It’s dinnertime with your toddler—do any of these phrases sound familiar? “Have two more bites of chicken and then you can have dessert” or “finish what’s on your plate first and then you can have some ice cream.” What happens next is likely a total meltdown (or your child deciding to only eat two peas and one bite of spaghetti for dinner). Even if you get lucky and your kid does indeed finish their food and gets their promised reward, you know you’re in for another mealtime battle tomorrow.
The good news is that most children are picky eaters at some point (it’s part of how they assert their independence), although that’s perhaps not much comfort when you’re looking at an untouched plate of chicken pad thai. Well, here’s some more good news—one small change might make mealtime drama a thing of the past.
Serve dessert with dinner.
We know, it’s kind of a mind-blowing concept. But per nutritionist Jennifer Anderson, using dessert as a bribe can actually make your child not eat their food.
“Any time you use a certain type of food as a reward, it makes the reward food more desirable,” she explains. “That means it makes [kids] want dessert more than they did before. Not only that, it makes them want the other food less.”
In other words, if you use candy as a way to get your child to eat broccoli, it puts dessert on a pedestal and makes it really exciting—and so all the other foods become second rate or not worth eating at all.
Instead, Anderson recommends serving dessert with the meal.
“I’ve seen thousands and thousands of families help their kids take dessert off the pedestal by serving a small portion of dessert with a meal with no comment,” she says. “In fact, this is how I primarily serve candy in my house. I’ll say, ‘we’ll have a piece of candy with lunch.’ One piece goes with the meal without comment.”
But won’t they just ask for more? Maybe at first, says the nutritionist. And when they do, you can simply say ‘that’s all that’s available for this meal,’ she advises. Eventually, they’ll stop asking—and even eat more of the other foods that are on the plate.
It sounds counterintuitive but it sort of makes sense if you think about it. If you treat the sugary stuff like the fun stuff, then of course they’re going to focus on that. But if you’re totally casual about dessert and let them know that they will be given small treats fairly regularly, then it sort of loses its star status. (The key word here is small—Anderson isn’t suggesting serving a cupcake with every meal.)
So at the dinner table tonight, try serving a small cookie or a few M&Ms with the spaghetti bolognese. You just may be surprised at what your picky eater does.