Dinner or No Dessert - Getting your Kids to Eat the Right Way

Brynne Conroy

Having a picky eater in your family can be hard. You feel like you’re constantly fighting an uphill battle just to get your child to eat healthily. You may even be at a point where you’re using dessert as a bargaining chip for a few bites of vegetables.

It’s not fun for you. It’s not fun for your child. But there are solutions.

Should you use dessert as a reward for picky eaters?

It’s really easy as a parent to use dessert as a reward for eating dinner. Your children need to eat healthily, and sometimes that feels like the only tool you have.

This method doesn’t teach the lessons we think it does, though. First, your child learns that dessert is more desirable than the healthy portion of their meal. 

They also learn that the healthy portion of the meal is something to be endured, not enjoyed. 

They might also learn that being full isn’t a cue to stop eating. Instead, being full is when you finally get to enjoy the food you really want.

How do I get my child to eat when they refuse?

In a lot of cases, you shouldn’t.

While it may feel alarming if your child skips a meal, it’s not necessarily unhealthy unless it’s a regular occurrence. In an article for KidsHealth, Dr. Mary L. Gavin notes that sometimes your child will simply not be hungry. Forcing them to eat can teach them to ignore their own body’s hunger cues.

How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy

How are you supposed to get kids to eat healthy, then?

It’s not an easy task, but child development experts do have alternative solutions.

Serve dessert with dinner.

Cara Rosenbloom is a dietician and mother herself. In an article for Today’s Parent, Rosenbloom advocates for serving dessert with dinner. Doing so allows for some more favorable outcomes:

  • Even if your child eats dessert first, they’re likely to eat more of the healthy food than if you withhold dessert in attempted negotiations.
  • You’re not establishing the sweets as a more desirable food by withholding them. 
  • Stress around mealtimes is significantly lessened.

You don’t always have to serve dessert. But when you do, it’s a part of the meal -- not a way to get your kids to eat everything else.

Serve everyone dessert at the same time.

If you can’t wrap your head around serving chocolate alongside cauliflower, there is another way to do dessert. You can keep serving it after the meal, but not as a reward. Everyone gets it -- regardless of how much healthy food they ate.

While your child may still eat less of the healthy food in order to ‘save room,’ there won’t be as much resentment built up around healthy options. The dessert will also not be viewed as a reward, and is less likely to be glorified in their diet in the future.

Again, even when you disincentivize dessert, you still don’t have to serve it every night. 

Provide an array of healthy options.

On those occasions when you don’t provide desserts, you will still want to provide options. 

By giving your child a choice about what and how much they eat, you’re empowering them. When all their options are healthy, you’re empowering them to make positive decisions and reinforcing good feelings about healthy foods -- rather than making their consumption feel punitive. 

Reduce food waste.

Throughout this process, there can frustratingly be food waste. You can avoid this by educating yourself about proper portion sizes for toddlers and young children; sometimes they only need a couple tablespoons to get a full serving. 

When you introduce new foods that go uneaten, be sure to save the leftovers. They can be reintroduced as an option at the next meal, and be eaten by the grownups if they’re still refused.

Model healthy behavior yourself.

When you eat and enjoy healthy foods, you’re modeling it as a positive for your child. Modeling healthy behavior is important across all aspects of your life -- diet, lifestyle, finances, etc. It sets the precedent for the behavior you’d like your child to develop. 

Remember to have patience, as this can be a frustrating part of early childhood development. If you are worried that your child’s eating habits are preventing them from getting proper nutrition, contact your pediatrician.