How to get your kid to eat dinner
Step one: Just do it. That's all.
We’ll get right to the point here. This is how you get your kid to stop being a “picky eater” and eat the food in front of him every day:
Cook him good food.
Serve it to him.
Do not cook him anything else.
That’s it. If you do this, your child will very quickly start to eat a lot of food, and mealtimes won’t be the irritating, time-consuming battlefields that so many American parents have come to hate.
This phenomenon of “picky eaters” seems to be a uniquely American thing, at least at the depth and breadth it is here. This is something parents in the U.S. agonize over all the time. We appear to be the first people in the history of our species who genuinely seem to struggle over how to get food into our kids’ mouths every day.
This problem was summed up quite nicely and succinctly in a recent article at the Takeout (which, so far as I can tell, is one of the like 30 media properties now associated with the Onion in some way):
As a parent of a picky eater, I know how hard it is to convince a child to eat something they’re unfamiliar with. Saying “It’s healthy for you!” has no meaning to a five-year-old who was raised on milk and crackers. Instead, it takes a bit of diligence, time, creativity, and possibly a few white lies. (No, I haven’t done this at all…)
This is all just overthought. Yes, it can be hard to persuade a child to “eat something they’re unfamiliar with.” You know how you ensure that a child is “unfamiliar” with most foods? You “raise them on milk and crackers.” If you feed your kid pretty much the most blandest food imaginable for literally their entire lives, it is not in the least bit surprising that they will grow to be wary of anything with actual flavor in it. Start them on a lot of different, flavorful, interesting foods when they’re very young, and you won’t have to literally lie to them in order to get them to eat when they grow older.
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It really isn’t more complicated than that. Cook a wide variety good, flavorful food pretty much every night. Serve it to them at a table. Eat the same food as them, with them. Don’t force them to eat anything, but don’t play short-order cook and make them buttered noodles or cut-up hot dogs when they say they don’t like dinner. They will figure out very, very quickly—like in a matter of one or two nights—that if they don’t eat dinner, they don’t eat. So they’ll eat, and they’ll figure out that food is pretty great and they don’t want to turn their noses up at it.
It should be stressed that it’s critical to serve your kid a lot of different foods on a regular basis. If you find that your kid likes green beans, say, and you only serve him green beans every single night because that’s just the easiest thing to do, there’s a high likelihood that after a while he’s only going to like green beans and no other vegetables. Consider, in contrast, how the writer Karen Le Billon describes the average French baby’s diet before their first birthday:
“By nine months, the options have expanded dramatically. By now, baby is eating a wider range of vegetables. For some, these still come as a brothlike soup in a baby bottle; otheras have graduated to being fed with a spoon (the preferred method for breast-fed babies). On the menu are carrots … green beans, spinach, zucchini, baby (white) leeks, baby endive, baby chard, and squash. …”
Is a French child somehow meaningfully distinct from your child—is he evolutionarily predisposed to like more foods than yours? Did a separate genetic lineage of archaic humans split off from the Denisovans 250,000 years ago and evolve in France to like baby endives and squash? Of course not. We’re all the same. The French just put a little more work and thought into this whole thing and they reap the benefits of it very early.
There are, of course, exceptions. If your kid has any one of the myriad debilitating dietary restrictions that seem to have cropped up over the past decade or two, don’t feed him that food, obviously. If your kid is truly, resolutely opposed to eating anything other than steamed rice and toast, well, you’ve got a long row to hoe and you’re just going to have to figure out how to best proceed on that front; maybe you can get your kid to change his palate and maybe you can’t, but you’ll figure that out when you try. And of course, if you feed your child enough different foods, there are going to be some that he simply just doesn’t like—that’s perfectly normal, we’re all like that, no need to force it.
Overall, though, this is not hard. In fact it’s really quite astonishingly easy. Cook good food. Serve it to your children. Don’t make substitutes. In all but a handful of special cases, your child will quickly learn to eat the food you put in front of him and grow up into a diverse, curious and satisfied eater. Boom, done. There you have it, folks: Zack Morris the Elder just obliterated the $2.5 billion how-to-make-your-kid-eat-spinach advice industry. If in the next few months I wind up in a trunk somewhere outside of East Rahway with a few bullets in my head, you’ll know why.
This is basically what we did, but for a couple of especially difficult months we offered an unappetizing back-up meal of rolled up deli turkey and carrot sticks--neither of which they really cared for. The trick was finding something that was just barely tolerable as an alternative rather than something they actually liked. They got over that quickly.
As a parent of three young children, I think I can explain: the average American parent feels like they need to spend a lot o quality time with their kids. And hangry kids are not fun at all. If your kid refuses to eat dinner, they are miserable to be around. Feeding your kids food they don't like takes a dedication, a will to fight, and the ability to ignore the whiny mess tugging your trousers. I happen to enjoy victimizing my children in the name of healthy eating, so I relish the fight. Other parents prefer to save their energy for endless play sessions.