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One of the first ways parents measure their own success is by how well their infant does at feeding time. By instinct we seem to sense that making sure our children are healthy is one of our most important “jobs.” When we feed our children, we seem to be saying to them, “I care about you,” and saying to ourselves, “I’m a good parent!” That’s why most parents spend a lot of time thinking about what foods to buy and what meals to make. From early on, we’re heavily invested in feeding and eating!

Why So Picky

As children get older, mealtime can sometimes seem like a battleground between parents and children. Toddlers say “no” to lots of things in their struggle to be their own self. They’re not taunting us—it’s their way of saying, “I am a separate person.” At one moment they may say “no” to the very thing they had agreed to the day before, just because they want to see what the “no” feels like. Of course, their refusals may also be honest reactions to unfamiliar smells, colors, and textures.

Parents’ Feelings of Rejection

It’s only natural that you want your children to like the foods you make for them. After all, its part of yourself that you’re offering. You’ve given your time, and your energy to all the work of buying preparing, and serving a meal. A toddler turning down food can bring parents a feeling of personal rejection that goes much deeper than the rejection of peas or carrots.

Mealtime Is Family Time

There are lots of things that families struggle with at dinnertime. Grownups and children may have hectic days, and they’re tired from all they’ve done all day long. At times like that, it’s harder to be patient and understanding. Since mealtimes have such deep meanings about relationships and love and giving and receiving, it’s worth all the effort it takes to avoid turning mealtimes into bargaining sessions or battlegrounds.

It’s likely that your child’s preferences won’t stay the same forever. Most children’s food tastes change as they grow. It’s possible that you now eat foods you wouldn’t touch as a child. Your children will probably finding that happening years from now as well.

Helpful Hints

Before the Meal:

  • Mealtime starts before the meal is on the table. Give your child things to do to help get the meal ready, like shopping with you for groceries, choosing vegetables or fruits for the meal, setting the table with napkins and spoons, or putting bread or crackers on a plate. Of course, it can be more time-consuming if you involve your child, but if you do it now and then, you may find that your child is more interested in the meal itself.
  • Offer small snacks or tastes of what you’re cooking. If children are not hungry, or if they are too hungry, mealtime can be much harder.
  • Let your child know about five minutes before dinner will be ready. It’s hard to stop playing, so children need time to end what they are doing.
  • When you’re setting out the food, remember that children have small stomachs, so give them small servings of food. Children also tend to eat better if there isn’t a lot of food in front of them. They like to feel proud when they can finish everything on the plate.

During the Meal:

When children have rules, they know what is expected of them. Some families have rules like:

  • Wash hands before you eat.
  • No eating until everyone is at the table. If you don’t like a food that’s being served, you still have to be kind.
  • Ask to be excused before you get up from the table.
  • Hold hands and offer a prayer or "thank you" before a meal.
  • Many families have rules about tasting new foods. You may want to suggest taking just a small bite, saying something like, "You don’t have to like it, but at least you tried." Some children like to try new foods. Others don’t and forcing only upsets them.

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