I Dread Mealtimes with my Sister’s Kids

I am not a parent or a grandparent, but I am an aunt and I hope you’ll address this issue. My sister Brenda and her husband Patrick have two kids, my niece Kathleen, age 5, and my nephew Frankie, age 3. I adore these kids and love being with them, except at mealtimes. I dread those!

Brenda and Patrick harangue the kids to eat with endless repetitions of “Eat this, eat that, one more bite, no treats until you eat this.” The kids fuss, whine and resist. It is so unpleasant I could just scream. I asked my sister if we could do something to make mealtimes for the kids more enjoyable, but she brushed me off and said they need to learn to eat right and to obey their parents. And to make it even worse, my parents (the kids’ grandparents) do the exact same thing at mealtime when they’re babysitting. When I talked with them, they said they had to do what Brenda tells them to do.

I am single, have never been married and I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert when it comes to raising children, but I can’t believe mealtimes have to be so awful. I feel bad for the kids. Is there anything I can do?

Alas, your options are limited. I say this because the feeding of children seems to be an area where smart and normally rational parents become stuck in power and control dramas where the outcomes are consistently and predictably a lose for both the parents and the children. Underpinning the eating battles is that many parents of young children, like Brenda and Patrick, mistakenly believe they can control all aspects of their children’s eating. Eating ends up a power play where the parents, again mistakenly, equate good parenting with their success in winning these unwinnable battles, while the kids fight this control by outright refusing to eat, or making the process difficult. If others are around, the young parents often get louder and more adamant that their kids follow their eating dictums, perhaps correctly suspecting they are being observed, and even worse, judged. It really is uncomfortable to witness.

As you point out, it is easy for Brenda and Patrick to dismiss your thoughts and input: you don’t have any direct experience in raising children, you don’t have a formal background in this area, and most important, Brenda and Patrick have not asked for your advice. In fact, it sounds like they’re very committed to doing what they’re doing. They’ve even trained the grandparents to carry the banner in their absence!

It sounds like Brenda and Patrick have a basic parenting philosophy, that is, a set of guiding principles about their kids’ eating, based on interspersing the use of controlling, coaxing, cajoling, begging, forcing, and making threats. This will continue unless they change their basic philosophy about what they want to be the goals and outcomes of their kids’ feeding and eating habits. I have two excellent sources for you if you decide you want to approach Brenda and Patrick about reassessing their current philosophy, but for the reasons already discussed, your chances of influencing them are not good.

One is the philosophy developed and taught by eating specialist and author Ellyn Satter. She says: “Feeding demands a division of responsibility. Parents are responsible for the WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE of FEEDING; Children are responsible for the HOW MUCH and WHETHER of EATING.” In addition to her books, Ellyn’s Web site is chock full of research and information to help parents (and aunts!) make this philosophy doable, ongoing and successful. I have to point out that her emphasis on the division of responsibility is difficult for many young parents to accept.

Another great resource is sociologist, researcher, teacher and recent babybites guest speaker, Dr. Dina Rose (to listen to her one-hour children’s nutrition presentation; to visit her website It’s Not About Nutrition).

I asked Dr. Rose to summarize her philosophy about children and eating for this column. “My philosophy is simple: Eating right isn’t about food, it’s about behavior — what, where, why, when and how much someone chooses to eat…if you want to teach children to eat right you have to focus less on the food and more on shaping their behavior…Unfortunately, our current culture of nutrition has created an environment where parents approach feeding their children with a nutrition-at-all-cost mentality…The goal of getting nutrients into kids, however, leads parents to…shape their kids’ taste buds in the wrong direction (towards sweets and treats and away from fruits and vegetables)…and use of questionable feeding strategies, such as two more bites, trading peas for pie, etc., that backfire.”

She goes on the say: “The solution is for parents to focus less on the food and more on shaping their children’s habits…When parents focus on shaping habits, good nutrition always follows. Alternatively, when parents focus on nutrition, they often inadvertently end up teaching bad habits. It’s one of the greatest paradoxes of parenting!”

You might start a conversation with Brenda and Patrick and your parents by saying you looked into what a couple of experts had to say about children and eating, you found what they have to say really interesting, and you want to share it with them. It’s a long shot, but maybe one of them will be frustrated enough with the current eating routines to want to learn about something different.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.

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