Parenthood is humbling, guys. Every mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa out there would agree with me. If you say, in your oh-so-blissfully-naive pre-parent years, “I’ll never do that when I have kids” or “My child will never behave that way or do XYZ” than you have basically shot yourself in the foot and your day of reckoning as a parent comes. Because it will. Every single time.

I am not above being humbled by parenthood.  Parenthood has kicked my butt on multiple occasions and I am sure there are more to come. But I embrace it, because Mommyhood is also a whole lot of awesome. And fun. And about a million times more rewarding and fulfilling than I ever dreamed. But back to that butt-kicking….

My “thing” is healthy food, right? Of course it is! That’s why you’re here reading my ramblings and (hopefully) cooking my recipes. So, of course, my daughter must be sure to humble me in the department of healthy food. It’s her job. I get it.

Alice has been eating organic homemade food since the first time she ever saw a spoon. I made her own baby food from scratch and smugly poured spinach and bananas smoothies into her first sippy cup. “I’m awesome,” I’d think, “She will grow up loving healthy food and I’ll dodge all those struggles people always face with getting their kids to eat broccoli.”

Don’t worry guys, the universe totally made sure I ate my words. It is only fair.

Fast forward 4 years. Alice is her beautiful, spirited, independent, spunky self. She proudly dresses herself in mismatched patterns and clashing colors. She loves to show off that she has inherited my stubborn (according to my husband) gene and  has suddenly decided to act  like a typical 4 year old  by refusing to do pretty much anything that I ask her to do without a miniature war prior to compliance. And now food has fallen victim to her “tiny teen ‘tude .”

FOOD!! My beloved food! I was spoiled as a rookie mom by having a toddler who was an adventurous, willing eater…but now I am in the same boat as many of you, fighting the good fight of trying to convince my lovely little one that the cauliflower will not, in fact, kill her if she dares to eat it.

So how do I handle it? By taking the power out of the food power struggle. 

You know those muffin tin meals of mine that you guys just love? THOSE are my secret weapon. ….And a single choice phrase.

Muffin tin meals are the simplest little thing you could do at meal time to make your child feel empowered. How, you ask? By giving them choice. It is as easy as that. We all want choice and children especially crave as much choice as they can get their adorable sticky little fingers on. So, when Alice started battling meal time….I permanently broke out the muffin tin.

Every meal I served her was in the muffin tin. Which meant, every meal Alice has a boatload of healthy choices to pick from. Some new. Some old favorites. Some repeatedly rejected. But when she saw choice, Alice stopped screaming the minute I put her food down in front of her.

You guys are probably scrolling through frantically, looking for the magical phrase I use in conjunction with the muffin tin meals that stopped the battles. Are you ready for this? Okay, here it is:

“You don’t have to eat anything.”

That’s it…and probably not what you were expecting. But, after doing some reading and turning on my teacher brain, I decided to give Alice the power over her food that she craved. When I give her dinner (or breakfast or lunch), if she turns up her adorable little nose at it, my husband and I just (matter-of-factly) state, “That’s fine, you don’t have to eat anything.” She can eat whatever she wants on her plate…or leave whatever she doesn’t want. But that is her meal. For better or worse.  The end. There are no negotiations. There are no promises of dessert after her healthy choices. There is just “this is your meal, and if you choose not to eat it, that is your choice.”

And guys, something magical happened. The whining and fighting stopped.  Alice embraced the power of choice of not only what to eat, but what NOT to eat. And just by giving her this power, Alice became open to so much more food I would have never dreamed she’d willingly eat. Like kale salad and shrimp! By taking the power struggle out of the battle, the battle disappeared. Its a beautiful thing.

Just as we  don’t harp at her to eat, we also don’t praise her when she does brave a bite of something new.  We let her experience her food without comment or input from us… because even if the input is positive, it might be just enough to put bring the power struggle back.

If you guys are starting to get all flustered and wonder what I do if she opts to not eat anything. The answer is…nothing. I tell her she can just sit and enjoy our company and if she is whining in an hour that she is starving, then I am happy to reheat her dinner for her, but I will no way (not a chance) make her something different. I am not a short order cook and she is a blessed little girl to have the opportunity to have healthy food on her plate every day. That is also something I want to instill in her as much as I want to instill healthy eating habits. If she decides that she doesn’t want to brave dinner, my daughter will not starve. Breakfast is not far off.

I’m sure this approach is not for everyone and that is totally fine. Parenthood is not a “one size fits all” kind of situation after all. However, if you have been looking for a tool to add to your “parenting tool belt,” than this trick might just be the hammer you need to nail down those dinner time battles.