Words you’d expect to hear in a school cafeteria, right? Or maybe recall from a famous Thanksgiving episode of “Cheers?” Mashed potatoes flying, cranberries tossed, a pie landing square in the face. What started out as a normal meal with friends ends in an all out war. Though in the end, most are laughing at this release of tension or just plain silliness, one thing remains… the mess.

We have food fights in our house, too. As we gather at the table and dish out the food for the evening meal, we engage in the normal banter, chatter, and eating. But then, often unexpectedly, the food fight begins. The words, “do I have to eat this” or “I don’t like this” are uttered. Just a little “fling.” Depending on the night, this can just pass right on through without further incident. A simple “yes” or “eat it anyway” brings everything back into balance. This week, however, that little fling set everything in motion. Likely provoked by a case of the “hangry’s” (anger due to hunger!) and displeasure with the food option for the meal, the verbal exchange between child and parents escalated to a toss, then a throw, then a full-on war of words, postures, and stances. The food fight was ON!!

Ever been there? Ever doubted, in retrospect, how you handled the situation? Or maybe wondered how to handle it in the midst of the food fight? Ever wonder how much to push when a child doesn’t like the food being served?

I still vividly recall a food fight from my childhood. When I was about 5 or 6 years old I was spending time on my grandparents farm in North Dakota. A large group of extended family was sitting around the kitchen table for dinner when I found myself staring down a pile of cooked carrots on my plate. Now, for all I know, there may have only been two. But, to me, as someone who HATED cooked carrots (or at least, was pretty sure I did), it felt like an unconquerable mountain of vegetables. And so it began. I crossed my arms and prepared for battle. My competitive nature took over and I refused to touch my fork. Lines were drawn and words were spoken that couldn’t be retracted… “Heidi, if you don’t eat your carrots, we will have to spend some time alone in the basement.”

Now, keep in mind this was a farmhouse. There was no basement… only a cellar. A cold, dark, spider filled concrete space that housed old stuff that we hoped to never have to retrieve. As soon as those words were spoken, I knew my parents wished they could un-do them… and so did I. But family was witnessing this. As the oldest grandchild in the family, many who were watching had no parenting experience yet. I’m sure they were taking notes as this exchange took place.

As the time ticked on and the table began to clear of all other guests, I still sat firmly in place, choosing to face the cellar instead of the carrots if that was the consequence. Slowly, and with dismay, my dad ushered me from the table and escorted me down two flights of stairs and into spider land. He turned on the overhead light, shut the door, and left me alone. After the initial shock subsided, I took in my surroundings and with a bit of gumption, found an old hula hoop that became my companion for the duration of my “time out.” And that’s exactly how they found me when my punishment was over… playing with a hula hoop… making it clear that I, yes I, won the food fight. My parents are still horrified that they actually did this, but we all laugh now. It’s one of the most re-told childhood stories.

Since then, I’ve been on the parenting end of these battles for the past 16 years. I’ve had showdowns over chicken, meatloaf, and most recently quinoa. Sometimes I’ve “won” and the child has eventually eaten the detested food. Other times, I’ve “lost,” and found chunks of steak I thought had been eaten hidden in the pattern of the rug under the dining table. Can anyone say touché? 🙂 More often than not, it’s a draw. I encourage the… ok push them.. to eat, or at least try, the objectionable food, and when they choose not to, I dispense a consequence and we all end up feeling badly.

I don’t have all the answers. I know I run a “tight ship” as my sister likes to call it. And I don’t mind that label. I DO know that continuous food fights can lead to longer term issues with food in general, and I certainly don’t want that. But I also don’t want my kids to only eat what THEY want to eat which, in their earlier years, may have meant chicken nuggets, PBJ, and juice boxes. I know that my older boys, now, are relatively balanced eaters. My 16 year old has sworn off soda, chooses Subway over McDonald’s and is more aware of the food choices he makes every day. He eats anything put in front of him… except seafood! And my 14 year old is the ultimate food adventurer. He rarely orders the same thing twice from a menu and recently discovered, the hard way, that Ahi Tuna is NOT a food he will ever eat again! Sometimes it’s an expensive adventure to eat out with him, but I want him to try these new things that appeal to him and not limit his palate to safety. And, even my 10 year old is now willing (usually!) to try new foods. The Montessori school he was a part of from age 3-5 had a food tasting day every year during which they had to at least taste everything that was put before them. He found he actually liked hummus and other foods that would have caused battles at home.

I’m sure there will still be food fights in my house. Kids are kids and wills are strong. Hmmm… I wonder where they got THAT? 🙂 But in the end I do the best I can to allow for choice and freedom while still guiding them as their mom. And, if that means a few fights along the way, then I’m glad I like mashed potatoes (and cooked carrots!).

Watch the famous Cheers episode here:

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