All parents want mealtime to be pleasant, enjoyable, and healthy, and they want their children to eat a variety of foods. But often the ways in which they try to accomplish these goals are self-defeating.
Parents may put new food in front of their child and say, “Just taste it.” They hope, of course, that he’ll enjoy the food and therefore ask for more. They also hope that after trying one taste, he’ll get used to experimenting with new foods. However, what often happens is that he refuses the taste, and a power struggle develops.
Parents sometimes try threats or various types of persuasion. “You won’t get dessert unless you taste this.” Using dessert as an incentive focuses too much attention on sweets and often causes a child to expect dessert as a reward. Parents also say, “But it’s good for you,” “It’ll make you big and strong,” and “Some poor children don’t have any food to eat.” But children ignore such statements, which are based in part on falsehoods. There’s no instant strength from food, and eating a meal won’t help another child who has to go without.
Although you may succeed in having your child taste something new, there can certainly be negative consequences. First, your child will seldom, if ever, ask for more of the rejected food. And if you’re eating in public, his refusal to eat more than one bite can lead to embarrassment. One young child, forced to taste apple pie at a friend’s party, declared loudly, “I hate this dessert!” Once a child decides he doesn’t want what’s offered, he usually won’t change his mind. Another negative effect of forcing children to taste food is the risk of establishing a life-long pattern of aversion. Many adults continue to avoid food they remember being forced to eat when they were young.
Struggles over food are often as much about eating as they are about power. Children feel powerless when they’re not able to say, “I don’t want it.” And when they do try a bite of something they don’t want, they eat only because they feel they have no choice, or they want to please their parents, or they want dessert.
When your child resists food, he’s usually not being stubborn. It’s just hard for him to tolerate a taste he finds unpleasant. Often, he decides that he likes or doesn’t like something based on its looks and consistency. Therefore, he may know at first sight that he doesn’t want to try something new. Occasionally, he may refuse food because he’s afraid that once he tries a bite, he’ll have to keep on trying more and more new foods.
Yet, despite all the negative effects and emotions involved in forcing a taste, parents get into mealtime struggles for a positive reason: they want their children to eat nutritious foods willingly. And there are ways to accomplish this without resorting to arguments. You can talk to your pediatrician or a nutritionist about alternatives for healthy eating and consult books and online advice for recipes and meals that accommodate a range of tastes. Provide healthy snacks your child generally enjoys, and model for your child the kind of healthy eating habits you want him to adopt.
At mealtime, provide healthful food and leave him free to choose what he wants to eat. You’ll find that when there’s no coercion or arguing, meals will be more relaxed and your child will be more willing to try new foods. As your child gets older, his tastes will change, and he’ll eat different types and amounts of food. For pleasant and healthy eating, the best thing to do is offer a variety of good food without putting on the pressure.