Archive for April, 2010

Dinner Table Lessons from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

April 30, 2010 2 comments

“Have you seen Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution?” the moms I coach in getting their kids to eat have been asking me. I finally pulled it up on the web and watched every episode all at once this week.

If I were in Oliver’s place, there are a couple of things I would have done differently (and many not as well), but I admire what he’s done. The more this kind of thing is broadcast, the better, I figure. Oliver encourages us to provide kids with better food. He appeals to our emotions about its importance, and shows us how it’s possible and enjoyable to cook and eat better food. We also see kids perfectly able to enjoy real, from-scratch food.

One of the best moments of the show for us parents to see is when Oliver demonstrates the creation of chicken nuggets.  That process, which would turn the stoutest stomach, is not the most interesting thing about it. It’s when the kids say they’d still eat the nuggets, and especially, their reason: “Because we’re hungry!” Kids will eat even gross stuff, if that’s what they get, because they’re hungry.

Because they’re used to getting nothing better, those kids probably figured, “Yes, I eat whatever I’m given, because I’m hungry.” They probably thought, “I like those things, and I haven’t died eating them up to now, so I’ll probably be OK.” Poor things. They eat what we give them, for better or worse. They’ve just revealed their weak spot–hunger!– in this food war, which we adults are still losing to a great extent. And we’ve been following their lead when they’re counting on us to take care of them.

If kids eat junk because they’re hungry, why is it we assume they won’t eat the healthy food that their bodies are designed to eat, for the same reason? Why the fear that they won’t eat new foods or fresh foods?

This hunger of kids that drives them to eat seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle in many efforts to “get kids to eat.” So many strategies to get food in kids’ stomachs seem based on the assumption that it’s all up to adults to make sure kids eat, however we can. If we don’t give them what they want, kids will not eat and will starve and die.

So, to make sure they eat, we feed them the same old processed beige junk they’ve been willing to eat in the past, over and over.

As in the show, we give them strawberry or chocolate milk with “more sugar than pop,” according to Oliver. As Rhonda, the woman in charge of feeding all the kids at the 20-some schools in the district, tells Oliver, ”We think they’ll drink more if it’s flavored.”

It’s true that given the choice between plain and flavored, kids will often choose flavored. They don’t know any better or care at their age. But since they’re hungry and since we know best, we adults do get to decide what they’re going to get to eat. We just need to take hold of our power.

As Oliver says, “Give them what they should get and what we think they should have and they’ll get used to it.”

Related post:

How to get kids to eat at the dinner table

When the appetite goes, everything goes

Child Obesity Task Force: Stacking the Deck Against Parents & Children

©  Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 30 April 2010 / All rights reserved

How to get kids to eat at the table? The Push & Pull Principle

April 14, 2010 9 comments

Two totally true stories moms recently told me illustrate a key principle in getting kids to come to the table, behave, and eat what you want them to eat.

Marlena’s kids are very narrow in what they will eat. They’re afraid of new foods. The dinner table is a battlefield of pressuring and resistance. Her overweight four-year-old, Walker, survives on bean-and-cheese tacos, filling up on juice to make it through the day to avoid other foods.

When her children won’t eat dinner, she feeds them whatever they are willing to eat, right before bed, in order to keep them asleep (so they don’t scream during the night).

One evening the whole family was doing the chicken dance after each bite Walker took, because that’s what got him to eat. She also considered it an improvement the other day when he allowed her to spoon chicken and rice into his mouth while he played video games. At least he ate something besides a bean-and-cheese taco.

Marlena’s husband sometimes wears earplugs to the table to muffle the screaming and fussing. They dare not invite anyone but Grandma over for dinner.

Marlena is convinced that without her constantly pushing them to eat, they wouldn’t eat anything nutritious at all.

The other mom, Sharon, told me how her daughter, Megan, persisted in “eating like a pig” at the table and acting rude one night, so they made her leave the table without finishing her dinner. Megan cried and said she was starving, but Sharon held her ground and explained that it wasn’t acceptable to behave that way and that other people were not going to put up with it from her, and neither were they, who love her.

Sharon wasn’t worried about Megan starving to death. She let her drink a glass of water to quiet her hunger until she got to sleep, and promised a nice big breakfast in the morning. Sharon said she figured out years ago you just can’t control someone’s eating.  She does control the environment, though. Instead of pushing food, she limits it, pulls it away if necessary to keep order in the house. Eating isn’t a problem. Neither is behavior.

Quite a contrast. It’s the Push & Pull Principle in action.

Marlena’s pushing where she should be pulling. Force feeding naturally leads to revulsion and dread of eating. The parents’ fear of kids being hungry means they allow unacceptable behavior such as screaming while going to great lengths to get the food down the kids’ throats. Marlena’s kids aren’t eating or behaving very well.

Sharon, on the other hand, is not afraid to limit her kids’ access to food. Instead of pressuring her kids to eat, she knows they’re going to want to eat, but she’s imposing some structure on them that enforces both better behavior and better eating. They’re allowed to eat but required to behave. The atmosphere frees the children to want to come to the table and to eat.


Related post:

How to Get Kids to Come to the Dinner Table, Part III

How to Use “Negative Reverse Selling” Techniques at the Dinner Table


How to get kids to eat at the table, Part III

April 6, 2010 23 comments

DO YOUR KIDS get to misbehave at the table in exchange for eating? Answering a reader’s question about how to stop children’s complaining, playing around and dawdling at the dinner table.


I have some more thoughts on the question.

I think you need a bit less nonchalance about your son’s behavior and a bit more nonchalance—masterly inactivity, a purposeful leaving alone—about the eating itself.

I suggest laying down the law on behavior at the table: we do not come to the table and complain. Nor do we play around and dawdle. I’m sure you don’t want him to get in the habit of fussing and whining and being disagreeable. I know you would not like him to go to someone else’s house and express himself that way. Or treat his wife that way someday. Your son needs to be taught that if he wants to eat dinner with the family, he has to be polite.  I’m sure he will decide that, yes, he does want to eat and he does want to be with the family, if encouraged to think about it.

He can refuse any dish by saying, “No, thank you,” and he doesn’t have to eat or even try anything at all, ever. If he whines and is rude about the food (or anything else), he will be sent from the table and not be allowed to come back that evening. He has the choice: be hungry or follow the expectations and eat with his family. I would be very calm and unemotional about this announcement. Act like it’s no big deal, be matter-of-fact, but this is how it’s going to be now.

That said, know that even subtle pressure to eat will arouse resistance. I would avoid arguing with him about what or how much he eats, or urging him in any way to try anything at all, ever. Refuse to get pulled into that power struggle. I wouldn’t pester him at all, at the table or elsewhere at a more neutral time, about his fussiness. The more you try to talk him out of it the tighter he will cling. It seems to give him a power and identity as “the picky one” that he is enjoying. The attention he’s getting about it is perpetuating it, probably. My guess is that he is gratified and affirmed by being asked to “just try it” and being able to refuse.

Far better to pull food away from him than push it on him. Let him reach out and ask for it, and be the one to make his eating happen. He won’t let himself starve. If nobody presses him about eating, nobody cares what or how much he eats, he will give up the fight, I predict. How much and what he eats should be entirely up to him. Your job is only to provide only foods you are happy with him eating, have regular meals and snacks, and provide a pleasant atmosphere at the table, which includes insisting on manners.

It’s time for you to stop knocking on his door to sell. Let him start knocking on your door to buy. He will come around.

In the spirit of pulling away instead of pushing, I would also limit the length of the meal. Instead of telling them to hurry up and eat, just end the meal. Quit pushing him; instead pull away and let him come forward.

(How to use Negative Reverse Selling at the Dinner Table


Set up a natural urgency to eat. Instead of adapting to them, let them adapt to you, without being mean about it. Let hunger be their problem to solve. They’ll learn quickly that dawdling leads directly to regret a bit later when they find themselves still hungry. I would warn them before dinner one night that this was how it was going to be, and then do it that night.

Your kids can be trained that when the parents stop eating and are sitting there no longer eating, they had better make haste if they still need more food, thus tuning them in to their own appetites. They should know the signs that the end is near. You can start clearing away and that should be their clear signal that their time is up. I’d be really cool and calm about it, but just start removing their plates when it’s time. Let their appetites wake up and teach them urgency.

Related posts:

How to get kids to eat at the table, part I

How to get kids to eat at the table Part II

How to get kids to eat at the table, Part II: Lindsey’s question

April 3, 2010 6 comments

In response to my previous post, “How to get kids to eat at the table,” a reader named Lindsey asked the following question:

“What if I’ve been doing all you listed above since my children (now 6 and 4) were babies, and they still don’t eat what’s put in front of them?

It’s not that they’re not hungry or that they don’t like what I make. They poke their way through each meal, sometimes playing (even when asked to stop), my son will turn his nose up at things, but we require him to taste everything. They dawdle, and my husband and I always finish every meal way before they do.

I feel as though I’ve tried everything. Do you have any suggestions for that? Other than that, I enjoy your posts, and thank you for all your insight.

Lindsey , Thanks for your excellent question! It really set me thinking.

The first question I would ask is: are your kids hungry at meal time? Maybe their snack schedule or snack menu needs to be adjusted?

If that’s not it, without knowing what else you have or haven’t already tried, I have three main thoughts in response to what you’ve said.

First, it sounds to me like your children have found a way to get your attention. They’re messing with you, I’m afraid. You keep letting them do what they’re doing and they keep doing it. It’s working for them in some way, if not for you.

There are better ways for them to get their need for your attention met, though. What is the atmosphere at your table like? Do you carry on pleasant conversation—not on the subject of the children’s eating—that includes them or focuses on them? Do you tell them stories and let them tell you stories at the table? Do you listen to them? Really listen? Do you have a good time together?

Is there a reason you and your husband are in a hurry at the table? The kids apparently want to draw out this time with you, even if it’s negative attention they’re getting. Time spent around the table should be enjoyable and sociable, a place of building the relationships with your kids. If instead it’s usually just a time to fill the tummies and move on to the next thing, your kids’ behavior may be a reaction to that.

Next, it is perfectly right and good to set behavior limits at the table. Eating and table behavior training go beautifully hand-in-hand if we leverage them against each other calmly, consistently and confidently.

Are you more worried about their eating than they are? If you are, they know it. As long as you’re worried, they have no reason to be. They seem to be using that against you.

If you don’t want them to play around at the table, for example, and they do anyway, send them away from the table and to their rooms and don’t let them come back at all that evening. Don’t let them finish their dinner if they won’t do as you ask. Don’t bail them out with a snack later. Hunger is your number one tool. Not getting to stay at the table is a natural consequence and hunger is an even more natural one. Stick to your guns and they will learn.

If you see they’re dawdling just to get your goat in spite of giving them full and loving attention, it may just be a bad habit that needs breaking. Whatever the reaons, you can tell them that you are going to clear the table after a certain time, then do it. If they ask why, tell them you have other things to do and dinner is taking too long. Offering a better alternative to dragging out dinner, like reading a book together or playing a game, will probably light a fire under them, too, while meeting their need for relationship with you.

I suggest pointing their attention to whether or not they are still hungry and point out that once dinner’s over, there won’t be anything else to eat till breakfast.

Once you’re ready, I would announce to them one evening what the new rules are and then put it into practice right away.  Be matter-of- fact, friendly, and firm.

Such action on your part will have several benefits:

  • It will cast your food in a more favorable light. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • Getting to eat at the table with the family will rise in their estimation, too. It becomes something we get to do instead of have to do.
  • It will put the children, instead of you, in the position of caring whether or not they get enough to eat. They are, after all, the only ones who can know whether they are satisfied or not. Children’s ability to regulate their own eating is fully formed at birth. It’s not something parents need to control for them. The more you interfere with it, the less it functions as it should. The sooner you tune children into their own appetites, the better.

Which leads directly to my third point: I highly recommend dropping the requirement to taste everything. That breaks my rule number three! I have never done that. It’s just asking for trouble. Making them makes them not want to. Pushing naturally leads to resistance. We can and should insist on certain behavior, but I would never insist on eating anything. It’s counterproductive.

That requirement communicates to them that the food isn’t something they would want to try on their own. You wouldn’t insist they try candy, or dessert, or draw with markers or play with a certain toy, would you?  No, they know what to do.  We don’t want to set up a difference between the foods he wants and the foods we want him to eat. A child who feels absolutely unpressured to eat will want to try food. His hunger will lead him naturally to food. If you make him try it, it becomes something he has to do instead of something he gets to do. He may be resisting because it gets your attention on him.

That’s a long answer, but I hope it might shine some light somewhere. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas and talk further about your situation!

Thanks for your question!

Related posts:

“Getting the kids to the dinner table: What is the parents’ job?”

“Lessons of Seduction: How to win your child over for life by putting your best food forward”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 3 April 2010 / all rights reserved

Categories: Advice Column

How to get kids to eat at the table?

April 1, 2010 5 comments

You want to have harmonious family meals. You want your kids to willingly eat your home cooked dinners and have peaceful conversations around the table. Problem is, the kids will have none of it. They will only be quiet, sit still and eat in front of the TV or a video game, maybe. Or they just won’t come to the table at all and forage in the kitchen when they want to eat. Maybe they’ll come to the table but won’t eat. You push and they resist.

What I’ve done with my kids has worked like a charm. My 17- and 19-year-olds have eaten dinner with us at the table every day of their lives, if they were at home. We eat home cooked meals every day and my goal has been to introduce them to as many different healthy foods as possible. They have always eaten whatever I’ve served, from exotic (beef tongue, seaweed) to plain (turnips, beets). They ate every kind of raw and cooked vegetables, fruit, fish—you name it—starting as toddlers.

The one time I remember them saying they didn’t want to try something, within 30 seconds they were begging for it (see that story here: “The Good Eater”).  I haven’t ever served them octopus but I know they would try it. They are healthy and slim. They have never been afraid of new foods. There’s really nothing they won’t eat. They do actually try to avoid fast food and junk food, though.

Through observation over the years, I’ve pinpointed the main differences between my methods and those of moms who have problems getting their kids to eat well.

The rules I’ve followed, and that you can follow, too, are:
1. Build the habit of regular meals and snacks, without random snacking allowed. Otherwise kids are less motivated to come to the table and aren’t hungry for what you want them to eat.
2. Expectations of good behavior and staying at the table during the meal. Otherwise kids don’t value mealtime as an enjoyable and social time.
3. No pushing to eat anything whatsoever. I have never asked a child to eat anything or given them any incentives (rewards or punishments) to eat anything. Otherwise, kids don’t value the food we want them to value. They get resistant, lose their appetites and will refuse to eat just in order to have their own way. (“Foolish Freedom: Why some kids refuse to eat even to the point of harming themselves”).

Nonchalance is the best attitude to take about how much or what your child eats.

4. Make the tastiest and healthiest food I can, without making any lesser alternatives available. Without being ugly and confrontational about it, don’t make available whatever it is you don’t want them to eat. Otherwise, kids are likely to eat what you don’t want them to eat instead of eating what you do want them to eat. Hunger makes any food look good. You lose the leverage of their appetites if you fear their hunger.

Answers to reader’s question following this post: “How to get kids to eat at the table, Part II: Lindsey’s question”

How to get kids to eat at the table, Part III

Related post: “Getting kids to the dinner table: what is the parents’ job?”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 1 April 2010 / All rights reserved