“Just three more bites, then you can have a cookie. Finish your green beans, and you can have ice cream. Clean your plate, and you can have cake.” If you’ve ever uttered a derivative of one of these phases to your toddler at the dinner table, know you’re not alone. We’ve all done it. Myself included. The problem is, these negotiations can become a slippery slope, and the back and forth discussion about what the child has to do to “earn” the dessert can quickly hijack your entire meal. Parents resort to bribing, pleading, or even playing “airplane” to entice those final bites leaving parents and children equally exhausted, frustrated, and/or headed towards a complete meltdown.
Parents and toddlers negotiating over bites of food or joining the “clean plate club” is nothing new. In fact, for most parents, the default mode is to parent similarly to our parents. It’s what we’re used to. But times have changed, and the solution to your dinnertime dessert dilemma may shock you. I tested it out on my three-year-old twin boys, and it worked like a charm. Let’s dive into the simple solution to end your dinner time dessert disasters once and for all.
Put dessert directly onto the plate with the rest of the dinner from the get-go. Call it reverse psychology or completely absurd, but it works. And the nutrition experts are totally on board.
Toddlers are notorious for pushing boundaries, defying authority, and asserting their independence. Food is one of the first ways our little ones begin to experiment with their newfound control, even before they can talk. It starts out as cute until it starts to happen every.single.night. at the dinner table. And when power struggles with food become the norm rather than the exception, it’s increasingly harder to enjoy dinner as a family. Like most areas of parenting, it’s all about power and control.
According to Thalia Prum, registered dietician, author, and professor, “putting the dessert on the plate with the meal takes power away from it.” The meal’s goal is no longer about earning the reward / dessert in the end, but gathering with family and removing the stress of eating.
What Happened When I Tried It
After discussing our mealtime struggles with an occupational therapist, I decided to try a dessert experiment with my three-year-old twin boys. I was skeptical and sure Henry (the more challenging of the two) would just eat the Oreo first and be “all done” with his meal. As expected, he dove in and ate his dessert first, but then he shockingly moved to the other food on his plate. On the other hand, Walker waited until he finished his whole meal before diving into his cookie. Two brothers, two different methodologies- same result: we finished the meal without fighting, coercing, pleading for “one more bite” and actually had a pleasant dinner talking about topics other than finishing the food on their plates. I was shocked. I tried the dessert trick again the next night and the next, same thing. The power struggles wholly dissolved. Now, several months down the road, occasionally one or both don’t even finish their dessert!
Three Reasons to Serve Dessert with Dinner
Here’s why putting the dessert directly on the plate with the rest of the meal works:
- Transfers control. Ultimately, when you put the dessert on the plate with dinner, your child decides when to eat it rather than you, the parent, acting as the gatekeeper of “the good stuff.” Of course, this usually means s/he’ll scarf it down first. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, only adults are accustomed to eating dessert after the meal. Some parents are afraid that the child may only eat the dessert and nothing else, which can happen. However, the child will quickly learn that this isn’t the wisest choice when they’re starving an hour later. When they’re in control of their choices and the consequences, they learn far quicker from experience than from warnings or threats.
- Dessert is no longer forbidden or bad. We all want what we can’t have, right? When we begin to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘okay’ or ‘forbidden’ children can subconsciously jump to the (inaccurate) conclusion: “the ‘good food’ is yucky, and ‘bad food’ is the yummy stuff I want lots more of.” Ultimately, if we remove labeling foods as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ children begin to approach food in a healthier way. My findings even aligned with Thalia’s expert advice, “when we don’t condition our children to feel restricted around desserts, they don’t feel the need to scarf the whole thing down.”
- Dessert isn’t the main focus. When dessert is served with dinner, it loses its appeal and power. The parent isn’t holding a bribe or reward over the child’s head (just one more bite…), so the child has nothing to push against. The power struggle completely dissolves.
If you find yourself in the same power struggles with food, I encourage you to give it the ole’ college try and see what happens! You’ve got nothing to lose and more enjoyable mealtimes to gain!