The Dinner Wars: Parents' Fighting Over Feeding the Kids

Think about how you were raised with food. How were you taught to eat? Did it work well for you? How so? Why do you want to pass it on to your kids?
06/07/2009 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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The other day I was counseling a couple who came to me over their own fighting over their kids' food. He: "I think Karen defers to the kids too much. They should eat what is on their plate, and finish it all!" She: "I refuse to make my kid eat chicken if she doesn't like chicken; she has great eating habits and was happy with the cantaloupe and salad."

Sound familiar? Perhaps the genders are flipped in your household, but invariably, parents differ over leniency, or how to handle it when kids don't want to eat what is given to them. Often it is related to how we as children were raised around food. As this Dad said to me plainly: "I had to eat what was there for dinner, or I didn't get food. I just want Karen to respect my position and not fight me in front of the kids."

What he then sheepishly shared, was the story of how he had a standoff once with his Dad over being forced to eat something he didn't like, and he won. He just had to stay at the table all day.

Feeding our kids, and feeding ourselves, often can raise lots of issues. Unfortunately in their case, this couple came for help because they were in a stale mate over how to handle their differing perspectives and were fighting in front of the kids. Like any couple issue, the ghosts of others are lurking there in the room as we are playing out the current scenes. Add to the mix the stakes of teaching kids good eating habits, and you have a perfect storm of tension, anger and polarization.

A few tips:

1) Think carefully through the question: What is the problem, and Whose Problem is it? What are you really worried about?

2) Think about how you were raised with food. How were you taught to eat? Did it work well for you? How so? Why do you want to pass it on to your kids? Is this about the food, or about respect and respect from your partner about being a parent?

3) Pick a family style that works for you and your partner. This couple relayed that their kids eat way better than most as they talked it through; they eat adult food, not only kid food, and are for the most part, fairly adventurous. They were in more agreement than they thought. It wasn't about the kids' food after all.

4) Try to be empathic to the other point of view, but aware of how it is playing out with your kid. Is this teaching them to either just be compliant and finish everything on their plate or eat something because you said so? That will train a kid to disconnect from their own bodies' signals, and lead to problematic eating.

5) Conversely, you might need to be more authoritative with your kids re: teaching them to eat well. Don't be held hostage by their demands. Let your partner help you to see if you need to be firmer regarding limit setting. You can say no. You won't create an eating disorder, don't worry.

With this couple they each had a point that needed to be heard by the other and respected. They were able to problem solve around this when they realized that their kids in fact, were okay regarding their eating habits. Taking the fight out of food here, required them figuring out what in fact, they were bringing to the table.

Happy Feeding!

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