Dinnertime Battle

Somehow I’ve fooled myself into thinking my return home from work at the end of the day will be a 1905s Norman Rockwell painting.  My wife will be drying her hands on a lace apron daintily draped over a beautiful dress, a pot roast simmering in the oven, my slippers laid out just so by the door, and my daughter running down the front walk to meet me with a hug.  Some days it’s remarkably close to this, with dinner already underway and an exuberant welcome from Toddler Harbat.  But then it all goes sour.

Last night TH was in high spirits, and I mean stratospherically high.  She had on her princess dress, natch, and was spinning around to Tchaikovsky’s Nutracker Suite.  Every suggestion was met with enthusiasm, every movement an ode to joy.

With a wary eye on the clock I warned her about twenty times that dinner was about ready, dinner was almost ready, dinner was nearly ready, and finally, dinner was ready.  Tears.  As if I’d snuffed out the light of the universe and all was darkness and despair.  She dragged herself near her chair but needed to be lifted up into it like a mannequin whose elastic joints have all snapped.  On the menu: turkey tetrazzini.  It seemed like it would tick all the boxes for TH—noodles, cream sauce, beige—so we optimistically served her a bowl.  No.  She wouldn’t touch it and instead requested, cryptically, bread and cream.  Then she sat sideways on her chair with her feet almost touching the ground, millimeters away from being out of her chair.  This kind of behavior makes me apocalyptically mad because it doesn’t matter if it’s food she likes (mac and cheese), if she’s hungry, or if she’s bribed by dessert.  Every night this happens and every night I struggle not to blow my top.

But!  Yesterday I read Raising Your Spirited Child so I had some techniques up my sleeve.

“Tell me why you’re not eating your dinner.  I’m listening.”

“I can see that you’re tired and not hungry.  Mommy and I want you to eat something so you’ll have enough energy to dance.  Is there some way we can cooperate?”

“You are very persistent, what a delightful trait!”

After psychoanalysis, bargaining, reasoning, and even-toned but fruitlessly one-sided discussion with her, I’d had it.  She was sent packing, no dinner, no dessert.  I can safely say between 3 pm yesterday and 7 am this morning, the only thing she ate was a one-inch long noodle of turkey tetrazzini and a cup of water.  Is it fatigue?  Sure, a full day of school and an evening of ballet had tired her out.  Lack of hunger?  Possibly, though eventually even the pickiest primadonna will eventually need sustenance.  Obstinance?  Absolutely.  She would rather refuse food she hasn’t tried and have her own way even if it means going hungry.  Strong-willed doesn’t begin to describe this child.  She’ll assert her independence to her own detriment, something that causes my wife and I to pull our hair out trying to find a rational course of action.  We ask her to go the bathroom?  Nope, she’ll pee her pants and get a rash, but at least it was her decision.  We ask her to clean up her toys?  She’ll trip over them and bash her tooth into the coffee table, but hey man, free will.

I’m now at a loss for a dinnertime that will function.  Maybe she gets no food?  Maybe she is forced to sit and watch us eat?  Maybe she goes straight to bed after school?  Dessert bribery feels wrong and turns food into a necessary evil before sweets, a culinary speed bump.  What will it $@*ing take to get this child to eat dinner?

  1. Hey Peter, while I’m not a parent I used to be a preschool teacher. One thing I might suggest would be for some calmer activities before dinner. Maybe reading a book or coloring?

    Is it possible to include her in the dinner prep a bit? I’m guessing if she has plastic utensils she could probably help set her own space at the table even if things are awkwardly placed.

    I suppose even if she refuses to eat, you can still make her sit at the table during dinnertime. I’m sure there would probably be some protesting over this at first but persistency may pay off.

    This is what just came to mind from some things I had experienced in the classroom.

    • It’s funny, sometimes having her help with dinner makes her more likely to eat, other times it doesn’t, but I like the suggestion. Also she does seem to like helping set the table so I’ll definitely try that!

      • Hope that is helpful. One thing I remember is that little kids like to be associated as big kids. I used to teach a little girl who would refuse to put her coat on when her parents arrived. For some reason when I would say ‘Can you show Mommy & Daddy what a big girl you are by putting on your coat like a big kid’ that seem to get an instant response. Just something else I remembered. 🙂

  2. Po said:

    Hmmm…psychoanalysis would have taken much longer and most likely would have given us no answers.

    I like akamonsoon’s idea about having her set the table and maybe she needs to help with dinner every night instead just occasionally.

  3. Heidi said:

    We feel your pain. Though in our case, it’s not a matter of getting her to the table, it’s a matter of getting food into her mouth once she’s there. It’s amazing how long it takes Sophie *not* to eat a small plate or bowl of food.

    I agree that getting them involved in the making of the meal (though it may take longer) does usually help. I do the cutting and chopping, and then Sophie gets to help put each thing into the pot. And she does love to set the table!

  4. Son would refuse food. Everyone would say, leave him and he will eat when he is hungry. DAYS LATER he still would need eat. In the end I gave up and let him have the cookie jar. Peace.

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