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How to stop dinner time whining

A mother (or father) is somehow able to delude herself on occasion that THIS new recipe for dinner is going to be met with delighted squeals of joy from her sweet children. What is she thinking??? An unfamiliar food presented to a young child is the first rule of things to avoid when you don’t want a meltdown. Yet the media and nutrition professionals keep telling parents to introduce new foods and add variety to mealtimes. So, what gives?

Recently I met up with some old friends who were regaling me with stories of their delightful offspring. It was all fun and games until they started discussing dinner. Dinner with toddlers, kindergarteners (and even pre-teens) can feel like a warzone. A lovely day can dramatically escalate into a nightmare and it all depends on the child’s reaction as the food is placed in front of them. The specific reaction I am referring to is the table whine - the whine uniquely heard at the dinner table when a child disapproves of the meal. Each of my friends subsequently impersonated their child’s table whine and while they differed slightly they were all far too familiar. Once they stopped laughing they all looked at me expectantly as they implored: “but really, what are we meant to do about this so we don’t lose our minds?”

If it is one of those brave nights where you are trying out a new food I strongly recommend that you include a familiar food alongside it. Of course this doesn’t address the other times you hear the table whine (aka every night you provide a totally familiar food, just not the one they feel like having on that particular night). You’ve followed every rule, planned, shopped and prepped the meal and still you have to endure an entire meal of complaints. What then?

It turns out you need to worry less about the food you are serving them and more about teaching them gratitude. In our house we have ONE rule. All I ask is that they utter this one phrase as we sit down to eat:

“Thank you for cooking dinner”

In fact I stress that the worse the dinner looks to them the more important it is for these words to come out of their mouths. Mostly though it is a lesson in empathy. You want to start teaching your children as soon as possible that this isn’t all about them. Remind them that you took time out of your day/weekend to plan the meal, shop for the food, prepare and cook the food. Let that sink in. The added bonus of this strategy is that should they ever eat at someone else’s house they are already fully trained to not embarrass you when food is placed on the table.

Trust me when I say this is a good tip...

So stop stressing about whether they will eat all the broccoli and try not to spend any time thinking about the fact that it DID take you a lot of time to cook. If they say thank you when you serve dinner let that be enough and call your night a success. If our meals together make us each feel a little more appreciated and if our children learn a little empathy along the way then perhaps we can make the world a better place… even if they don’t finish tonight’s dinner.

Gemma Saylor RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Long Island NY. She is the founder of The Food Wizard for Kids - Making food and nutrition fun for the whole family.

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