Parents ask me all the time what my thoughts are on offering their child an alternative choice for dinner if they refuse the first choice.

This is a topic that I feel quite strongly about, as a result of both personal experiences with my own children and from what the research says on the topic. I understand the need for parents to feel like they don’t want their child to go hungry, or that they want to give their child autonomy over meal choices without “forcing it” on them. And so we give our child the power, so to say, to choose not to have a meal you’ve offered and instead opt for another one of their liking.

However, I think as parents, we sometimes need to step back and look at approaching how we let our children choose to eat much like how we let them choose other things, say, like choosing clothes to wear to school in the morning or what gift they can buy their friend for their birthday. We don’t (or at least I hope we don’t!) give our child free-reign to choose from absolutely anything they want in the toy store to gift their friend on their birthday, or else we’d wind up paying an insane amount of money or choose something inappropriate for their age. Instead, we have boundaries in place such as a price range and age group in which we may allow our child to have some input and feel content with the gift choice, while you are still remaining in control and at ease knowing it’s appropriate. In much the same way, we don’t want our child to have free reign in choosing their meals every night, with little to no boundaries set on what they can choose from. Unfortunately, when we allow our child to choose to have another meal that was not the original option presented to them, they are breaking the mealtime boundaries you have set in place.

You see, there are certain roles and responsibilities for both child and parent when it comes to feeding. These responsibilities were first outlined by feeding guru and dietitian, Ellen Sattyr, who is world-renowned for her expertise and research on the topic of healthy mealtime and food relationships in children.

Here is what she says:

The role of the parent is to choose:

  • What meal you are going to offer
  • Where it will be eaten
  • When it will be eaten

The role of the child is to choose:

  • If and what they want to eat from what you’ve offered them
  • How much they want to eat

In this way, you can see that with this framework, immediate boundaries are set to allow for clear roles between parent and child. This eliminates a power struggle between child and parent, and keeps both the parent and child trusting in each other to fulfill their roles.

Within this framework, we can see it’s our job as parents to provide children with healthy and nutritious meals. This is the structure we can give them. However, it is normal and even expected that children may not want to eat every meal the way you’ve chosen. Setting up the experience as positively as possible is key to making both parties happy. This is where something I like to call “structured choice” comes in. In other words, you really DO want your child to exert autonomy and personal preference over their meal by giving them choice within the structure you’ve laid out for them.

Here is an example of what this could look like:

Parent: “We are having spaghetti and meatballs with salad tonight. You can choose to have sauce on your spaghetti noodles, on the side, or no sauce at all. Which would you like?”

Child: “ I don’t want any sauce at all.“

The child now immediately feels that they have some choice in the matter of how they want to eat their meal. Perhaps eating the noodles dry is not how you would prefer them to eat it, but as a parent, here is where you will need to let go of the control, and pass the choice onto your child. You provide the structure, and they choose from within that. If the child says they don’t want either of the options and would rather something else, you can redirect them to the fact that they can modify the meal how they like, but this is the only meal you have prepared and the only meal that will be eaten for dinner that night. It is important to do this without exerting pressure on them, which may take some practicing. For more information on the types of pressure at meal times and how to avoid it, click here.

Without an alternative meal option, a few things will start to happen. First, children will try over time to taste the food you’ve offered, especially when hungry, as they know their will not be another choice. They will not hold out for another, more appealing food that they know they will be able to get (i.e. no power struggle). Second, it will prevent them from getting into a food rut, because they won’t continually fall back to the same tried and true foods. Instead, they will be required to eat from a variety of meals, which over time will expand their palettes. Third, you will not be making second meals for them, because let’s be honest, no one has time for that!

Another example could be:

Parent: “Would you like carrots or green beans for your vegetable with dinner?”

The child may answer by saying they want the carrots, or perhaps again, by choosing no vegetable at all. You’ve done your job by offering and they have done their job by choosing within that offer. There is no bargaining or negotiating for another meal that they want to choose. They will begin to realize that after some time, these rules are consistent and will come to expect that they cannot make alternative demands.

The more a child sees that the parent has the role of choosing the meal and they have the role of deciding what and if to eat from it, the easier meal time will get because of the expectations you’ve set.

Do you struggle with battles at the dinner table? Do you find yourself giving into your child’s demands? Send me an email and let me know your struggles – I’d love to help!


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