Why it’s okay to let your kid eat dessert during dinner (a guide for the picky eater!)

You know the scenario: You’ve prepared a healthy meal and think to yourself this will finally be the night we’ll all sit together and eat. No fussing, no crying, everyone eating many bites of food, laughing, talking about our day……”

BUT your toddler has other plans. If your life is any bit as crazy as mine around diner time, your meal likely goes a little something like this:

Attempt to get toddler in highchair – toddler refuses highchair so you think “he has to eat, doesn’t matter where” so you negotiate for him to sit in a big chair. This lasts a few minutes until he transitions 3 more times and finally ends on your lap.

“Well, at least we’ve got him sitting!” Now, on to eating. You try mashed potatoes on the airplane spoon – lots of big sounds and excitement. He LOVED mashed potatoes last night and now…wants NOTHING to do with them – airplane spoon or not. So, now you start to negotiate: “remember little dude, you can’t go outside, play with the dog, eat ice cream until……(you eat SOMETHING!!!!)” – and while he kinda understands, this sort of reasoning is flying in one ear and out the other, and you’re still getting absolutely nothing from the plate into his mouth.

Toddler starts to ask for treats and you stay firm for a while, but eventually realize he’s not going to eat the dinner you prepared. You rationalize that he’s going to have to eat something, so you give in and give him the (ice cream, popsicle, lollipop, Halloween candy….etc.)

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there! This is a real live scenario that takes place over many dinner tables in the homes of toddlers every night.

There’s good news and it doesn’t involve simply waiting until your child is old enough to understand strict dinner table rules! Science can help you tackle this problem one bite at a time, using the simple concept of reinforcement.

In many cases like I just described, a kid ends up eating some not so great food (dessert, chips, etc.) and the amount varies based on 1) hungry he is and 2) how scared you are he might wake up in the middle of the night with an aching hungry belly!

I have great news – there’s a better way to address this problem over the “final give in” approach and yes, it does involve providing some small amounts of less than ideal foods. But the approach is much more systematic and you can control the portions of all foods offered. Before we get into the details, let’s review a few very important things to keep in mind:

  1. Your child wont’ starve. I promise! Kids have a really amazing way of regulating their hunger – knowing when they are hungry and when they are not. They respond much less to prompts in the environment that signal you should eat something than adults do (I mean, were you really hungry for that popcorn at the movies did you order it because you always have popcorn at movies?). So, when a kid is hungry – they eat. When they’re not hungry, they don’t eat.  And while routine is important, just because you’ve determined that 6pm is dinner time at your house, doesn’t mean his little body is ready for food every night at that time – and that’s okay!
  2. Like adults, caloric needs for your toddler will vary some day to day. If your child is in someone else’s care during the day, they likely eat varying amounts and types of food, and could eat at different times.  I remember one particularly difficult diner time with my own toddler that resulted in very little food intake. A few days later, after speaking with his daycare provider about something totally unrelated, she shared that they had a birthday party for one of the other kids that day and my son had his fair share of birthday cake. He just. Wasn’t. hungry. Additionally, activity levels, sleep patterns and developmental changes will influence hunger throughout the day, week, and month.
  3.  Don’t stress about the small food details – I talk with a lot of parents who get really stressed out about one serving of chocolate, a juice box, or a popsicle. I get it – it’s very difficult to be aware of how much nutrition can influence a child’s behavior and growth and not pay attention to it often. I encourage parents to look at the big picture – kind of like you probably do with your own diet. That is, if a kid is eating mostly good stuff – fruits, veggies, proteins, and grains – then having a cookie, some candy or other treats, even daily really is okay! Some people may disagree with me on this and that’s okay – you need to find what works for you, for your family and for your child – whatever that is, work off it and include it in your overall plan to tackle picky eating. Often, when you take a bird’s eye view of what your kid is eating, you’ll realize it’s actually pretty good and the things that were stressing you out are a minor part of their overall diet.

Alright, now on to the action!

Instead of the scenario described above, I want you to arm yourself to be prepared that no dinner is going to be easy with a toddler. They will fuss, run away, and actively resist nearly every instruction you give them. Do not try and convince yourself otherwise! Do this instead:

  1. Prepare your child’s dinner on the table with their fork, spoon, cup, and bowl. Cut food into bite sized pieces and have every material that is used for eating READY to go before you even mention dinner time to your toddler. PREPARE before anything else.
  2. Have a food that they really like and portion it out into a size that you feel comfortable with them having. Examples might include: 5 small pieces of chocolate candy, 10 potato chips, a 40 calorie juice popsicle, a half cookie, or even a preferred fruit like mango or strawberries.  
  3. Before giving any instruction for your child to go to the table, eat, or come for dinner, establish that you’ve got the good stuff “Joey, here are some potato chips!”
    1. NOW, you’ve got their attention!! If you’ve chosen a food they truly do like, this part will be easy.
    1. The timing here is important and can help separate what some may refer to as “bribery” and the use of positive reinforcement. To utilize reinforcement, establish the reinforcer first, THEN place the instruction – do not give the instruction and then say “oh, and I have candy!”
  4. Ask your child to come to the dinner table. If your child has a long history of throwing a tantrum and otherwise escaping food related tasks, go ahead and given them one piece of the treat for coming to the table. Giving a small treat early on based on very little response effort will establish that getting the treat is easy and it will help you follow through later.
  5. Depending on your child’s language and compliance with instructions, you can vary how complex you make the next steps. You should have the treat available, then place an instruction and as SOON as they comply with it – provide another piece of the treat. Examples of these first instructions:
    1. For super resistant kids: touch the empty spoon, put the spoon to your mouth
    1. For kids who are a bit more agreeable: eat one bite of carrot, try a mashed potato
  6. Continue this 1:1 arrangement (one bite = one piece of treat) for much of dinner time – you may have to really ration the treat to get through a dinner but that’s okay!
  7. Once you start to get some bites of real food in, start to “fade” the reinforcement – but don’t go TOO fast. Start by one time asking for two bites of “real” food before the treat…then go back to 1 bite……play with this schedule a little bit – 2 bites, 3 bites, back to 1 bite, etc. If you go too far – simply fade back and lessen the instruction. Whatever you do, don’t go from 1 to 10 all at once – this has to be gradual! My husband made this mistake when we first started some work with my son on mealtime – he had done a great job getting several bites of “real” food in one night and the next night, my husband decided that he could eat his whole meal and have a treat at the end – NO WAY! You’ve got to go slow – it may take several days or even weeks to get to that!
  8. Stop dinner when your child indicates they are full or aren’t interested any more – EVEN if you don’t feel like they had enough to eat! You got some bites of REAL FOOD in – this is a win win!

After following these steps a few things are likely to happen

  1. Your kid will come running to the dinner table at night – seriously!
  2. You’ll be able to get to a point where your child can eat several bites before needing any kind of treat. So, the dessert part will become a reality.
  3. You’ll be able to fade back on both the amount of dessert and on the frequency with which you feel comfortable giving it (e.g., twice a week instead of every night). Again, the key here is to GO SLOW! You’ll get there, I promise.

I’ve spoken with many parents who don’t love the idea of giving treats like this, but I’d encourage you to think about a few things:

  1. You’re likely giving them anyway, and doing it based on the tantrums and other undesirable behavior – so if you are going to give them, you might as well do it after the good stuff happens!
  2. The items used as reinforcers don’t have to be foods labeled as “traditionally bad” for your kid. I once worked with a family whose kid LOVED artichokes – so you know what they used as reinforcement? You guessed it – artichokes!

This process should work for most kids in most cases. You may have to play around with the right treat items, switch them up often, try new foods, or start more slowly, but this basic foundation should help get you through the initial reluctance of feeding.

To happier meal times ahead!

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