Mealtime: An Epic Battle of the Ages

Although scholars might state otherwise, I believe that desserts were first invented by parents desperate for a bargaining tool in order to get their kids to eat their vegetables. I can see Adam and Eve, frustrated at little Cain and Abel's refusal to eat their leafy greens, perhaps dangling some forbidden fruit over their heads, saying they could have some if they would just three bites of spinach. So, the other night when I heard my boys declare, "I don't want dessert," in order to get out of eating their casserole, I thought to myself, "Oh, great. What am I going to do now?"

It became evident early in our parenting career that dinner was not going to be a pleasant event where the family sat down and happily consumed the delicious meal so diligently prepared by Mother. Instead, I now more accurately liken it to a battlefield, a bitter war fought between several stubborn entities. Yes, it has come down to war. As such, mealtimes are a dreaded event. 

In the beginning, concerned that our children would slowly dwindle away into nothing because of their refusal to eat anything that wasn't pre-processed and shaped like a dinosaur, I consulted our pediatrician. He dispensed the following warm-fuzzy tidbit: "Kids eat when they are hungry, not according to social customs like adults do. Try not to make mealtimes about power. If they don't eat, they don't eat. They'll probably survive." I took this bit of advice home, and attempted to implement it, much to my husband's chagrin. He comes from the school of thought that includes strict mandates such as "You will eat every single crumb of food off of your plate before you get down," and "I don't care if you don't like it, you have to eat it anyway." Having suffered through this battle with my parents myself, I wasn't too fond of reenacting it with my children. It brought up memories of stare-downs over the dinner table, where my father and I squared off like gunslingers in an old western movie, steely adversaries, determined to fight it out to the death.

Given the remarkable and all-too common victories of children in the dinner-table battle, as parents we must adapt new techniques to survive and regain control. At our house, desperate for the strategically important table-top supremacy, we have tried all of the following approaches without success:

1. The Laissez-Faire Approach: The philosophy behind this hands-off technique is that if they don't eat their dinner, oh well. The consequence is no snacks until the next mealtime; the theory here is that they will learn that if hungry, they will eat their meals. And all is usually pretty peachy, until, soon before lunch or dinner, famished from not eating the previous meal, they follow their parental unit around for an hour, constantly whining and wearing down their resolve. This works best when the parent is especially busy, on the phone, or needing to go somewhere in public. If this is the case, said parent will sometimes cave and give them a snack. Then, because they had a snack, they don't eat the next meal, and the nasty cycle perpetuates itself. Granted, the parent shouldn't have caved, but who can blame them, especially if you ARE a parent? In the millions of battles a parent has to confront over the course of one day, fighting one more is exhausting. Children know this, and apply that information better than the best enemy informant. Then of course, it's always fun when the other parent comes home and casually remarks, "Well, why did you cave? I never give in. You have to stick to your guns." This conclusion to the laissez-faire approach never ends well. Conflict within the head honchos is not a winning strategy.

2. Cut-Throat Business Approach: Deal with dinnertime like it is a high-stakes corporate negotiation. Come in with bargaining power, and have a bottom-line in mind. Contractual bites need to be negotiated with the child: "You can get down if you eat 5 bites of your meal." You can substitute 5 for some other number, if desired. Start high though; this way, when they say "No, 3 bites," you have room to budge, and the child can feel like they won a victory. Children are excellent negotiators, so expect to spend a good five minutes discussing the terms of bite-age, along with continuous enforcement throughout the meal. Beware of the following common evasion tactics from the toddler: Shady accounting tricks ("Hey, that wasn't my 2nd bite, it was my 3rd! I took one when you weren't looking!"); weak follow-through (taking baby-bites to fill their contractual quota); leading on the enemy (taking so long in-between bites that dawn starts to approach, and the parents just give up); playing the victim card (forced gagging to look more pathetic--nothing like almost throwing up to make Mom or Dad feel guilty); introducing extenuating circumstances (actual puking; Mom hates cleaning that up. A little throw-up goes a long way towards getting you out of dinner); and, lastly, skimming off the top (food in the napkin). 

3. The Quick-Order Chef Approach: This technique revolves around the parent cooking only foods that the children will actually consume. This means, however, that either you and your spouse are forced to eat hot dogs every night, OR that you have to cook two separate meals--one for kids, one for adults. Either way, it's not ideal. Besides, simply choosing food that "the children will actually consume," is, a large percentage of the time, an exercise in futility. The word "capricious" comes to mind when thinking of child food-preferences. Their palates are definitely subject to, and I quote the definition, "impulsive, seemingly unmotivated notion; an unpredictable or sudden condition, change, or series of changes." The meal that was their favorite one night will be deemed abhorrent the next day, a cruel and effective torture on parents' hopes and dreams of peaceful mealtimes. Also, the list of things that kids won't eat really limits the possibilities. Here is a list of things that my children have forbidden at one point or another: sauces in any form, excepting cheese on macaroni; capriciously, cheese on macaroni; sandwiches that are in any form other than on homemade wheat bread cut into four squares; chunks of fruit in yogurt; seeds in jam; anything green; tomatoes (whether whole, chunked, fresh, canned, or even in small flecks in a casserole); all vegetables except frozen corn; mushrooms; bread that crumbles too easily; homemade cheese pizza; orange cheese; chicken nuggets not shaped like dinosaurs; hot dogs with buns, ketchup or mustard on them; and, last but not least (I could go on for quite a while), anything at all that has "stuff" on it ("stuff" is an all-encompassing and surprisingly comprehensive category, and must be removed from the food before consumption, usually through a laborious process of napkin-wiping).

4. Behavioral Psychology Approach: This branch of psychology, focused on rewards and punishments, usually deals with rats in mazes, being trained to push buttons and perform tricks in order to win golden cheese-nuggets. It also can apply to children. This idea centers around the concept that if they don't eat dinner, they don't get a reward, or dessert. As for punishments, we've tried many: the threat of time-outs, no songs or stories at bedtime, or the removal of a prized toy, in addition to numerous others, have been attempted. This works really well, until the children decide that dinner is just so gross that it isn't worth choking it down in order to get a treat or evade consequences. As mentioned above, my boys have reached this point, rendering me powerless.

Note the common theme of children triumphing over parents in the above strategies. They are smart little rascals. We all were, once. I myself was a champion among picky eaters, so I realize the tinge of hypocrisy in my frustration with my children's fickle palates. The most infamous story, often repeated with zest and plenty of mockery at family gatherings, is the temper-tantrum I threw, in public, at a Dairy Queen, when my blizzard wasn't mixed properly. So usually, when sharing my woes, my parents simply laugh unsympathetically and taunt, "What goes around comes around!" Combined with the realization that nothing my parents did worked either, it makes for a rather hopeless situation.

So, as my children conquer on the table-battlefield yet one more time, I take hope in the knowledge that I now enjoy zucchini, and other formerly repugnant food items. It proves that most children do grow out of their pickiness, eventually. In the meantime, before each meal I prepare my strategy, lock 'n load, and step into the war-zone.