5:00. It's dinnertime. I know it's coming...
"Momma! What's for dinner?"
I hate that question. I dread it. I avoid answering it at all possible costs. Because I know what the response will be.
"I don't like ____ (fill in the blank with most vegetables, some fruits, anything with tomato sauce, anything slightly spicy...really anything that doesn't get its main flavor from cheddar cheese)." And then the next comment is always an emphatic, "I'm not going to eat it!"
And thus begins the daily dinner battle. My older boys launch Missiles of Mass Complaining at me from the opposite end of the table while I deflect their attacks by pretending not to hear. Sometimes I launch back my own missiles of Mommy Says So. My youngest tries a different tactic - if he doesn't like the food, he throws it on the floor.
My oldest is almost six, so I have been fighting the daily dinner battle for approximately five years. But since I started feeding my family a healthier, seasonal diet, the battles have increased in frequency. More leafy greens and more fruit and vegetable variety has meant more and more Missiles of Mass Complaining.
Over the years, I have lost many, many battles. But I've also learned a thing or two. So for other mothers in the dinnertime trenches, here are the battle plans that have worked for me.
Battle Plan #1: Reward.
My doctor says that you shouldn't use food as a reward. This is good advice unless you are the desperate mother of the world's pickiest eater, so I chose to ignore him and turned instead to the wisdom of mothers past....If you don't finish your dinner, you don't get dessert.
If the dessert bribe is all it takes to get your picky eater to eat his broccoli, I say go for it. Just make sure you keep your daily dessert small and relatively healthy - a square or two of chocolate rather than the whole bar, a bowl of fruit with a small scoop of ice cream rather than a triple banana split.
A friend of mine helped her three-year-old overcome his apprehensive eating habits with marshmallows: if he finished his meal, he got a marshmallow. Just one, but that was enough to motivate him to eat.
My boys are not so easily persuaded, and I would have given up on the
Battle Plan #2: Give them choices.
My time is valuable. Dinner takes a long time to prepare, so there's no way I'm making separate dishes for every person in the family. But at breakfast and lunch, we go a la carte. Do you want granola or a muffin? What do you want in your granola: a banana, blueberries, or strawberries? I require the boys to eat a fruit and a vegetable at lunch, but they each get to pick what kind. And I've found that as long as they get to choose, they'll happily eat it.
Battle Plan #3: Be flexible.
I buy most of our produce fresh and in season at the farmer's market, but I always keep a few fruits and vegetables on hand year round regardless of season: bananas, avocadoes, carrots, and celery. I also buy canned pineapples and occasionally some mangoes. I would rather buy all of our produce at the farmer's market, but these are fruits and vegetables that I know my kids will eat so I'm willing to be a little flexible.
In the early days of the Daily Dinner Battle, I gave in pretty easily. If my oldest complained about dinner, I made him something else. I always kept frozen chicken nuggets and hot dogs on hand, and it was no biggie to pop them in the microwave to avoid a major battle. But eventually, I decided that wasn't the best parenting strategy. Beyond the practical reason that I'm not a restaurant and don't take individual orders, or the health reason that I want them to eat a variety of good foods, there are two other reasons why I persist in fighting with my children over food:
:: There will come a time in my children's lives when they will be offered a food they don't like, but it would be rude not to eat it. Maybe they will be invited over to dinner at their boss's house. Maybe they will be meeting their future in-laws. Regardless what the situation is, I think it's important to learn the skill of being able to eat something even if you don't like it.
:: Children's food preferences change over time, and how will they know one day that they really do like kale if I don't keep offering it to them?
Take tonight, for example. I made a simple stir-fry of vegetables, noodles, and tofu. I've made this dish many times before, and every time, it's been served with a side of the usual complaint: "I don't like tofu! I'm not going to eat it."
But this time, they took their plates silently as I gently reminded them that they had to eat it if they wanted Mommy Fun Time. They poked the tofu. They sniffed it. And then they ate it. All three of my boys scraped their plates clean.
Now if only I could figure out how to win the Daily Bedtime Battle.
What strategies have you used to win the Daily Dinner Battle?