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Should You Force Your Child To Eat Dinner? It's Not Exactly Cut & Dry

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I don't remember being a picky eater. I remember eating all kinds of food as a young child from Brussels sprouts to macaroni and cheese to roast rabbit or lamb. Therefore, I was shocked when my daughter was an absurdly picky eater. I don't know if you guys know this, but my daughter assures me that it's true: hamburgers are actually Satan's patties and tomatoes are balls of evil. I know, I was shocked, too. What do you do about picky eaters, though? Should you force your child to eat dinner the way many of us were as kids, or do you give in to a life of being a short order cook indefinitely?

The Clean Your Plate Club mentality of past generations has been largely disavowed as practice in the era of childhood obesity and a better appreciation for cultivating responsible and healthy relationships with food. Forcing your child to eat when they're not hungry, or forcing them to eat foods they dislike, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), will only serve to concretize a negative pattern of eating and unhealthy relationship with food in your children. Instead, you should be propagating a robust curiosity or healthy attitude towards the foods that they're eating.

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The problem with forcing your child to eat, according to the AAP, is that in doing so, you instill the idea that food can be punishment or reward, and that's not the ideal attitude to have towards food. While researchers remark that food should be an enjoyable experience, it's up to parents to model proper habits and food rituals like sitting down to dinner, stopping when you're full, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

I spoke with pediatric nutrition counselor Jeff Buer, MS, RD, LCSW, and she tells Romper that everything you knew as truth when you were a kid regarding food was probably wrong. "Our parents were doing what they thought was best when they made us sit at the table for an hour, staring down a salad, but it wasn't helping us learn to enjoy lettuce. It was turning specific foods into punishment and setting off the reward center of our brain for the foods we like." She says to make no mistake, any time someone likes a food there's a certain amount of reward involved when eating it, but it's intensified if it ends up being viewed as a prize for doing something you don't like, such as eating cabbage.

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Should you force your child to eat dinner if they haven't eaten anything? According to Buer, if your child isn't eating anything, then you need to call your pediatrician as that's indicative of a larger issue, but as for forcing them to eat, she says, "Try myriad new foods and ask your child to try. It takes 15 tries on average for an unfamiliar flavor to be completely accepted or rejected. Encourage them [to eat the new foods] by modeling the behavior yourself. You should also be eating these foods." Buer notes that if you're sitting there mean mugging a bowl of tomato soup, choking it down with a sourpuss face, that behavior will likely be mimicked by your child.

Buer suggests keeping to a relatively strict schedule for young kids regarding their meals and snacks, saying, "If your child is snacking all day on Cheerios and apple slices, they're not going to be hungry at dinnertime, but they will be hungry later." Keeping a schedule helps them learn true hunger cues and what good food patterns look like. "It's good for parents to remember this point, too." Buer tells Romper that parents who graze all day are more likely to have children who do the same, perpetuating lazy eating habits and making it less likely that the child will try new foods.

The goal is to encourage healthy eating and also to make variety appealing. Forcing your child to eat when they're not hungry feeds into a cyclical pattern of fighting over food that is challenging to overcome. If you're truly concerned about your child's eating habits, seek help from your provider, otherwise, just keep offering the peas and carrots and tofu. They might come around to it.

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