“No dessert until you finish your dinner!” – Why child psychologists advise against saying this.

“No dessert until you have eaten your dinner!”, I think almost every parent in the land must have uttered these works at some point. It is often used when other forms of encouragement, coercing and the general battle of wills has reached that ‘all in’ stage.

Kids don’t even need to be what some would call “fussy” to refuse their food. It’s exhausting and rather than the dinner table being a nice environment where both adults and children enjoy social interaction as well as their food, the dinner table becomes a hostile environment where, almost immediately, everyone takes on a role of either enforcer or resistor. It’s tiring and a daily stress we could all do without.

The worse bit about it is that this technique of threatening our kids to get them to eat is not generally recommended by any professionals in the space of child nutrition. From pediatric nutritionists to child psychologists, they all advise again this route. And to make matters worse, we are fighting nature…. not a great battle to take on at the dinner table!

So, why do we end up in this predicament, what are the problems and what are the alternatives (how do we make our lives easier!)?

It is a familiar situation for all parents; a delicious, nutritious meal lovingly prepared at the end of a long day met with a “yuck”.

“It’s dinner time, you have to eat.” “You liked it last time.” “Eat half of it and we will be happy.” Or worst of all “You are not leaving the table until you have finished!”.

Parents assume the role of enforcer and our children take on the persona of the resistor, but why? It’s perfectly natural for kids to go through a phase of resisting food. From the child’s point of view, the dinner table is one area in their lives where they have control and they can, and will, exercise their will as they see fit. This is a battle where our children are on an unusually level playing field, they might even have the advantage. No parent would ever (and should never) physically force a child to eat so it becomes a pure battle of wills and negotiation. It is a chance for our kids to demonstrate just how stubborn they can be they can enjoy the negative attention, which to young children is just as satisfying as positive attention.

But it is might not just be a case of our kids being difficult. Kids are no different to us in terms of their eating habits, preferences and appetites. Have you ever been presented with a big plate of food when you are not hungry and been expected to eat it? It is not nice. Such a situation would only be made worse but someone hovering over you commentating on every mouthful you take. Kids are like us, sometimes they are just not that hungry. Some days they hoover everything in sight, some days they eat like a sparrow. Some days they might love salad, other days they are generally not in the mood. We mustn’t take it personally.

But our trump card of “no dessert’ works, so why is it frowned upon? The professionals argue that it has an impact on the ongoing relationship with food. Their arguments include:

  • ‘Eat your vegetable to have your cake’ is essentially saying ‘get through the horrible vegetable bit and you can have the really good cake bit’. It trains our kids to value often less nutritious dessert over the healthier main component of the meal.
  • Kids need to develop the ability to listen to their bodies and understand hunger and the feeling of being full. We trust a breast feeding baby’s instinct to stop when they have had enough but once they are onto solids we then decide to administer an arbitrary portion of food and insist that it is eaten. Kids need to understand normal hunger and be responsible for knowing when they are full. If they lose their ability to determine when they are full, which can happen quickly, it can take a long time to regain that understanding.
  • The formation of roles and the subsequent stress and tension at the dinner table creates a hostile environment. Kids should look forward to meal times, it should be relaxed and social and a time to build family bonds, not a time to out-negotiate each other and establish winner and losers.

So what is the alternative? Popular opinion these days suggests that, as parents, we give up our power. Essentially, the message is “kids, eat as much or as little as you like”. However, this has to be carried out in the right context. It is suggested that kids follow a 3 and 2 structure to their eating, eating 3 meals a day and 2 snacks. Their intake should be around 85% savory and 15% sweet. Portions should be small (i.e. not daunting) with more available if desired or even offered on a serve yourself basis at the table. If food is refused, don’t take it personally!

Using these basic guidelines, we can be confident that our kids will be eating enough as even if they just pick at a meal or completely skip it we can be satisfied that through their other 2 meals and their snacks they will have eaten sufficient quantities to meet their requirements. It is too easy to have tunnel vision with meals and we are advised to take a broader view of the day’s eating as a whole, or even the past few day’s intake. Most Western children are unlikely to suffer any malnutrition on undernourishment from missing a meal or two, however, it if they are pressured into eating they are quite likely to develop anxiety around food which can be the root of much greater food issues down the line.

We have tried this approach and it works. It is incredibly liberating. No more negotiations. No more worry about whether enough is being eaten, just relaxed meal times. The kids eat theirs, we eat our and nobody leaves until everyone has finished eating what they want to eat. No distractions, of which the negotiations used to be a big one, just relaxed eating. That is not to say that every meal is a dream, far from it, we still have children wondering off, drinks knocked into food, sleeves in sauces and all that other fun stuff but the daily routine of enforcer and resistor is gone and it makes a big difference.

It is probably of little comfort for many right now who are going through the daily dinner table battle but kids will naturally grow out of refusing food and before we know it we will be wondering where the contents of the fridge went and if our kids have hollow legs. But the journey to get there does not have to be a difficult one… or risk developing anxiety around food or worse along the way. We have to remain vigilant and ensure that there are no other health concerns with our kids weight or any more serious issues that may require professional intervention but as a day to day approach to family meals, we prefer ‘eat what you like’ to the old system.


For more information on how to achieve stress free meals get my top 5 principles that experts recommend you use to help feed your kids.

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