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Should I allow my child to make an alternate meal if they do not like anything served at mealtime?

If a child decides that they don't want anything that is served at mealtime should they be allowed to make a sandwich, or should they go without?

I am approaching this from trying to encourage eating of healthy foods and trying new foods.

I am not always able to include something that the child will like in the meal.

I have searched around but I have not found how anyone else approaches this scenario.

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    How old is the child in question? – Stephie Nov 7 '16 at 21:30
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    Please put answers in an Answer, not in comments! – Acire Nov 8 '16 at 17:28
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    The child is in early elementary school. – codingFoo Nov 8 '16 at 20:53
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We follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding approach.

The Division of Responsibility for toddlers through adolescents

  • The parent is responsible for what, when, where.
  • The child is responsible for how much and whether.

Fundamental to parents’ jobs is trusting children to determine how much and whether to eat from what parents provide. When parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating.

While it's straightforward to say "I pick what to serve, you pick whether to eat it," in practice it's a bit more complicated sometimes. You note that you aren't always able to include something that the child will like in a particular meal; this is particularly true with new foods, or something they haven't had in a while (tastes change over time!).

In order to still meet basic nutritional needs, I will allow my kids to make an "alternate" meal if they really dislike everything that is being served. The go-to option is a peanut butter sandwich: not terribly exciting, but reasonably nutritious and something they can easily/quickly make themselves.

The main requirement that must be met before they can make a backup sandwich is that they have tasted at least one bite of everything on the plate. Just glancing at a new recipe and declaring "BLEAH" will simply default to "you are welcome to choose not to eat" -- I'm not going to force them to clean their plate or even take that single bite.


There are a couple of tangentially related things we do to minimize rejection of the provided meal, which I wanted to mention -- not directly an answer to your question, but based on comments and other answers I thought it was worth expanding on my answer.

Foremost is meal planning: each weekend we sit down, all five of us, and decide what will be served when. My spouse and I need this to shop for the week, but it's also important for the kids to be included -- this is their chance to declare they absolutely hate those meatballs, reminding their parents that would be a poor choice. As they've gotten older, preparing a family meal themselves has become part of the repertoire as well (providing valuable skills training in addition to "buy in").

Secondarily, we try to plan balanced meals that are somewhat compartmentalized. A "one pot" dinner may be simple, but unless every child likes every component of it, the whole stew may end up being rejected just because it happens to have carrot pieces in it. Keeping the protein, starch, and vegetables moderately separate means that they can reject part of the meal but eat (and be full/nourished from) the rest.

Finally, we try to keep in mind what objections we remember when looking at new recipes. Particularly spicy or salty dishes are a no-go with the middle child, the youngest doesn't like greens, the oldest is a pescatarian and lactose intolerant -- this ends up limiting us, sometimes significantly, but keeping those restrictions in mind reduces the likelihood of a meal being completely rejected.

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    You should also note why children will straight out not eat new foods. Sometimes it's purely because they don't want to try something new. But a lot of times is to do with the parent getting a "bad reputation" of giving new things to try to the child and not being tasty. And the child will start to see that healthy correlates with not tasty. – Bradman175 Nov 8 '16 at 7:32
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    @Bradman175 most kids in my experience think anything new is not good, unless it's a new kind of candy or ice cream. Even if it isn't something healthy. So, there's no avoiding the bad rep you mention unless you're one of those food wizards that can make a meatloaf look exactly like pizza. – Jax Nov 8 '16 at 12:19
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    @Bradman175 Reluctance significantly depends on the family and the foods, and even the individual child. Our oldest is happy to try new things, the youngest finds anything new (or even something he doesn't remember having before!) to be horrifying. That's one of the reasons we have the "try a bite" policy, because there's no way to know whether something is tasty or not without, well, tasting. – Acire Nov 8 '16 at 12:28
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    Today I learned there's a feeding responsibility matrix. Man, between Erica and AGN, these ladies could write a book. – corsiKa Nov 8 '16 at 16:25
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    Allowing them to make an alternate is good, it teaches them self-reliance and decision-making; note that you as the parent should still have the final say as to whether their chosen alternate is acceptable or not. If the child wants to make a marshmallow fluff sandwich, that is not an acceptable dinner. If they want to make PB&J, that's generally better, but you might not want to let them go for the same "alternate" every day as well. – Doktor J Nov 9 '16 at 21:07
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Our approach, that has worked with each of our seven kids, is very simple; we make more or less simple meals, always with some veggies. The kids are free to not eat, but no replacement is provided. If they are hungry, they are free to grab fruit from the fridge. Worked fine over the last 18 years.

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    It seems that "free to grab fruit from the fridge" does allow for some measure of replacement. Just because it requires no preparation doesn't make it part of the intended available food on the dinner plate. In both cases we're ensuring our kids are able to get the calories and nutrition they need, within limits that we have established as parents :) – Acire Nov 8 '16 at 11:17
  • Arguably a peanut butter sandwich is better for a growing child (both the peanuts and bread contain protein; and less sugar) than a piece of fruit. – stannius Nov 8 '16 at 19:43
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    @stannius: but that's not the point. If you allow a child to substitute for a peanut butter sandwich, that's all they'll eat, and that sounds pretty unhealthy to me. I'll challenge you, on the other hand, to find a child that will only eat fruit. – Martin Argerami Nov 8 '16 at 19:55
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    @MartinArgerami I know at least two children who would willing eat only fruit for a meal. Not for all meals, sure, but I can imagine my kids would do so as a one-off replacement for a meal they don't like. (Which I understand to be the OP's question.) Fruit is higher in sugar and so is more enjoyable/tasty than a peanut butter (without jelly) sandwich. Of course that said, YMMV and every child is different. – stannius Nov 8 '16 at 20:25
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    @stannius At least fruit doesn't contain processed sugar, and it's usually only dried fruits that are high in total sugar. In combination with all the other things in fruit, it is a lot healthier than lollies. There's an interesting comparison of different fruits and processed foods here: thepaleodiet.com/fruits-and-sugars – CJ Dennis Nov 9 '16 at 1:29
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While many of our friends kept making their kids individual meals after they had moved onto solid food, we deliberately took the opposite approach, giving them exactly what we were having. If they didn't want it they could do without. And they rapidly realised they wanted to eat everything!

This includes Thai, Mexican, Indian, Italian...you name it.

And now the incredible difference is that their kids still eat McDonalds and refuse to eat much else, whereas we can take our kids to any restaurant in any country and they will be able to choose local fare.

This approach dramatically reduces the effort required at dinner times (and as we have 3 kids, that is significant) and it gives them an excellent approach to variety and cultural specialities.

At the shops they help us choose food for the week, and they will ask for things like haggis pizza, hummus, thai curry etc.

To summarise - say no. They can eat what you eat or go hungry :-)

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    While it is great this worked for you, I think this does not answer the question. It seems OP is doing what you do (one meal for the whole family), and is asking how to react to a child who wants to make something else instead. – sleske Nov 8 '16 at 14:06
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    I will update - it's implied, "say no" – Rory Alsop Nov 8 '16 at 23:25
  • Well it did work for your childs, but I can tell you that my parent tryed hard with me, yet they never get me like something I didn't like. My brothers & sisters eat pretty much everything youhhg, as my parents. – Walfrat Nov 9 '16 at 10:03
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    Here's the trick to making this work folks, you have to start it at a very young age. It's not something you can just suddenly start doing at 6 or 7 and expect magic to happen. – RubberDuck Nov 11 '16 at 2:53
5

We decided upon a fairly simple approach based upon our own experiences as children, our beliefs, various observations, study, and discussion.

  • We taught an expectation of at least trying everything that is served at least once, keeping in mind any previously discovered likes and dislikes.

  • We also encourage input from the children and make reasonable efforts to work suggestions into the budget and meal plan.

  • Complaining (excessively) had a potential for negative consequences depending on severity and attitudes.

  • Consequences were explained before they were enforced, not used as a means of enforcing a resolution the immediate situation. In other words, if we establish a new rule, it goes into effect starting 'next time'.

  • Food that was tried and disliked could be replaced with something available. Replacement choices couldn't interfere with items reserved for future meals (school/work/special occasions, etc).

  • Replacements needed to fulfill the basic balance of nutrition. Children were allowed to chose any replacements they liked, within the already mentioned restrictions.

There may be a few other points that are escaping my immediate recall, but our philosophy was centered around the concepts of:

  • respecting the ability of all people to choose for themselves, even children, while noting that children need a sliding scale of responsibility versus discipline, with regards to capacity for maturity and demonstrated ability to choose well.

  • balanced nutritional choices improve health and energy, allowing people to play more and for longer.

  • Don't eat if you are not hungry, but time around the table is also social, so everyone joins for family meals.

  • Snacks are fruits and vegetables. Anything else requires specific and special permission, or a family activity.

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    I like treating complaining separately. Also the new rule going into effect next time. – codingFoo Nov 8 '16 at 20:58
  • I also like the ability to replace with a similar item. Say veggies for other veggies. – codingFoo Nov 8 '16 at 20:59
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    "time around the table is also social, so everyone joins for family meals" -- This is an important detail, one which we needed to emphasize in order to avoid the boys taking two bites and claiming to be full in order to get back to a book or computer game! – Acire Nov 9 '16 at 12:15
  • Yeah, we let them decline to eat if they don't want to, but they stay at the table until at least one of the parents is done, is the usual policy. There are special exceptions such as when guests are over or holidays, but those are hallmarked as just that, a "special exception". – nijineko Nov 10 '16 at 18:40
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Simple Answer: You shouldn't unless you are sure that this won't become a habit

If you teach your kid that she can get a special treatment, she will try to get special treatment everywhere else as well, ending up as the "spoiled brat" and with serious troubles with other children or later people.

The only way she should be able to get an alternative meal is, when you both know before, that what you make is something she absolutely doesn't like and you negotiated it while planning the meal, that way she will learn to plan ahead and to be active in the process of things, if she wants them to be influenced in her way, not demanding after everything is settled. If you negotiate you can also train her to deal with differences by throwing in a view demands from your side.

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    What if it is a new food that the child hasn't tasted before? – Acire Nov 8 '16 at 11:12
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    The best way to introduce new food is in combination with an already known supplement, (avoid that the supplement is too popular with your child or it won't eat anything else), so they can try it but have something to eat if they don't like it, if it is a complete meal that is new and it is unacceptable to mix anything known in, the child has to take the bitter choice between eating what is on the table or not eating. (it is a bit rough that way, but you can reduce the harshness by selecting a good opportunity in which your children aren't too hungry and the next meal isn't too far away) – Etaila Nov 8 '16 at 12:44
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I'm a retired teacher - I worked with special Education for 15 years. I would like to suggest that since this is for one meal, let the child show you what they want for dinner, it will give you some insight to what they are drawn to, and you then can make more healthy adjustments.

For example they may put candy on their plate, some bread and some nuts. Tell them you want to explain that these are more snacking foods not meals, then ask them if they want something sweet like the candy? Yes, of course they do.

Show the child some foods that may be a little sweet but are in the meal category and ask them to choose one, such as peanut butter and jelly, salad with a sweet dressing, sweet and sour chicken.

Bread is fine, or crackers, croutons etc. as are the nuts. If they choose potato chips, cut up a potato, thin slice and sauté it with some sea salt. What you are doing is confirming the child can choose but must stay in the realm of good foods verses snacking foods, he/she gets the same flavors and textures: sweet, crunchy, soft but in a more healthy way.

You also help them to make right choices. Perhaps you can set one meal a week when you let them choose and as a reward for good choices a nice desert, but one that has health benefits, like apple dipped in dark chocolate. Explain how and why this is good for them. Take the age of the child into consideration with simple explanations for the young child. Let them know this will only be allowed once a week, and must use what is already in the house.

Honor the child's wishes but use wisdom, don't allow them to take control or as they get older it may become a problem. Tell them you are willing to modify one meal a week, explain the word modify to them, kids like to use adult words. This will also lift their self esteem if you do it with love and discipline.

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This is one of those gems of parenting that is rarely conveyed as being as difficult as it actually can be.

I have one kid who lives off a handful of items. If you allow her to choose something she will eat, she will only list things like ice cream or maybe a bagel if we're lucky. This came about from trying the path of allowing her to choose to not eat what we make. All this ever did was get her in the routine of waking up an hour after bedtime complaining that she's hungry. Good luck trying to explain the logic of that cycle to a kid. I know she gets it. She just knows she can complain and get something else. It drives us insane.

We moved more to a question before dinner - what would you like - and she must agree to one meal with her sister and then we have a huge high maintenance routine of reminding her pretty much every bite. Not forceful, but exhausting - like how does the bread taste? Have you had some of the carrots, etc. If we walk away for a minute, she just goes to sleep at the table or does nothing. Not sure that path works either. We also tried what Erica said in her answer - but having a rule of must try everything once led to blatant claims that it's all yucky even before she tasted it. If they decide ahead that they hate it, don't bother trying to convince them they don't hate it that round.

So basically, I've experienced failure on both passive methods - Let her go without means you will never sleep again. Let her choose another meal means she lives off nothing but peanut butter and honey sandwiches and the occasional carrot or some other non-filling item.

Bribery sort of works but builds horrid habits.

In the end, this is round 2 for us. our first was exactly the same. After a few years of being able to talk, the first one does a great job eating almost anything we make her and we have only the hope that the second will eventually catch on to that because right now we're right there with you. Stuck in the void of hoping someone has a suggestion that makes a difference.

I say it's just time. If you know the nutritional profile of what your child does eat is adequate, which ours barely is, then just go with it. Eventually they tire of the same old things. Eventually, at school or something, they try something and realize other things can be good. Somehow they always broaden. I can think of a lot of picky children but not many older children, at least not so picky it drives their parents nuts. Good luck. I'll be watching this thread for ideas

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    Not sure if this has been the case for you, but from personal experience having been on the receiving end as a child: if you try too hard or are too encouraging with trying out diverse meal options, it can very much backfire! That includes showing excitement at the fact that your kid tried something new. Like if I say I don't like something, and you keep telling me to try it and I finally do, it's almost guaranteed I won't admit I like it or even repeat this -- it's embarrassing to flip-flop, and even more when it attracts attention. So don't make them feel you're watching their eating 24/7. – Mehrdad Nov 8 '16 at 4:47
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    We don't exactly. Our youngest was classified as "failure to thrive" because she refuses to eat anything. We MUST make sure she eats or she will end up with a GI tube. Over the years she has improved but only because we did NOT stick to one rule and let her destroy any structure to meal times. We have tried everything except the GI tube and still listen to others and see how they fare. She will adjust, but I no longer believe there's some magical universal truth to feeding kids – Kai Qing Nov 8 '16 at 17:24
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Trying to structure this answer is complicated.

First, I firmly believe that children should eat what is cooked at the family meal. but I also believe that it's the parents job to make sure not to cook foods their kids just plain won't eat. So occurrences of "I'm not eating that" should be reduced, and therefor not really be a big huge deal. There are times though when you just have to go with "Eat your damn green beans!".

So this is how I break it down.

With not eating the entire meal, this should be rare, but if it happens, then that's fine. They can go without diner. There is also no desert, and for a while no snacks. When snacking is allowed again it's fruit only, or something simple. The general idea being that they need to eat, but that the fruit should not be a reward for not eating the dinner. This is specially true on "new" foods. Again as a parent you shouldn't be making meals that you know your kids just won't eat, so this really should not happen much. Always follow up "new" meals with tied and true favorites. Again it's a balancing act between "If you don't eat what I make then you don't eat" and the fact that kids actually need to eat.

When it's one or two parts of the meal, then it's less about a health issue and more about discipline. Again you should not be making foods your kids just won't eat. If they don't like beans then don't make them beans. But if the kid is just not eating vegetables, then we fall back to "no desert if you don't clean your plate" and fine but you didn't eat your green beans so your grounded. Then there are no deserts and no snacks till the next meal. This one is tricky. You have to make sure that your kid actually eats the food in question and is just choosing not to.

In short, it's not ok for a kid to not eat the food he is being given, but it's not ok for the parent to give food that they know the kid just won't eat. There are times when a kid wants chicken wings and will refuse to eat anything else. Well, that's a discipline issue. There are times when a kid just won't eat rice, even though they normally, at least tolerate rice. That's a discipline issue. But if your child despises onions, it's time for you to learn to cook without them. It's not fair to try to force them to eat what they openly despise.

Lastly, and this is very important to me, specially with the not eating vegetables, "I'm full". Unlike our parents, it's not a good idea to force a kid to eat everything you put on their plate. That, as we have learned is a recipe for problems later on. But you do have to watch and make sure that "I'm full" comes after the foods your kids like least and not before. Even if that means, here have some green beans, when your done with that I will give you some rice, and when you finish all the rice you can have some chicken. This is truly the tick of it all.

I usually handle "i'm full" with no desert and no snacks for several hours. This keeps the I'm fulls to times when they really are full.

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    I'm confused by the apparent conflict between "no dessert if you don't clean your plate" and "it's not a good idea to force a kid to eat everything you put on their plate" -- how do you resolve that disparity? – Acire Nov 9 '16 at 23:30
  • i'm full is no deserts or snacks for a while. i'm not eating that is no deserts for the rest of the night – coteyr Nov 10 '16 at 1:55
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not sure if anyone has considered that a parent is legally responsible for the health and well-being of a child under the age of majority (legally a minor), so I think that should rule out the "my way or the highway" approach of not providing something nourishing. in many places, you might be charged with neglect, or something similar, if you elect to fail to provide too many meals on a consistent basis, particularly for younger children that are totally dependent upon you for all meals. another reason that I believe you should take the option of going without completely out of your mind is to avoid causing eating disorders.

as someone else suggested, I would encourage you to have the child be more involved in the decision making process while trying to maintain an overall healthy diet. if the child is involved, I believe that will provide some positive reinforcement to actually try what is prepared rather than simply reject it out of hand.

if the child is old enough and mature enough to do so safely, you might entertain the thought of giving them the choice of eating what you made, or making an mututally acceptable substitute themselves. most children will take the path of least resistance rather than go through all the effort of choosing a meal, making it, and cleaning up that their meal made necessary, at least after trying it themselves once or twice. be prepared to be patient in your instruction in meal preparation/cleanup if you put this option on the table (pun intended).

I hope you reach a workable solution to this issue and that my suggestions help you in some way. good luck!

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    I don't think anybody has suggested "not providing something nourishing". Can you provide more information on what you think would be causing eating disorders in the scenario? – Acire Nov 8 '16 at 12:31

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