Picking through Dinner

Last week I posted on how to make change incrementally. After I wrote this, I got thinking about a concrete way to demonstrate these principles. An example we can all relate to and even start practicing in our own lives. I had to think no further than dinnertime. Every. Evening.

My 3-year-old adorable son has a way of eating at a pace that is uniquely his (and not the rest of his family's). God bless him for marching to the beat of his own drum, but sometimes, child, I just wish he could take an ounce of our Type A and get the eating done on Harrison time.

Needless to say, it can be a struggle to get him to eat a decent amount. Setting a goal of "finishing your plate" has rarely, if ever, ended well. Then, predictably, right before bed we hear the plaintiff plea, "I'm hungry." Here are the steps our household is taking to deal with it: 

  • Control portion size. We dish out much less than we want him to eat. It makes the goal of finishing more attainable, and we can praise the heck out of him for it like he's just "walked on the water."  We reinforce asking for healthy food if he wants more dinner.
     
  • Adjust expectations. We're all done eating, and he still has half of his mini-portion left. Instead of telling him to eat or threatening to remove a reward, we'll pull out 2 bites that I really want him to eat, usually a meat or veggie piece. I clear the rest of his plate. Once he finishes those two bites, he is finished at the table (sans treat if we had to negotiate).
     
  • Offer a reward & make it contingent. If he finishes his plate, he gets something he wants to eat right then and there. One he can pick for himself. We have a perpetual candy bowl in the house that started with Halloween and will transfer like miscellaneous sugar tumbleweeds into an Easter basket soon enough. All of the candy is individual bite-sized servings so they're not inhaling a ton of it. ALSO: He only gets to pick out a piece of candy after he has eaten his meal to our general satisfaction; there is no foraging later or earlier in the day for candy until he has eaten the meal we reasonably provided.
     
  • Offer alternatives. But only if it's already an option (side dish) associated with the dinner you prepared. This is hard for my Better Half. She seriously thinks he will starve to death if he doesn't eat one meal. If he cries at the sight of chili and short-cons us into offering chicken fingers, we're effectively reinforcing crying to get the food you want. I fully recognize that this example is not that simple in a lot of situations, but I do think there's a lot of value in making sure whatever options you intend to offer are already available.

One way to re-route this process is to have your "what they ingest" priorities straight out of the gate and have your "check-downs" at the ready before you engage them. If the meal is chili with crackers and cheese, have it all laid out on the table and lead with a small portion of chili, reminder of eating this portion, then incrementally dole out the crackers with cheese once you have some positive momentum on the chili side of the dinner. Then, only the candy bowl after the small-sized serving of chili and the crackers and cheese are finished. Yes, I really do put this much thought into this, but I only do it because, more often than not, it works well for us.

 Here's a simple dinner contingency map for those visual learners out there.

Here's a simple dinner contingency map for those visual learners out there.