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Dinner Hour…aka…Toddler Power Hour


Hello Positive Discipline team:
We have a 3 yr old boy--only child-- who has a lot of energy and a lot of ideas that keep him busy. Often dinner turns into a turbulent scene with both of us as parents trying to get our son to stay in his chair and eat something.
A typical scenario is something like this:
We put a healthy meal on the table.  We usually give our son some of whatever we are having, plus one or two items that I know he eats--like green beans or carrots.  We usually have a tiny bit of what we call a "no thank you bite" --- something from our meal that we want him to simply taste.
After two or three bites, he starts to twist around in his chair, then he usually ends up falling out or jumping down.  He declares that he is done.  We put him back in his chair and tell him he is not done, he has not eaten a reasonable dinner and he needs to try his "no thank you bite".    He might put another bite of something in, or "accidently" drop it for the dog...then get out of his chair.  When we again say that dinner is not over, either one of two things happen--he either start having a tantrum and crying, at which point he says he wants some "paci time in his room" (our positive timeout)  OR   we cave and say that he needs to eat X bites of meat, and Y bites of veggie in order to earn dessert/cookie.  This dessert bribe feels yucky to me because it is bribery and because I personally do not feel that every dinner or meal automatically follows with dessert---it should be an occasional thing.
So, overall dinner begins to feel like this complex negotiation, coaxing and comedy of tantrums/power struggle. 
I guess I have two questions:
1) I know in my readings of your books (which are just great, by the way), you suggest a take it or leave it approach for kids with eating.  Does that apply to 3 year olds?  My husband very much worries that left to his own devices--without parental prompting--our son will not explore a variety of foods and will whittle his toddler menu down to handful of foods.
2) With regard to his repeatedly jumping out of the chair, is the best approach to keep putting him back over and over--or just let him go and experience the consequence of getting hungry.  I would like to have family dinner, and not just having him roam and graze like a free range cow.


Dear Ellen,
My name is Melanie Miller and I am one of the Positive Discipline Associates that answers questions sent to our website.  I also teach Positive Discipline Parenting Classes in my community, work as a School Counselor and I am the mother of two children.
The questions you ask show that what you have been learning about Positive Discipline is really starting to “sink in” and that you’re willing to do things differently.  As with so many three-year-olds, your little boy has found many creative ways to let you know he is done with dinner.   Being a dog owner, I especially appreciated the story about him dropping his food for the dog.
Take a minute to get into your toddlers world.  Toddlers don’t have a lot of time for eating.  Playing, running and being active are much more important.  That is why pediatricians often recommend five meals per day; three regular meals and two snacks. Toddlers eat small amounts frequently throughout the day.   Regardless of what you and your husband do, your son will eat when he’s hungry and eat the foods that his body needs.  As Jane Nelsen’s points out in her Parents of Preschoolers book, we can’t make them eat, sleep or potty.
The “take it or leave it” approach to eating can be applied to three year olds.  However, there are some things that you and your husband can do that will encourage your son to progress developmentally towards healthy eating. 
*Keep dinner conversations pleasant and involve your son in the conversation.  Rather than focusing on how much or how little he is eating, share about your day and converse about things that are interesting to your son.
*Plan a healthy meal that is palatable to you, your husband and your son.  IE., not too spicy for your son and not too kid oriented for you and your husband.  Just because your son might love boxed macaroni and cheese, don’t sacrifice your enjoyment of a meal just to get your son to eat. You can still cook creatively and offer many varieties of food….whether or not your son eats it is up to him, but at last you’ve done your job to introduce him to a variety of foods.  Continue to include one or two healthy items that you know your son will eat. 
*Include your son in the preparation of the meal.  Give him meaningful jobs that help with getting dinner from the refrigerator to the table.  It might get a bit messy or it might take a bit longer but children who help prepare a meal are more apt to eat it.
*In planning a meal let your son choose the vegetable or the type of starch that you’re going to have.
*It sounds like you’re doing this already, but sit down as a family for a meal.  Don’t make one meal for you and your son and another meal for dad to eat later because he is working late.  Encourage dad to be home each evening for the dinner hour.
*Just to confirm how you’re already feeling….using dessert as a bribe is not effective.  When we offer a “reward”, often a child decides that the reward is more important than the task at hand.  As a result, your son might be deciding that dessert is more important than dinner. 
*A “no thank you bite” is a wonderful thing for children to learn.  Your son may be a bit too young for this but in another year or two he may be more willing to try this and understand why it is important to you and how it can be respectful to the chef/cook.
*And finally, plan a healthy snack before bedtime.  In case your son doesn’t eat much at dinner time, you can rest assure that he won’t be going to bed hungry because you’ll provide him with a healthy snack before bedtime.  (In my family it was often peanut butter toast or cheesy bread (cheese melted on toast, with some fresh fruit).
In regard to your son repeatedly jumping out of his chair…let him jump.  Let your son know that once he gets down from his chair, that he is done with his meal and you will clear his plate, and then follow through with this.  He may rebel the first few times that you do this, but soon he will learn to sit until he is done eating.  And, after he jumps down from his seat, enjoy a few moments to chat with you husband about your day.  This ten to fifteen minutes of conversation can be a wonderful thing for a mom and dad.
I hope this is helpful to you.  In closing remember that “this too shall pass”.  There will come a day when your son will be eating more than you can prepare and hopefully sitting in your company a little longer.
Melanie Miller, M.Ed.
Certified Positive Discipline Associate

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