walk you though how you can start making positive changes at mealtimes and get your little ones on the path to expanding what they are eating.