6 words to end mealtime battles

It’s the most frustrating thing in the world.

A mother prepares a lovely, tasty meal for their child, and the arguing begins with a child’s saying:

I don’t like that
I am not eating that salad
That’s gross, why is the potato touching the gravy
I hate chicken in sauce

And the mother gets scared, annoyed or downright angry. The fear says:

He has to eat supper or he will wake up hungry at midnight
He hasn’t eaten anything healthy/ substantial all day
I know he likes this food, he ate it last week at granny
If he doesn’t eat, he won’t grow properly and he already is so small

And so, with fear and worry in the driving seat, the negotiations begin:

Please, just one bite
You love this, you ate it all at granny last week
You have to eat three bites of meat or there is not dessert
Just taste it……

And your child gets more irritated and defiant. He (most probably aged 2 – 6) and is desperate to assert his independence. He wants to decide what to eat, and just isn’t in the mood of it, or just is saying that, and the more you nag him the more he argues and gets upset.

The fighting continues, and you give up. You either make him something he requests, like cereal or pasta, or let him go away from the table without eating anything and offer him snacks the rest of the evening to make up for it.

No one is happy.  Your meal was a failure. It was a failure because instead of enjoying your family, you fought.

So here goes:

Your children can be trusted to eat what they need. They are born with the innate knowledge of how much to eat and to grow predictably. They have hunger and fullness cues, and can honor these perfectly with the right support (reliable meals and structure mealtimes). They are erratic eaters, with changing tastes and appetites, but that doesn’t change their ability.

By forcing, begging, negotiating or even enticing them you guarantee

  1. They won’t eat that food now, or in the future (they may taste it but will have such bad associations with it)
  2. They won’t enjoy mealtimes and resist coming to the table and eating at all
  3. Meals become not about joy and connection, but a power struggle. These tactics make a child anxious or angry, and these feelings of stress make them forget they are hungry. Think about when you have a fight with your sister/ friend/ spouse – or if you are stressed about work. Usually, you are too worked up to realize you are hungry. Same with your kids. Negative feelings make it hard for kids to get in touch with their hunger cues.

Sound familiar?

Instead of going down this route, here’s a phrase I use ALL the time with my children and it is magical. Yes, I mean magical. It diffuses all tension, and often, not always, means they eat or taste the thing they said they despised.

What is this phrase? “YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT IT”

“Do you want some peas?”
“Okay, you don’t have to eat it.”

I serve a plate with chicken, rice, pears and grapes.
Yuck, I don’t want that. I want chocolate milk.
“This is the meal, you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to… “

I hate butternut
“You don’t have to eat it”

It’s a broken record. And my children know I mean it when I say it.

My ONLY jobs with feeding are:

  • Shop for, prepare &  cook food
  • Serve food regularly
  • Decide where we will eat
  • Make mealtimes pleasant
  • Teach manners and expect they use them as they become old enough

My jobs are not

  • To get my child to eat a certain amount of food
  • To force my child to taste everything on his plate
  • To decide if he’s full yet

Those are my child’s jobs. His jobs with eating are:

  • Whether or not to eat from what I offer
  • How much to eat
  • Behave decently at the meal (age appropriate)

My child’s job is not:

  • To decide what the menu is
  • To demand that I prepare his own food

And while supper is normally served family-style, lunch is often served on a plate to each child. And every single time I serve it without fail, I say “You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to”.

It removes all pressure, and the child is free to eat or not because he wants to. It DOES NOT guarantee your child will try, or like a certain food – today or ever. But it does create space for them to try it out of their own will, and one day try it out and maybe even like it.



It takes using it consistently for a few weeks/ months before your child starts to trust he won’t be pressurized to eat anything and to actually start being able to listen to his own body’s signals. Try it – and watch what happens.

Add A Comment