Home > How to Leverage the Appetite > How to force children to eat dinner

How to force children to eat dinner

Children should be forced to eat their dinner. Or at least forced to want to eat their dinner, and allowed to eat it.

Many cards and letters have come in asking whether or not children should be forced to eat their dinner.

The short answer is that of course children should be forced to eat their dinner.

The long answer is that they should be forced indirectly, not directly. We need to gently and in all cheerfulness block off all other means of eating and therefore, of survival, so that a child is forced to eat dinner in order to survive. It sounds more brutal than it need be.

The examples of two different little girls will illustrate:

When little Meredith, who is human and growing and therefore tends to find herself hungry every day, wants to eat, she eats. She finds food in the fridge, in the pantry, on the counter. She eats what she wants, when she wants. No one ever tells her not to eat. Goodness knows she needs to eat more, so telling her to stop is out. Her mommy provides the foods Meredith favors and requests, because otherwise she might not eat at all. When it comes time to eat dinner, Meredith isn’t hungry for Mommy’s broccoli and lettuce. So Mommy tries to force her, and makes her eat a few bites before she can get dessert. Meredith objects and even screams, but then eats a few bites so she can have the chocolate cake. When the dessert comes out, Meredith fills up on that. Before bed, she’s a little hungry, so she eats some more cake. Meredith starts over the next day, holding out when necessary to get her own way in various ways, and managing nicely. She survives and doesn’t suffer visibly. Visitors to her house feel awkward and are secretly happy when Meredith leaves the table and goes to watch TV. This is not the scenario of forcing a child to eat that I recommend.

Little Corinna, on the other hand, isn’t allowed to nibble and snack. She gets hungry every day, too, but isn’t allowed to eat anything at all unless she is sitting at the table when her Mommy says it’s time, and behaving.  Mommy holds out to get her own way. When Corinna gets to the table, she is forced to eat dinner, because she wasn’t allowed to eat anything else since snack time.  What choice does she have? She is hungry and finally she’s allowed to eat something. So, she goes along with the forcing with surprising good will.

The forcing is indirect: all other routes to meeting her needs and satisfying her hunger are cut off. She’s denied junk food, she’s denied random snacking. She’s denied food if she throws a fit or throws food or hits her brother at the table. She’s denied food if she complains and fusses at the table or picks at her dinner. She’s denied food left and right. The only food she’s not denied is the food her mommy wants her to eat and when and where and and how her mommy wants her to eat it. No one ever makes Corinna eat anything, and her mommy is sweet and gentle all along. And yet, Corinna is forced to eat her meals, because she has no choice if she wants to survive. The window of opportunity to eat is tiny. It’s narrow and restrictive. So she is forced to eat her dinner, and her lunch and her afternoon snack and her breakfast. It’s the only way she can get anything to eat at all. She doesn’t seem to mind, though. She wants to eat her dinner, every single day, unless she is sick or gets into an untimely snack somehow, because she would starve otherwise. She blandly goes along with her mommy, who never actually threatens to starve her. Corinna is generally cheerful at dinner, no matter what Mommy serves her. She likes all kinds of healthy foods. She’s pretty happy and her mommy is, too. People who find themselves at the table with her find her pleasant. They enjoy her company.

So yes, children should definitely be forced to eat their dinner. How they’re forced, however, is like the difference between trying to shove an alarmed cow into a trailer while leaving all the other gates open, or quietly closing off all escape routes and putting the cow’s dinner, at feeding time, in the trailer, and gently letting them figure it out.


Related posts:

11 Ways to Raise a Picky Eater

Picky Kids and the Codependent Mom: Three Tips to Break the Cycle

  1. Nicki
    April 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    This is one of the worst and most ridiculous articles I’ve ever read. I have a healthy, happy four-year-old whose weight is in the normal range. No, I don’t let her eat candy and chocolate all day long, but this isn’t an issue for my child anyway. She eats healthy food first and then she gets dessert. It has always been this way, and she knows nothing else. We don’t fight about food because it’s just silly and it encourages eating disorders later in life.

    And I agree that story was a little disturbing. So, what happens if little Corrina is having a bad day and not “behaving?” Does her mother send her to bed with no dinner? Restricting food is an appropriate punishment now? And what exactly is wrong with snacks? My daughter eats when she is hungry. Typically, she snacks throughout the day instead of eating three large meals. The snacks are always very healthy; fruits, veggies, a small amount of turkey, a piece of wheat bread ect. According to her doctor, this type of eating is good for her. He insists she will be less likely to fight obesity.

    Also, most sugary snacks are just fine in moderation.

    • Anna Migeon
      April 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm

      Ouch. And that’s saying a lot, considering the massive amount of amazing ridiculous and offensive articles I’ve seen out there on the web. I really failed to get my meaning across on this one. Did you read the similar exchange below on it? My attempted humor was a little too subtle, I guess. I wrote this because a lot of people really do google questions about forcing kids to eat: can we, should we, how can we? And a lot of people I’ve talked to DO force their kids to eat. The main points I was trying, vainly to make are: 1. it’s not OK to force kids to eat, ever! But it is OK to not let them eat whatever and whenever and however they want. 2. Kids need some structure that will create the right environment for good eating. 3. If we present food as something valued and precious, kids appreciate it more than if it’s something they have to defend themselves against. Get to eat vs. HAVE to eat. I was kind of poking fun at people that don’t restrict their kids’ bad eating habits (or antisocial behavior) but think nothing of forcing them to eat in various ways, and then don’t see how things are going wrong. I think that’s all switched around: we need to do the opposite. I was actually thinking today that I probably overstate the whole thing about not letting kids eat if they misbehave. I used to get after my son a lot at the table, believe me, but I really don’t remember ever actually not letting him eat. At the same time, I do believe it is ideal to be firm with children from early on, and they are well behaved, and it’s not like you are denying them food. A little firmness early on, and you have a child like Corinna. She’s happy, and those around her are. No one’s actually being forceful with her because she’s been trained in good habits. I’m trying to be a little humorous here. I am certainly not trying to convince you that your way is wrong if it’s working for you, as it seems to be. If you were miserable with your situation, I’d be glad to help. I wonder how you even came to read my blog. I’m just trying to help people find a better balance who are like Meredith’s mom and are really not happy with their situation.

    • Anna Migeon
      April 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Nicki, another thing I would say is that there are kids out there who won’t eat at meal times because they snack too much, and eat unhealthy snacks. Then the parents have no way to get them to eat healthy other than force and pressure. The children aren’t hungry at that point. So they are being trained and pressed to overeat. A child that has developed a taste for healthy foods can snack. But when there’s a problem, an imbalance to be corrected, structure can help improve the child’s appetite at the right time for the right things. “Eating when she’s hungry” sounds nice but it’s a problem with picky eaters, kids who don’t eat what’s good for them. Sugar is horrible for you, also. I would advocated extreme moderation in giving sugary snacks to kids. But I know that’s not a popular view, either.

  2. Jackie
    December 30, 2010 at 3:45 am

    hmm, my kids tend to graze and eat meals. there is a huge difference between junk and a snack. if kids are kept busy and active they can’t graze all day but for healthy active kids that are never for any reason forced or denied food, they will naturally eat when hungry and not eat when not hungry. 9 times out of 10 when my kids say they aren’t hungry its because they are having fun doing what they are doing. I have scheduled family time at the table and a meal is provided, I dont care if they eat or not, my children are healthy and in no danger of starving. most of the time they will go ahead and eat so they dont have to interrupt play later to eat. they typically eat a sandwich and fruit when they get home from school and play hard until dinner 2-3 hours later, some days they may not play as hard and therefore may not be as hungry, or they may not have ate as much at lunch and have their after school snack and need a banana between after school and dinner. If mostly all options are healthy then it doesn’t matter if they eat when we are at the table, only that they are at the table for that time with us.
    I get what you are saying but I dont agree that its either or, I have 4 children ages 2 through 9 and have a great balance of both. My kids have healthy snacks randomly throughout the day and 99% of the time they eat dinner when the rest of us do, although its not a requirement. On rare occasions they dont eat dinner and I allow them to eat left overs or something they make them selves between dinner and bed time. they know they are allowed to do this at will and they also know that they dont feel well going to bed on a full stomach so they make the choice for themselves to not do that. Obviously the 2 yr old isn’t there yet but she’s getting there. She knows the dinner time routine and rarely actually eats with us, but that is the same path the older children went down and they made their own choice and I assume she will do the same. Other wise she wont, but she will still eat when she asks for food and will NEVER be forced/manipulated to eat on my stomachs schedule.

    • Anna Migeon
      January 3, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      Jackie, thanks for your comment. As long as your kids are eating healthy food and you’re happy with the situation, I wouldn’t argue with you or try to convince you to change. I think the key is probably having generally all healthy choices. I think having the kids at the table, which you do, is important, too. You have probably already denied your kids the junk that keeps a lot of kids from eating better food. That’s why it’s working for you, I would guess. I would never make anyone eat anything. It’s more a providing of structure to support healthy eating and eating at mealtimes. For a family out of balance, in order to bring it back into balance, I think going to the other extreme to break kids of bad habits can be useful. My kids are big now (18 and 20) and they eat when they want and what they want. But they like healthy food and are unpicky and have the habit of regular meals. They are used to that and don’t feel they’ve been deprived or over-controlled. I provided structure to ensure they were hungry for what I wanted them to eat and didn’t let them eat junk, and they learned to enjoy everything good. Some parents really want their kids to eat “real food” with them at meals but don’t know how to make that happen. Random snacking is often the culprit. If the snacking is junky, as is often the case, that’s a big problem nutritionally, as you know. The grazing plan sounds kind of chaotic to me, which could be a point against it in my mind, but if you have them well trained to clean up after themselves and/or don’t mind how it’s going, it’s obviously not a problem. I have random snacks myself, but not because I refuse to eat healthy meals, as some kids do. Some kids really thrive on a structured environment. If it works for you, I am not going to tell you you’re wrong. It sounds like you are teaching them to be tuned in to their own appetites and how they feel from eating (which I think is hugely important), and are making mostly good choices available. It sounds like you are allowing your kids to be in charge of their eating in a good way, but many families allow the kids to be in charge of their eating in a bad way. Your comment makes me want to research the pros and cons of set meal times vs grazing. I’ll bet some studies have been done somewhere. I know humans are natural grazers, and I’ve seen cases made for eating more small meals instead of few larger meals. I guess I sort of view the regular-meals-and-snacks plan as kind of like wearing uniforms to school: it saves time and simplifies things.

  3. MJ
    December 29, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Oh, and I sort of beg to differ about the eating mindlessly being a natural tendency, I think those habits are actually very unnatural and drilled into us by certain things parents don’t even realize they are doing 😦

    I read your article about France and weight issues, I noticed the very same thing last time I was there, Belgium same thing 😦

    • Anna Migeon
      January 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      MJ, I’m interested in your ideas on eating mindlessly. I’d agree that parents train kids to eat mindlessly by trying to distract them from the fact that it’s food, playing games, disguising food, eating in front of the TV, which is certainly not “natural” but is quick to happen if we let it. Are those the kinds of things you are talking about?

  4. MJ
    December 29, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Yeah, as I said, sorry I kind of misundersttod !

    However, there is a clear way to avoid all of this without having to force them , even indirectly, don’t have any junk in your house period 😉
    It doesn’t have to be ”eat dinner or a sugary snack”which is what you make it sound like 😉

    No, what was unclear to me was that they were two different stories !! haha, sorry, I am not sure why I read it that way :/
    Yes, it was clearly the story of Corrina I found disgusting, junk food, then when child is not hungry or misbehaves they get punished with food (which was what I was reading as all one story, sadly, I know many many parents who doid that, punish and reward through food, so sad!)

    I do think differently about food than you do, but I don’t find your view disgusting, just not 100% meshed with mine (I feel if I only offer healthy snacks, I don’t have to worry all that much about how much gets eaten at supper, since they most likely got a lot of nutrients through their snacks, and if they are not all that hungry when I am serving dinne,r then they can have it later, buit you are not really saying otherwise)

    I don’t mind sugary snacks once in a while, I just don’t have them in the house.
    Anyhow, sorry for getting confused (I find perhaps the story of the two girls is not clear, as I had someone else read the link, and they thought you weere talking about the same girl and just forgot, it sounded as if you were adovcating force feeding and food punishment)
    I donm’t really find The Meredith model ”ideal” though, simply because I do not believe in external scheduling for food (not all nutrionists think it is the healthiest way) but it is more a matter of opinion.

  5. Anna Migeon
    December 29, 2010 at 8:44 am

    I feel bad that I obviously didn’t communicate clearly here. In trying to be witty, I guess I failed to convey my intended point at all and touched a nerve with you. I appreciate your frankness and the chance for me to defend myself.

    I would never tell a kid to eat something. I would never in fact force them to eat anything, ever. I would never recommend punishing or rewarding with food or for eating or not. I have written scores of posts railing against these very practices.

    Many people google questions about how to make kids eat or should we force or require children to eat their dinner, and express all kinds of difficulties in seeing that their children eat well. I want to draw the attention of those people and address those questions.

    The problem I see is letting little Susie eat hostess Twinkies and drink soda all afternoon and then trying to force her to eat cooked cabbage and rutabagas at dinner, which she doesn’t want because she has no appetite left. Or saying “My little Jimmy will only eat chicken nuggets,” and giving him the chicken nuggets every day, yet trying to induce him to eat lettuce afterwards because it’s good for him, when his hunger has been satisfied and his taste for natural food jaded by the nuggets habit. I would withhold the chicken nuggets, Twinkies and soda, that’s for sure, without a bit of guilt.

    The title, and the article’s tone, is tongue-in-cheek. I recommend just the opposite of forcing: restrict them from eating what they should not eat, and they will want to eat what is good for them. NEVER force, but do restrict. If your kids don’t have an appetite, orchestrate it. Give them specific times to eat and don’t let them fill up on junk in between times. The only food I would withhold is food that is bad for them, basically, though I wouldn’t run a full-service kitchen day and night, either, or allow them to drag food all over the house or sit in front of the TV for hours mindlessly eating whatever, which is a natural tendency. Natural tendencies are not always to be followed, I believe.

    Having regular meal times is practical and a good habit for many reasons in our world. It would be a positive step for most who aren’t doing so. Many families who do not have regular mealtimes it is not because they have made a conscious and deliberate choice to allow grazing of healthy foods at will instead. Many families that find their kids are picky and unwilling to eat real food (as opposed to junk food, fast food, candy, etc.) is it because they do not prevent their kids from eating the junk, so they have no appetite for healthy meals. Regular mealtimes with no random snacking allowed would be a vast improvement, don’t you think?

    I think that if a family had only a wide range of healthy foods available, and kids’ tastes for healthy foods were never ruined by junk food, they could conceivably allow a more grazing style of eating (though I think the family meal is not only a way to be nourished but also an important social time). That would be an exception, and that is not the kind of person I am trying to help. It’s those way on the other side, who do try to force kids to eat certain things all while allowing them to eat things they shouldn’t be eating, then wondering why the kids don’t want healthy foods.

    Either you have a smart, organized, well-informed plan for grazing, or you have an equally good plan for regular meals, but if you want to have regular meals, you can’t have grazing, too. It’s either-or. If you would read it through another time and tell me if it really is that unclear, I’d appreciate it.

    Do you find the story of Meredith is an acceptable or better model, or the story of Corinna? Clearly, you do not approve of either one, but you seem more disgusted with the regular meals plan than the more laisser-faire blend of grazing junk and forcing of meals.

  6. MJ
    December 29, 2010 at 8:01 am

    oh, and I seem to have confused the story of ”Meredith” with ”Corrina”, sorry !!
    I think the latter story is disgusting, they seemed to meld together for me and I didn’t see there was a name distinction 😉

  7. MJ
    December 29, 2010 at 6:48 am

    This is how children end up overweight OR anorexic, not one doctor would agree with this, it is degrading, telling a child when to eat and withholding food is exactly the same as telling them when to relieve themselves, just in the opposite spectrum

    • MJ
      December 29, 2010 at 6:50 am

      The REASON why there are so many obese people and anorexic people in ”the land of plenty” is BECAUSE parents force feed their children.
      Food is fuel, children AND adults are natural grazers, we have weight problems because of the ”forced meal time” ritual and rewarding and punishing with food.
      Open a few psychology books, they are not that hard to read.

  8. Paul Turner
    December 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Good article Anna. Parents are often too concerned about their child “going hungry” and give in to this idea that eating anything is better than nothing. In today’s world of highly processed, genetically-modified empty calorie “foods” to fill your belly with, there are times it really is better to eat nothing. Something to keep in mind is man is very well equipped to not have food for extended periods. Animals, including us, have the instinct to not eat when sick. This serves the purpose of ridding the body of toxins.

    In the land of plenty, there are more problems due to overeating than to under-eating. It is better to wait and eat healthy food than to eat just to feel the belly getting full.

    PS We really do have to be concerned about genetically modified sugar beets. GMO sugar beets have been grown commercially in the US since 2008.According to Monsanto, Round-Up Ready sugar beets have been planted on more than 1 million acres in 10 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, accounting for 95% of the 2010 crop. .Here in the United States, genetically modified foods do not have to be labeled as such. This makes it easy to slip them into the food stream.

    As High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) takes a well-deserved hit and some companies begin to phase it out, we need to consider what they will be replacing it with. At grocery stores there are two common kinds of sugar. The more expensive one will have “Pure Cane” Sugar on the label while the other just says Sugar. Here in the United States, genetically modified foods do not have to be labeled as such. So guess what is in the Sugar.

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