The Biggest False Dichotomy in Feeding Kids

“The path to hell is paved with good intentions”

When it comes to feeding kids, the “good intentions” are sometimes expressed in one of two extremes:

“Eat this or Starve”


“What do you want for dinner kids?”

With Eat this or Starve the good intentions might be:

  • not to spoil kids or make/keep them picky
  • not to be a kitchen doormat
  • not to hear whining about the food on the table
  • to get kids to eat what you make.
  • ensure a child’s nutritional status

Are these reasonable aims?  Of course!  Most parents would prefer to make one meal instead of catering to each kid’s food whims, cutting crusts off sandwiches forever, and listening to “yuck I hate that” at each family meal–if they can even get their child to sit at the dinner table in the first place.

The problems with Eat this or Starve, however, are several:

  • Reflects an iron-fisted authoritarian parenting style
  • Is inconsiderate of a child’s developmental level
  • Doesn’t work for kids with established feeding problems
  • Is stressful for kids who are extreme picky eaters
  • Assumes this is the only way to get kids to eat a balanced meal

What about catering with “What do you want for dinner, kids?” This type of parenting with food also has good intentions:

  • Being considerate or ‘nice’
  • Ensuring kids eat something rather than nothing out of fear that kids will go hungry if you don’t make them a special meal.
  • Wanting to make sure a small child grows adequately, so any food is better than no food.
  • A stress-free dinner with everyone getting what they want

But there are also problems with “What do you want for dinner, kids?”:

  • Reflects a leadership-lacking permissive parenting style.
  • Keeps kids stuck in the ‘picky eating’ phase, preventing them from learning to eat what the family eats.
  • If kids don’t eat what you made ‘just for them’ it is more upsetting, food is wasted.
  • A lot of extra work for the cook.
  • Assumes kids can’t learn to eat what the family eats, so they don’t.

If you’ve been struggling with your child’s eating, you don’t have to stay stuck in either of the above feeding philosophies.  There is a better way!  One that is neither dogmatic nor doormat-ic 😉  One that reflects an authoritative parenting style that provides both leadership and is responsive to a child’s eating and developmental skills.

This better way means you cook only one meal for the whole family, but what’s different from eat this or starve, is that you consider your child’s preferences and capabilities instead of ignoring them.  Most 3 year olds won’t be terribly drawn to the Veggie Lamb Wonder Stew, but they might be willing to reach out for a buttered dinner roll.  Maybe plain steamed carrots or apple slices that you’ve put on the table available for the whole family would be a safe and easy food.  They may not get excited about a full taco, but would gladly welcome some of the shredded chicken and olives from a ‘make your own taco night’ offering.  They may be a macaroni & cheese devotee, but that doesn’t mean you can’t serve veggies and fruit with it.  And chicken nuggets for the whole family on occasion doesn’t rule out a colorful salad and mashed sweet potatoes on the side to meet the standards of the more health conscious family members.

So instead of “eat it or starve” or “what do you want for dinner. kids?” you serve a meal that you want to eat with something on the table that you know your child can handle.  You say “this is what we’re having for dinner.  You may choose what you like from the table.”  Then you let it go and trust that your child can figure out how to satisfy their hunger without you constantly refereeing every bite.

Ultimately “Eat this or Starve” vs. “What do you want for dinner?” is a false dichotomy.  You don’t have to be a hard-ass or a push-over.  You can take the lead and be considerate.  If you want to know more about what that looks like check out this post and this post on the best way to serve meals so that even picky eaters are happy.

That’s exactly what Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility teaches and what forms the foundation I teach my clients.  It’s responsive parenting at its best and always a win-win situation at the meal table.




Posted by Adina
May 17, 2015

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