“What do You Want for Dinner?”
Recently I’ve observed an interesting practice by a number of parents with young children. As dinner time draws near the parent asks the child, “What would you like for dinner?” One child wants macaroni and cheese, another chicken soup, absolutely no peas insists one, while another can’t decide what she wants. Negotiating and persuading and arguing leave at least one child whining, and the parent frustrated and exhausted. Meal time becomes a battlefield instead of a happy recollection of the day’s events.
Why is this happening? Parents genuinely want to please their children. We want our kids to eat well and we know they’ll eat what they like. We are more into food and nutrition these days than in the past. And we like for our children to have choices.
But wait a minute. There are some unintended things happening in this practice that can be unhealthy.
- Young children should not be determining the meals. It’s not their call. It’s their parents’. This decision puts the children squarely in control in the family, a control that they were not created to have nor emotionally equipped to handle. It subtly places the child in the role of “boss” and the parent relegated to “short order cook.” This is unhealthy for the child and undermines the control of the parents. A child who calls the shots in the home will become insecure because he was not meant to be in a position of authority over his parent.
- Our children are growing up in a world of choices with a greater freedom than ever to make their own choices. While this may be good, the level of stress it creates in a child can become burdensome. Throughout the day at preschool or school they are faced with a plethora of choices which they have to make. They don’t need to be faced with this again when they come home to dinner. Their stress will be relieved when the dinner is decided for them. A kindergarten specialist says, “I have had several children through the years that couldn’t deal with uncertainty. One little boy kept disrupting the class at different times. It took me a while to realize that he needed to know what was coming next so I began to give him a “heads-up ” if I was about to change activity or location. I didn’t give him a choice. I just let him know what was coming. The problem was solved. Children like to know someone is in charge. If you make them think they are in charge, they will expect to be in charge when you least expect it.
- We are all raising children to be good guests. Training in manners begins at an early age. How will your 7- or 8-year-old respond when invited out to someone’s home and they don’t like what they are served to eat? Or what about a teenager invited to a dinner party? How will you expect her to graciously accept what is put before her when she has been used to accepting or rejecting food at home? If we want to raise kids with good manners they must be taught at home to graciously accept what is put before them, taking a few bites of everything they are given.
By the end of the day Mama is exhausted. Dad is too. So are our kids. We do not need to set ourselves up for unnecessary conflict, and this is usually what happens when dinner choice is put before children. It is very hard to avoid negotiating.
Wouldn’t you as the Mom love for food not to become another battlefield? This is one conflict that can be avoided.
If you have been allowing your kids to dictate the meal plan and you realize this is not wise, here are a few tips that will help you bring about change:
- Explain the changes that are going to take place. Be as specific as possible and with older kids explain “why.”
- Expect dissension. Your kids might not eat what you have prepared. Simply insist that they stay at the table until everyone else has finished and let them know they cannot have anything else to eat until morning.
- Prepare for the complaining to last for four to five days. (They have to see we are trustworthy!) Keep a long-range perspective. We are building character for the future and we want to raise polite adults.
You can still inject some freedom into your dinners. Occasionally declare one night “free choice” night and make it a celebration. On each person’s birthday let the birthday child or adult choose the family’s menu for their “birthday meal.” This will make choice special rather than merely a burden.
I believe you will discover that your meals are less stressful, and once your family gets accustomed to the change, you’ll find you no longer dread dinner time but instead enjoy it!