My mother bribes my daughter to eat, promising her ice cream and cookies if she cleans her plate. Now, mealtime has become a battleground. How do I get her to eat without the bribes?

  • Posted by Dr. Jay Gordon

Children are very quick to pick up on the ground rules in a family. If their father refuses to eat carrots, you can believe that the children are also going to turn their noses in the air when they’re served. Look how frightened the broccoli growers became when the President of the United States said he refused to eat their product! If Grandma promises dessert when the food is eaten, why eat if there is no reward?

“Eat! There are starving children who would love to have that food.” How many of us heard that when we were growing up? It was our first taste of guilt. Eating became a moral issue. Years ago, there was a comedian who had a weight problem. He used to say that his mother told him to eat everything on his plate because “children were starving in Europe.” “So, I ate everything. And when I grew up, children were still starving, and I was fat!”

Others of us were raised with families who lived to eat, for whom not having enough food on the table was a mark of shame. And as adults, many of us have eating disorders and poor dietary habits, and are obese. It’s time to break the pattern, and the sooner you break it the better.

With our daughter, we’ve been very careful to teach that food is something we need to eat if we are going to grow and have energy to play and work. Meals are sociable times when she is with at least one parent who sets the example by eating good food in moderate amounts. If she doesn’t feel like eating, she is not pressured. If she wants to eat more than usual on a particular day, she is not reprimanded or overly praised. Food is never used as a method of reward or punishment. Eating and all that goes with it, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleanup, are treated as happy times instead of unpleasant chores.

“Eat your meat so you’ll get enough protein to grow big and strong.” That was the common thinking back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s when we were convinced that consuming meat and dairy products was the only way to get protein and calcium. In the 1990s, we now know that eating such high fat foods can lead to heart attacks. We saw children with the beginnings of heart disease at one and two years of age. Nineteen-year-olds were having strokes. Men were dying in their forties from heart attacks. And it’s all traceable to the food we put in our children’s mouths.

I urge you to take a stand. Refuse to let your child be bribed into being overweight and risking heart disease. You may need to have a talk with Grandma, but you’ll be giving your child a better treat than a piece of cake after dinner. You’ll be giving her the healthy attitudes about food that will carry her through a long and active lifetime.