Please help me reverse the misery of dinnertime

(34 Posts)
artemisandaphrodite Wed 04-Sep-13 13:53:59

When I was a child I was never forced to eat things I didn’t like, and never forced to clean my plate either. My parents were totally relaxed about food and as a result, I will now eat almost anything, and find it hard to understand fussy eating.

Fast forward 30 years ... and my DS (8) and DD (6) are incredibly fussy eaters, I get short and irritable about it though I do try and empathise, and dinnertimes are quite frequently just a miserable mess. Around 4pm DS will ask what’s for tea, I’ll tell him (i.e. what I’m making for me and DH, which of course he is welcome to have), and he will just roll his eyes and look crestfallen. Then ask “What am I going to have?” and I just have to say, “Well, pasta, I suppose.” It’s more or less the only thing that they’ll eat, but THEY are utterly sick of it too! They are so fed up with cheesy pasta every night, but they still won’t try new things. Honestly, I can’t conceive of a time when they will EVER try, and like, something new. I know it will happen eventually, but the concept is totally alien to me at the moment.

So dinnertime usually consists of the following: either I will make pasta for them; or they will sit at the table looking miserable till I’ve served me and DH, then ask if they can go and make toast, so I have to let them - can’t exactly force them to sit there with empty plates till we’ve finished.

Part of the problem is that I am inconsistent. Sometimes I make them pasta alongside what I’m making for me and DH; at other times, if it’s something time-consuming I’ve made, I will really resent having to get a second meal on the table as well. So I’ll get hissy about it because I’m so fed up with the whole thing, and it is obvious to the kids that I’m cheesed off at having to make a second meal. Or thirdly, they will just make themselves toast. Reading this back it sounds such a horrible situation and I suppose it is. And I’m well aware I’m largely to blame, but still feel: I’ve been chopping and peeling for over an hour; why the hell should I make another meal??

I have tried SO many things over the years. I have tried to get them involved in the cooking process but they’re not interested unless it’s baking cakes. I have tried putting small blobs of different kinds of foods with their pasta on the plate, to let them try them at their own pace (and left them to it, not nagged them!); I have plonked big bowls of each food in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves ... but they don’t. Nothing works. DD’s overall nutrition I’m not so worried about as she does eat plenty of different kinds of fruit, always has - but DS has whittled down the fruit he eats to, now, nothing. No fruit at all - only orange juice. He used to have apples but they come home every day uneaten in his packed lunch. It feels like I’m goading him to even put one in at all, but what the hell else will he eat? For lunch at school he now has a ham sandwich and water. There’s no point putting in fruit, yogurts, cereal bars, and I’m certainly not going to add crisps or chocolate.

I give them multivitamins every day as a kind of insurance policy, but it’s just not the way I wanted to feed my kids. The only things they truly get enthusiastic about if I tell them what’s for tea, is my homemade pizza, or Mexican (I throw this together with all the dips - make fresh guacamole and salsa etc - and let people help themselves). But in fact, DD’s version of the “mexican” is simply the plain tortilla filled with grated cheese. So that obviously doesn’t count. DS does, amazingly, go for the fresh guacamole, but it’s not something I can make every bloody day just to get something green into him, and whenever I’ve tried to serve it as part of another dish he says it tastes “different” and won’t eat it anyway! Oh, and the only other thing they love hearing will be on the menu is roast potatoes. But DP’s version takes over an hour so, again, is not something we can make every day. And anyway, if that’s part of dinner, that’s still the only bit they will eat - they need to be trying the quiche, or the fish, or whatever, that goes WITH the roast potatoes but no, that is their entire meal.

I don’t know how we got into this, I just know I need to go right back to the beginning and start the whole thing again. But I don’t know how. Specifically, I don’t know how to make the hour before dinner more fun and pleasant, when they ask me what’s for tea. After that, it’s all just such a downer as they know it’s another night eating pasta or toast for them. I know I need to be more cheerful but I also don’t want to dismiss the way they feel, either. Any tips would be gratefully received.

(Sorry this was so long and disclaimer: I don't do bribes, threats, punishments, reward charts etc - I know many of you will be scornful of my problem for that reason as you probably feel you could have fixed it by just being "harder" on them; maybe I should have but it's all done now and reprimanding me when I feel awful enough about it myself isn't going to help. Thank you.)

KissMeHardy Thu 05-Sep-13 23:13:51

Eat it if you want. Or not. Whatever. And mean it.

These are the wisest words on this whole thread.

realhousewifeoffitzrovia Thu 05-Sep-13 17:21:26

I have only one DD (now 12) who was a very picky eater from 4 to 9, likely because we did a lot of the things you aren't supposed to do such as make her separate meals and pander to her whims.

When she turned 9, I had had enough (and like you, OP, my husband and I are foodies who eat everything).

So I read the Ellyn Satter book referred to above and started complying with her principle that I decided what to serve, and she got to decide whether to eat and how much of it.

During this time, I altered our meal plan a little because left to my own devices, I would eat four-alarm-hot curries etc. - but I never served her different foods from what we were eating or let her have toast or cereal after supper. There were always bread rolls, potatoes, rice or noodles served with the main dish so there was generally at least one item I knew she would eat.

I found a few other things helpful as well (many of which are mentioned above) but I thought I would pass them along anyway.

1. I watched cooking shows with her (starting with Jamie Oliver's School Dinner series) which got her more interested in food generally.

2. Because bread was something she tended to like, I bought and baked (sometimes with her) different flavours of bread, just to expand her palate.

3. For some reason she was more inclined to try new foods at farmers' markets (they often have samples) so we spent some time browsing those which was fun for me anyway.

4. Athough I encouraged her to try whatever it was that I served, I always told her that it was her choice whether she wanted to eat something or not (despite the patent manipulation described above!).

5. She now eats curries, olives, Vietnamese food, blue cheese, even pigs' head . . . but she is not a huge fruit or vegetable lover yet. I think that will come with time.

Also - I totally understand your frustration. It is soul-destroying to have kids deflate your domestic dreams but hang in there!

fiestabelle Thu 05-Sep-13 16:47:07

Hi, ds will only eat pasta, chicken nuggets and is very specific, ie needs to be certain shape pasta etc. Dd is a bit better and will try things, but both are very guilty of fussing at dinner and then asking forcereal 20 mins later.It is very stressful, but mostly my fault as i am so inconsistent, ie one night ill let them hav cereal, the next i dont. Food is the one area i struggle with, im fairly consistent with bedtime, manners etc...

Thurlow Thu 05-Sep-13 16:33:26

Yes, it is a battle of wills, but at the moment your children are winning. The 'how' to get them to eat differently is by you and your DP chosing a way to deal with this and sticking to it.

By all means try and have a clear and honest discussion with your DC about why they need to start eating different foods, and talk to them about ways you can introduce new flavours and textures to them. But without either the withdrawal of the cheesey pasta and toast as a back up plan, or introducing rewards for them if they try new foods, there really is little incentive for them to change in the long term.

There's loads of advice on here about getting your children involved in chosing and making the food, or gradually introducing new things to them, but to win the battle of wills you as parents need to decide on your strategy and stick to it. If you think your DP will give in and give your DC the food they want, then it sounds as though he isn't at the same stage of frustration that you are yet.

pizzaqueen Thu 05-Sep-13 16:31:35

I agree with some of the other posters here, if you aren't willing to take suggestions on board and actually make some changes then nothing will change. You need the support of your dp too.

honestly it won't hurt your children to miss a meal if they wont eat what you have cooked. they will soon learn to eat the evening meal. Involve them in the planning and cooking and introduce new things gradually, maybe one new item at every meal? e.g put peas in the cheese pasta. once they like something serve it again the following week and add it to the list of meals they like.

RibenaFiend Thu 05-Sep-13 16:11:54

You're not prepared to try the suggestions because you're already anticipating the result/reaction/fall out. You need to want to do this for yourself and your family.

I'm sorry but I agree with going down the no toast/cereal/ anything else after tea route. You will not starve your children if they choose not to eat a meal.

Regarding confrontation and battle of wills, at 8 and ?6? (Sorry I'm on the app and I can't check) they are children. This "all hell" you refer to just sounds like a older child throwing a tantrum. Food is provided. Eat or choose not to. You wouldn't let a 2year old dictate to you using that behaviour so how is it acceptable with older children?

artemisandaphrodite Thu 05-Sep-13 15:20:01

Thurlow I'm just not into the whole rewards/punishments hooha. Would rather bring up my kids without them as I think they're nothing but a quick fix. Am a bit of an Alfie-Kohn-ophile grin

Julia, thanks. How would you do "all of you must have that meal" if it's cheesy pasta, which DP and I really wouldn't want to eat on a regular basis ... and also the "they must eat fruit or veg every day" - HOW??? Honestly, how? DS eats no fruit, so I don't see how I can do that. Sorry to be negative, I just can't see how to change it.

It is already a battle of wills sad

JuliaScurr Thu 05-Sep-13 14:53:10

get them to choose from list/suggest
choice of 'eat or don't' isn't a choice
then all of you have that meal
they must eat fruit or veg every day but let them choose which
ime it does work and the list expands
don't turn it into a battle of wills

Thurlow Thu 05-Sep-13 14:42:05

Sending kids to bed hungry is a very drastic action. Reward charts etc are less drastic. Is there a reason why you won't consider them now?

artemisandaphrodite Thu 05-Sep-13 14:40:38

Thanks fiesta, good to know I'm not alone in my flakiness. What will your DC eat, and how old are they? What happens when you send them to bed hungry - is there a meltdown? Do they get remorseful or just resentful? Has any of the bribery resulted in them actually starting to eat something good on a regular basis? Would be really interested to know!

artemisandaphrodite Thu 05-Sep-13 14:38:45

Ah, I see, Thurlow. No, I'm totally prepared to keep talking about it until we can find a solution ... it's just that talking positively and cheerfully in the past seems to have made no difference, so I feel a bit defeated.

Yes, that sentence about chopping totally betrays my irritation, and you have wise words. I know I need to make a watertight 100% consistent plan with DP, and stick to it, so we all know exactly where we stand. The poor kids don't at the moment, as I'm always chopping and changing about what they are or are not allowed. It stinks, I know. sad

fiestabelle Thu 05-Sep-13 14:38:17

OP I could have written your posts, I feel like a total failure when it comes to food related parenting, tbh I am guilty of complete inconsistency too, so veer between sending them to bed hungry, bribery and thinking lifes too short!

Thurlow Thu 05-Sep-13 14:27:12

Sorry, I really didn't mean that in a having a go way. Also I was taking your response above to Humphrey about having tried discussions before with them but not seeing any long-term results.

I know I haven't had this particular problem with food yet, but in my experience so far with parenting, there comes a breaking point where you feel you have to try something radically, drastically different to try and change things. For example, parents being so tired they decide to try a form of sleep training when previously they had been against that.

The sentence that sticks out to me from your first post is I’ve been chopping and peeling for over an hour; why the hell should I make another meal?? It's both correct - yes, in an ideal world you shouldn't regularly have to make two meals, especially not when you are all eating together. But it's also quite a snippy sentence and to me says a lot about how you feel about this.

I think this is one of those situations where it's up to you to decide as the parent whether you are stressed or unhappy enough about it to do something that you consider quite drastic.

artemisandaphrodite Thu 05-Sep-13 14:21:25

I really do try that, Shreddies. There is actually a lot of "So, how was your day, dear?" (me to DP, cheerfully with big smile while whining goes on in background because roast potato has the wrong-coloured flesh, or whatever). I don't suddenly break down and say "Oh dear, do you not like it? Well, go and have some toast then". I do nothing like that, honestly.

I know you present it simply but it would go like this:
<me putting down lovely fish pie and salad>
DS: "Can I make toast?"
Me, cheerfully: "No, there's nothing till morning"
DS: Whaaaat? But I'm HUNGRY! Can I make Weetabix? Bran flakes? Porridge?
Me: No, this is tea. (I say this a lot)
DS: Waaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!
And all hell, etc, etc ...I would feel cruel sending them to bed hungry and DP would crack.

artemisandaphrodite Thu 05-Sep-13 14:14:22

Yeah, I know, Thurlow. I know they're stuck in a rut and have no incentive to change. sad Thanks. I didn't say I wouldn't have discussions with them though?! <checks back through post> Maybe you misread me? I certainly do want calm, productive chats with them about how we can make things better.

InMyShreddies Thu 05-Sep-13 14:13:23

The phrase 'you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink' has never seemed so apt!

It's your mood and attitude that need to change, in the nicest possible way. It really is as simple as present healthy varied food and ignore their response . No alternative, no discussion (about food) just chat at the table. Is your DH at home at tea time for moral support and to chat to to ignore your children?

Thurlow Thu 05-Sep-13 14:07:57

The one thing that stands out here - and I'll admit that my DC is much younger so I probably have no clue - is that you are saying the three regular suggestions of a) no food other than what is put in front of them, b) discussions about their need to eat differently and c) reward charts for trying new foods are all things you're not willing to try. I can understand why not, but especially without the threat of no food unless they try something new, or without rewards for trying something new, there is probably no real incentive for them to change their ways. I fully appreciate that not giving them any food seems absolutely awful, but if your DC know that they can always go and make toast if they don't eat their meal, then that's their easy out. They don't have to do anything differently, because they can just make something that they like.

HPsauceonbaconbuttiesmmm Thu 05-Sep-13 14:05:02

I do think you're pandering quite a bit tbh. If it would come to a physical stand off that's really not good. I'd not have pasta or bread accessible if its that bad.

It sounds like you're not ready fir the ultimatum of eat what's offered (off a carefully agreed list) or don't eat. I'm afraid that until you are ready their behaviour won't change. Why would it?
For the yellow rice you can buy pilau reasoning which may keep it a bit healthier.

artemisandaphrodite Thu 05-Sep-13 13:53:39

Thanks for all your replies and sorry I haven't updated till now. And thank you for not flaming me (so far, anyway! grin) for being flaky and inconsistent. I was expecting one, tbh.

I think planning is the key, definitely, and I will attempt this. I had an initial chat with DS this morning and got him to list what he likes (though I know it all already). It does get irritating, I have to admit, as he listed yellow rice (as in takeaways) for example, but not plain white rice, which is obviously a bit better for him. And he loves the pastry parcels I make, with a block of puff pastry, rolled out and spread with sundried tomato paste then covered in mozzarella and baked ... but he ONLY likes it if I spend aeons cutting the block into lots of little fiddly parcels which take ages to seal with egg etc - if I make one large pastry tart with exactly the same ingredients, he's not interested! Grrr.

Cook stuff, stick it on the table in bowls for people to serve themselves. Serve yourself, let them serve themselves, you eat it, ignore what they do, just chat and have a relaxed meal. When you finish clear up, don't comment. Then that's it. No toast, no faffing, next meal is breakfast.

Magnum if only it were that easy! If I were to put something in front of them, then refused them anything else until breakfast if they didn't eat it, they would attempt to raid the bread bin to make toast, there would be a physical standoff, the hiding of the loaf of bread in an upstairs wardrobe or something, and all hell would break loose.

Once, years ago, I read a thread on here (I think) where a poster had been advised by a professional to not give their child another bite of anything until they had swallowed a mouthful of broccoli or whatever it was first. I was so desperate I tried it and DS didn't eat for nearly 24hrs. It was utter child cruelty and abuse and I regret every second of it. And we're still in this situation 4 or 5 years later ...

Pizzaqueen thanks for your reply - I do appreciate your list but reading it just depresses me as apart from the pizza (no toppings to choose though; they will ONLY have margherita), there's literally nothing on that list they would eat. They used to have tomato sauce pasta a lot but little by little started turning their noses up at it.

Humphrey I have done this in the past - tried to treat them as big kids and have a good productive discussion with them. They know what they need to eat to be healthy and we end the conversations with them saying they will try to eat new things ... but it just doesn't last.

fufulina, I am scared to suddenly forbid them to eat toast or pasta. It seems like cruelty, and at other times when I've got loads to do or other things to think about I just think "Oh, what does it matter, it's something they'll eat, it keeps them happy." I do try and make sure it's very good wholemeal seeded bread and all that, so they get some nutrition from it ...

shreddies they're 8 and 6. And I have a 3yo too who is much much better, and better than they were at his age too, so I have hope for him! He is perfectly happy to try new things without any cajoling or even mentioning it - he'll just look down at his plate and take a spoonful even if it's something he's never had before. And I'm perfectly happy if he then decides he doesn't like it, because he's tried and he might like it next time. With DS1 and DD it feels that there never will be a next time! sad

KatyN Thu 05-Sep-13 10:55:11

My mum used to plan the meals for the week and stick it up in the kitchen. I could see what was for tea that night and decide if it was a big lunch day or not! It would also mean I wasn't thinking about my favourite dinner all day and hoping when I got home that was what we were having. I just knew. Planning became a bit of an event because we each got to pick a favourite. This also meant that on a day which I wasn't particularly keen on dinner I knew it was dad's favourite (for example) and it was nice for him and he would eat my favourite in a couple of days.

it worked for us.. it might work for you??

good luck

Leo35 Wed 04-Sep-13 20:43:56

Do either of your children have appetite? I found that until DS1 found his (he matured, was busier with school et al.) that food was simply fuel to him. DS2 is a greedier soul and is far easier to tempt to try new foods. Are your children hungry when they sit to table?

I have found that texture is more of deal breaker on meals than flavour. That is homemade lamb kofteh kebabs go down a storm, but marinated lamb chunks with the same spices are not so appreciated

DS1 was working towards an increasingly limited range of meals/foods just as DS2 was beginning to be weaned. So we revisited old standards and added new recipes in to the rota of family meals and then running them past the DSs once again. Lots rejected but some stuck. You kind have to just go for it and ignore the rejections as best you can.

I do one meal for everyone, as that's The Law. The DSs know this, and is accepted. It doesn't mean they like everything, but they know that there is nothing else.

DSs are no where near where I'd like to be on range of foods (why don't they like pies???), so I too am still working through it. But I will prevail!

pizzaqueen Wed 04-Sep-13 20:40:15

I agree with getting them involved. Start by explaining cheese pasta and toast is off the menu.

Come up with a meal plan together - some new things and some they recognise. Keep it simple and involve them in the cooking and prep where you can.

how about:
- tomato pasta with cheese grated on top (hopefully familiar enough for them to try)
- chicken skewer kebabs and pitas (fun and colourful!)
- roast dinner
- potato wedges, roast chicken and a veg
- sausage mash and peas
- make pizza from scratch together and let them choose toppings (maybe one for a weekend)
- chicken goujons in a wrap with salad tomatos cucumber mini sweetcorn
- a rice dish - mild curry or risotto

I'm feel like im preaching here and I don't even follow my own advice we're stuck in pasta a fish fingers rut her too.

fufulina Wed 04-Sep-13 20:35:01

I read a thread on here ages ago, and something really struck a chord with me. As the parent, your job is to provide and cook the meal. Their job is to eat it. Or not. One meal for the family, and no toast/pasta back up plan. Try and take all the emotion out of it. They won't starve, and if the food is not contentious - liver, very spicy or something - they will, eventually, if that's all on offer, try it. At the moment, with the option of toast or pasta (and toast is DELICIOUS) there is no real incentive to try anything else.

I never ever coax my dds to finish their plate. Or try anything. If they finish their meal, they are offered fruit or yoghurt, if they don't, they can't be hungry, so they get no more food until breakfast. They know the rules, and so if they don't eat, I assume they generally aren't hungry. If they clear their plates, they have seconds, or afters. But pudding is not a given. I also think as long as they have one really good meal a day, they will be fine.

Don't know if that helps? I also BLW and as a poster said up thread, I think it set a pattern. This is what we're having - eat it or don't. Your choice.

HumphreyCobbler Wed 04-Sep-13 20:33:15

I sympathise. I think it all sounds very difficult. You have had some good advice here already but I am going to suggest having a meeting (a la How to talk so kids will listen). I think your children are old enough to really get this.

Explain that there is a problem, explain in child friendly terms what it is. Tell them that it is your job as a parent to help them eat a healthy varied diet and the fact that this is not happening is upsetting. Present the positives of eating a more varied diet. Ask them for their ideas on how to improve the situation and write every single one down, however ridiculous. Include your own. See what you come up with. They may well surprise you with solutions you have not thought of, they may well offer a compromise you could not have insisted on.

I hope this is not sounding to woo. I have done this myself with my fussy children and it really helped.

InMyShreddies Wed 04-Sep-13 20:29:25

Oh and subtly make sure they are hungry at tea time, that should also help. So distract them with something for a couple of hours pre dinner, and physical activity etc. Don't refuse them food/snacks but just try to avoid them having access to them iyswim. Makes a massive difference to how accepting my DS is of new foods.

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