I Sent My Children to Bed Without Dinner—and We All Survived

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When I was a little girl, if I didn’t like the food that was presented to me, my mother would make me sit at the table for hours on end. Sometimes my older sister would sneak into the kitchen and take bites of my dinner just so I wouldn’t have to sit all night and we could play.

This technique didn’t work to broaden my picky palate. It merely made me angry and resentful. If I didn’t finish my plate within whatever time frame my mom deemed appropriate (which ranged from 30 minutes to three hours), she took the plate away and sent me to bed hungry and mad. I swore to myself that if I ever had kids, I would never send them to bed hungry.

Then a few nights ago, I did that exact thing. I sent my kids to bed without supper. The decision was not an easy one, and many times during the evening, I questioned it. I even interrupted my spouse with a phone call while she was at an evening work event. Let me tell you exactly how things went down.

For the kids’ Friday night dinner, I prepared red beans and rice. I had never made this for them before, but many people have asked me for the recipe whenever I’ve brought it to share. Thinking I was clever and that it would be fun for the kids (my mistake), I decided to place tortilla chips throughout the beans and rice so that they looked like mountains sticking out. The kids were supposed to use the chips as “edible spoons.”

When I placed their bowls on the table, my 5-year-old son immediately and dramatically threw his head back, howling “Ooooooo noooooooo, this is soooo grosss!” distorting his face in all sorts of ways. His 4-year-old sister turned up her nose, made gagging noises, and reluctantly, with much prodding, tried three small bites before refusing the rest.

The rage rose from the tips of my toes to my chest and then, right before I verbally exploded… a moment of calm and peace washed over me. To be honest, I think I was “comfortably numb” after having expended so much energy during the week coming up with creative and tasty meals that were met with endless moans and complaints.

Related: How to Get a Picky Eater to Eat, According to a Food Blogger

Walking away from the table, I went out back for a few moments to collect myself. I prefer to be proactive rather than reactive in these types of situations because, as a parent, if you draw a line in the sand, you’d better be ready to enforce it.

I thoughtfully came to the decision to send the children to bed without dinner for the following reasons:

  • The kids never miss meals/snacks and had eaten well at breakfast and lunch that day.

  • Both are physically healthy and do not have any health issues that would be negatively impacted by them missing a meal.

  • I want my children to appreciate the food they eat, where it comes from (respect for land and animals), respect for time put into preparing food, and the money it costs to buy. Teaching them these concepts doesn’t happen by saying, “Kids are starving all around the world and would love to eat what’s on your plate! Food costs money, and I’m sick of wasting it!”

    Science has proven this approach doesn’t work because a child doesn’t have the cognitive capacity yet to comprehend that abstract concept. What a child can appreciate at the age of four or five is the feeling of hunger. Throughout the evening, I mentioned that many children around their neighborhood and the world experience feeling hungry every night. My children are old enough to appreciate and understand that. I also knew this would be a “one-off” event.

  • My children and I needed a “factory reset.” We had fallen into a negative pattern of behavior. I could feel my body tense up with anxiety as dinner time approached and my children asked, “What’s for dinner?” because I knew they would inevitably complain—and I would seethe. We all needed a “night off” from the norm. Sending them to bed without supper was definitely that for everyone. I felt like crap most of the night, even though I was comfortable with my decision.

After I came to my conclusion, I walked back into the kitchen, took their bowls away, and calmly told them they would not be getting dinner. They, of course, said “fine” and that they weren’t hungry anyway. I explained to them that refusing dinner is not only a waste of food but that it hurts their bodies when they don’t eat and my feelings when they say the food I present to them is “gross.”

The last few hours of the day I spent extra time with them as I knew they would not be at their “best.” When appropriate, I helped them identify their hunger and how it negatively impacted their moods (more short-tempered, grouchy). I also reiterated (in a kind manner, not a derogatory or demeaning way) how moving forward, I hoped they would have a more open mind to the food I presented at mealtime.

Do you know what happened the next day? They woke in fine and happy moods. They heartily ate their breakfast without complaint, were cheerful and chipper for lunch, and at dinner time, when I gave them steamed broccoli and carrots with homemade pork schnitzel (they have never had the pork prepared that way), they sat down and said, “thank you” and ate each and every bite.

*****Cue the exploding confetti and release the balloons! Parent win!*****

Holy moly, it worked! I have no clue how long it will last (we’re coming up to week two), and they still sometimes make a small fuss or face but quickly get themselves in check.

I can’t promise that if you do this with your children, the next day they will show more respect for your time and effort. What I can tell you is that sometimes parents have to do things that feel counterintuitive at the time, yet they’re the right thing to do.

In this day and age, many parents are afraid to set a boundary/discipline their child(ren) for fear of being accused of abuse/neglect. I completely respect that and understand where it comes from. Once upon a time, children were viewed as property without feelings/needs/etc and were treated very poorly. Even with the knowledge that we have today, children are still being abused and seen as “less than,” but we now have laws in place to try and protect them.

It took me four days to convince myself to write this article. Why? Because I am human and fear judgment and ridicule. Someone out there may not approve of my decision to send a child to bed without dinner and might see it as a form of abuse.

Nevertheless, I chose to push my fears aside and write the damn article anyway because I know there are thousands of parents out there struggling to get their children to eat a little bit healthier. It’s my hope that this story gives you the courage to set firmer limits around food.

Obviously, common sense needs to factor into a decision like this. If you plan to do the same, make sure you are calm, collected, and ready to cope with any backlash that comes your way in a loving manner. We all know what it’s like to feel hungry and irritable.

Sending the kids to bed without dinner will not become a family tradition. It is my hope that this “one-off” incident is enough to help them recognize the importance of eating and to develop empathy for others who aren’t as fortunate as they are.

I am a 42-year-old biological mother of two young children in a same-sex relationship, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in neuropsychological assessment, a music therapist, a trainer of therapy dogs and ex-communicated Mormon from Indiana with a wicked sense of humor. 

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