You Don’t Have to Eat

Transitions can be difficult for anyone, but they can be catastrophic to the world of my pre-school aged son. He will be four May 1, and my wife and I can never anticipate how dinner will go. There is no signal to help us anticipate.

My wife and I have instilled the dinner ritual at our house, as this is the one main hour of family time where we are all the least distracted by devices, toys or chores. We also have tight budgets and enjoy home cooked meals. So it’s time to sit down, and my son is deep into fantasy sword play or running around the back yard. Here we go.

We prepare his food, separating the ingredients as much as possible, so everything is cool enough to eat right away should jump immediately into his chair. Yes, jumping right up into the chair does happen. This usually occurs when he is not strongly encouraged to join us. He’s what you could call “strong willed,” and it’s best if the decision is his. But if we get the I-can’t-hear-you-because-I’m-too-busy-playing routine, we know things could get ugly.


I know three year old bodies have different food needs, and after all, he does eat every three hours or so. So dinner time is more about being together. We use Maryann Jacobsen’s suggestion in Ending Mealtime Battles Forever With These 5 Simple Words:  “You don’t have to eat.” And this does work, but I feel like he’s also defiant to the point of holding out simply because of a power struggle.

My wife, God bless her, usually rolls with it until I end up threatening to take away the toy that is getting his attention. A threat can also turn this struggle into a pure hour of unadulterated screaming. By my son. Mostly. It dwindles as we try to at least get him into his room, so my wife and I can gather our thoughts and consider reheating our food. Thankfully, these battles of screaming really only happened for six months on and off around his third birthday. We have seen him recover quicker as he ages emotionally.

We (okay, credit again goes to my amazing wife) focus on the good by praising the nights when he casually jumps into his chair and chows down, sharing events in his day, making up stories for laughs and throwing out random questions. Focus on the solution, not the problem. We also have great success enjoying our food when he chooses not to join us at the table, so that he is attracted to the family dinner rather than have the event be forced upon him.

I tell myself we are building a foundation. Modeling the importance of gathering around a meal, sharing stories, providing each other with eye contact are all things that nurture the well being of our children, and let’s face it each other as well.

If you see food as a spiritual act, and after all it is, then modeling the importance shouldn’t be difficult. It’s only my impatience to get him to join us that can force the power struggle. I’d say four out of seven nights a week is a success.

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