Beyond the battle of the dinner table

Sally Wiggins Young with some evidence-based advice for family mealtimes.

Providing food for the family can feel more complex than a large-scale research project: a balance of economics, time, ethics, knowledge, skills, and the patience to deal with a four-year-old who won’t eat the Bolognese because they can ‘taste the onions’. When it comes to children, our knowledge of their food likes and dislikes becomes both a marker of how much we know them and also a matter for negotiation.

You invite guests to your home for dinner. One of the first things you might ask is what they like to eat,or if they have any food allergies.You would prepare something that you hope that they might like. If they are close friends or family, you may not need to ask; you most likely know their favourite foods already. But what about if they’re bringing their children?

When children are invited, it is typically their parents who are asked, ‘what do they like to eat?’. Knowing their children’s food preferences is part of parental responsibilities and a logistical manoeuvre. It is this issue that is typically at the root of what have been called family mealtime battles. 

These so-called battles might play out in different ways, but the core principles remain the same: a conflict between parent and child regarding what, and how much, should be eaten. Here, I am going to explain how you can prevent or at least reduce the scale of mealtime battles by small adjustments in the words you use. This is not about getting your children to ‘like’ the food that you provide, but rather about changing the way we talk about food dis/likes and removing the basis on which many of these mealtime battles are based.

Why liking food is part of the problem

As a child growing up in northern England in the 1980s, saying ‘I don’t like it’ was no guarantee that I could avoid eating a particular food. This was the decade in which news of the devastating famines in Ethiopia were broadcast on a global scale and people were, literally, starving. My flippant suggestion that ‘they can have the rest of my dinner’ clearly did not go down well with my parents. 

Fast-forward a few decades and food dis/likes (often referred to as ‘food preferences’) have become one of the most researched topics in psychological research on eating, particularly with regards to children. An overwhelming amount of work is focused on topics such as the development of food likes, overcoming the avoidance of novel foods (‘neophobia’) in infancy, and how young children can learn to like a wider range of vegetables.

It is not just within academic research that we have become so preoccupied with children’s food dis/likes. The language of eating during mealtimes is heavily weighted toward mundane food assessments. This has become an almost ubiquitous topic at mealtimes – what we ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’. Video-recorded infant mealtimes even reveal parents voicing eating pleasure and food likes on behalf of their children as they have their first tastes of solid food (Wiggins & Keevallik, 2021). 

While such talk about food dis/likes is commonplace, it is also part of the problem of mealtime battles, for three reasons:

  • Knowing the food likes and dislikes of children is, as noted above, an accountable thing for parents, and something that they might reasonably claim, having seen them eat every day for most of their lives. Parents are expected to know what 
  • their children like to eat. This expectation – and responsibility, you might say – means that parents are likely to be fairly adamant about their knowledge.

  • When children state whether they like or don’t like a food, such statements are treated as referring to an underlying internal state (i.e. a taste experience). In the case of stated dislikes, children are often challenged about the authenticity of their claim, sometimes with quite blunt arguments that suggest that the children are simply wrong.

  • Liking or not liking has become a binary state, an ‘either-or’ situation in which someone can either like a food or not like it. The in-between, ‘sort of’ like is still acceptable, but not in terms of deciding whether the family might eat that food again. Children are typically pushed into one response or the other.

The combination of these three elements means that mealtime battles are likely to arise when a child makes a comment about not liking a food that their parent maintains that they should like. Let’s examine how this works in more detail.

Food likes as ‘knowables’

Food likes and dislikes are not just personal preferences, they are also things we know about our friends and family. This is what enables parents to develop repertoires of familiar meals that will be enjoyed by everyone. 

There is, of course, a difference between knowing about someone’s food likes and the person themselves knowing it from an experiential perspective. Food dis/likes are an example of what Anita Pomerantz (1980) described as ‘Type 1 knowables’, that is, knowledge of something that a person might have both the rights and obligation to know because they have primary epistemic access to that knowledge. Any bodily experiences or mental states would be included in this category. If you tell me, for instance, that you hate seafood or don’t like asparagus, it would be very strange if I disagreed. I don’t have access to how something tastes to you nor how you experience flavours or textures. 

And yet this is what can happen when children state their food dislikes during family mealtimes. Claims about what they ‘like’ often go unchallenged, but any comments about things they don’t like, and parents will often react by trying to argue otherwise. This is where the battle begins. Parents and children are stuck in a double-bind situation with regards to knowledge about the child’s food dis/likes. Any discussions about this during a mealtime could then pull these two knowable stances in opposite directions. It is a bit like a knot in a piece of string; the harder you pull on each end of the string, the tighter the knot becomes and the harder it is to unravel.

Consider the following example (taken from Wiggins, 2014), which follows a brief exchange in which a Mum asks her 5-year-old daughter Isla if she would eat some home-made apple cake, to which Isla responds first by shaking her head. Mum then follows this with a claim about what Isla likes:

Example 1: apple cake

  1. Mum:   you love apples
  2. Isla:      I don’t like apple cake,
  3. Mum:    you’ve never tried it
  4.              (2.0) ((Isla visibly slumps in her seat))
  5. Mum:    specially not home-made

In the above example, Mum draws on a knowable thing about Isla – she loves apples – and uses this as part of a negotiation to encourage her to eat the apple cake. When Isla states a dislike about the cake, this is then challenged with the argument that one must try (or taste, or eat) the cake to really know whether you like it or not. This is a bit like the ‘seeing is believing’ argument, but in this case, it is ‘tasting is believing’, when parents might insist that their children ‘try’ the food before they make a judgement. While this might seem a rational statement, an appeal to opening up sensory experiences of food, when used in this way in mealtimes it is more likely to be treated as pulling in the opposite direction to the child’s stated preference. In other words, treating the child’s prior assessment as not valid, and that the parents have greater understanding of what they ought to like.

What happens when we assess food

When we talk about what we like and don’t like about food, we are drawing on a broader set of discursive practices defined as assessments. Food assessments are common in mealtimes and they typically follow a pattern in which either the person (‘subject-side’) or the food (‘object-side’) is foregrounded, and either an item (e.g. ‘these carrots’) or category (e.g. ‘carrots’) of food is being assessed. For instance, ‘these carrots are horrible’ is an example of an object-side item assessment, whereas ‘I hate carrots’ is an example of a subject-side category assessment. It is this latter type – also known as SCAs (see Wiggins, 2014 and van der Heijden et al., 2022) – that is used when we state a food dis/like. They are also the most consequential form of food assessment for psychological matters, since they suggest a food preference that transcends the current mealtime. They hint at permanence, implying dis/liking that exists regardless of time and place. If today you tell me that you like broccoli, I might reasonably assume that you will like it tomorrow.

Food dis/likes are thus a specific form of food assessment that contains in its grammatical form a set of psychological implications. In essence, SCAs construct food likes as a noun, as a thing we know about ourselves and other people. This is how food dis/likes as knowables become part of our everyday language about eating.

What happens in family mealtimes is that SCAs are often used by parents about their children when making an offer of food or trying to persuade the child to eat, such as with the apple cake example above. They might even use arguments that recollect past experiences, for instance, saying ‘you liked it when you were little’ as a means to challenge a current refusal to eat. The fragility of this argument is apparent when you compare it to other childhood favourites. I loved ‘My Little Pony’ and my Sindy doll when I was little but have very different interests as an adult. 

The point is that food dis/likes, as knowable things, become used as part of mealtime interaction for particular purposes. It is not just that the parent claims knowledge about the child’s food likes, but that this knowledge is being used in the negotiation of what can and should be eaten. We see another illustration of this in the next example, taken from Wiggins and Laurier (2020). Nine-year-old Joseph hasn’t eaten much of his risotto and toward the end of the meal his Mum tries to encourage him to have a bit more:

Example 2: risotto

  1. Mum:   could you- eat a bit more: (.) Joseph please (0.2)
  2.             ‘ stead of [staring into space
  3. Jos:     [na::h: (0.4) I don’t °like it°
  4. Mum:   a little bit more if you don’t mind
  5. Jos:     no::: ((shakes head))
  6. Dad:    I’m surprised
  7. Mum:   n:- >yeh< 
  8. Dad:    he had all the bacon
  9.             (.1.0)
  10. Mum:   he likes bacon, he likes peas (0.2) and rice.
  11. Dad:    yep

The use of a subject-side item assessment (‘I don’t like it’) can be seen on line 2, which Joseph states as a reason why he doesn’t want to eat any more. Mum doesn’t directly respond to this but instead restates her request, and Joseph refuses again, with a ‘no’ and a head-shake. Both sides are thus pulling in different directions and the disagreement knot simply gets tighter. What happens next is that Mum and Dad start putting together a more nuanced argument about what he does like in order to undermine his ‘I don’t like it’ statement. 

In the end, the offensive food was discovered to be the onions, and the battle was never fully resolved. Onions are just too central an ingredient for many dishes and not liking them is simply not an option. The parents were not going to give up on this one.

Liking is a process, not an ‘either-or’ state

It is not so much that there might be differences in what parents and children claim about their food dis/likes, but also therefore that these differences have consequences. If a child states a dislike of onions or other staple foods, then the family’s repertoire of meals is under threat. This is why things might work differently in nurseries, schools, or at friends’ houses; while disliked foods might still matter in such settings, they don’t matter as much as in the home because they don’t impact on the future of family meals. 

Resolving this problem, and preventing mealtime battles, is not about trying to get your child to like the food that you provide. Not liking food is not the problem here. The problem is that the words we use to talk about food dis/likes reinforces an assumption that the dis/like is a fixed state and a knowable thing about that person. To solve this problem, or unravel the knot in our arguments, we need to treat the word ‘like’ as a verb and not a noun. That’s it. Liking is a process, not a state-of-being or some quality about ourselves that remains unchanged through time. And as a process, liking a food can change from mouthful to mouthful, from day to day. Changing our words from ‘like’ to ‘liking’, from categories of food to specific items, can make all the difference.

When we use the word ‘like’ as a noun rather than a verb, it sets up food dis/likes as being two separate and mutually exclusive categories. Either we like the food or we don’t. While there is the possibility of a middle-ground (as in ‘I like the flavour but I’m not sure about the crunchy bits’), when it comes to children’s eating practices, it frequently becomes an either/or question. The final example below shows how this can play out. The family are eating a meal accompanied by different breads such as naan and chapati, when Emma (aged 5 years) turns to her Mum (see Wiggins & Laurier, 2020):

Example 3: naan

  1. Emma:   there’s something different abounthe naan bread
  2. Mum:      >is there<
  3. Emma:   mm
  4. Mum:     <good different or bad different>
  5. Emma:   I don’t know
  6.               ((talk about other things briefly))
  7. Mum:     do you like it?
  8. Emma:   like the naan bread?
  9. Mum:     mm
  10. Emma:   ((brief shoulder shrug and headshake))
  11. Mum:      >no<
  12.               (2.0)
  13. Mum:     okay >fair enough<

While the non-verbal food assessment (line 10) is accepted here by Mum, and indeed she demonstrates an interest in her daughter’s food preferences, the upshot is that an initial curiosity about ‘something different’ becomes distilled into a binary concern: do you like it or not? Since the food in this case (a type of bread) is an addition rather than the staple to the meal, the consequences of this now-stated ‘dislike’ are much less than if they had referred to a food that formed a substantial part of the meal, such as the onions in the risotto from example 2 above. In this case, a potentially open discussion about flavours is turned into a binary choice that then treats the ‘like’ as a noun and thus a knowable thing about Emma. The result: those particular naans will probably not appear at their future meals.

Word-choice as the key 

Preventing mealtime battles is not straightforward and the advice I offer here won’t help your children to enjoy their food any more than if you added chocolate sprinkles or a portion of chips. But it should help to avoid the disagreement knot being tightened any further and allow room for discussion that does not pull parent and child in different directions. Small adjustments in the words we use can make a big difference.

  • Use ‘liking’ as a verb, rather than ‘like’ as a noun. Liking food is a process that can change from mouthful to mouthful, not a static state that defines who we are.
  • Don’t ask children if they like their food. Ask them if they are enjoying it. That keeps the focus on pleasure without individualising it.
  • If children voluntarily say they don’t like something, acknowledge it with a slight shift in emphasis: ‘you’re not enjoying it, that’s fine, maybe it will taste better another time’. Don’t try to challenge their assessment even if it seems like they are just saying it to be difficult. Pulling in a different direction will only make the knot harder to untangle.
  • It’s only a battle if you take different sides. Any comments about the food are not a personal attack on your cooking abilities or capacity as a parent, even if it might feel like it sometimes. Our vocabulary for talking about eating is limited and even as adults we often use the same phrases (e.g. ‘this is nice’) over and over again without thinking through their consequences. Children are just learning how to use language about eating and they learn most of this from their parents.
  • It’s not just about the kids. We talk about what our friends and our pets like to eat. Enjoying similar foods can enhance the connections we have with others. Talk about these as practices and shared moments (as in ‘you look like you’re enjoying that as much as I am’), rather than as knowable facts (‘so you like pasta too’).
  • Let your words provide possibilities for change. Once you verb ‘liking’ then it can make it easier to accommodate changes, to allow both children and adults to be able to say ‘I’m liking this now’ in a way that doesn’t challenge a ‘I don’t like X’ standpoint. This is going to be even more important if we are to open up to eating new foods that are more sustainable both for families and for the planet.

The key to preventing mealtime battles is therefore not to treat comments such as ‘I don’t like it’ as a statement of fact about your child’s food preferences. Treat them for what they are: assessments in the here-and-now, drawing on our limited (English) vocabulary about eating. Once you stop pulling in the opposite direction, and stop trying to argue differently about these knowable dis/likes, you can start having conversations that allow both parents and children to explore food tastes that everyone can enjoy.

-  Sally Wiggins Young is Professor of Discursive Psychology at Linköping University, Sweden.
[email protected]

Illustration: Nick Oliver

References

Pomerantz, A. (1980). Telling my side: “Limited access’ as a “fishing” device. Sociological inquiry, 50(3-4), 186-198.

van der Heijden, A., Te Molder, H., Huma, B., & Jager, G. (2022). To like or not to like: Negotiating food assessments of children from families with a low socioeconomic position. Appetite, 170, 105853.

Wiggins, S. (2014). Adult and child use of love, like, don’t like and hate during family mealtimes. Subjective category assessments as food preference talk. Appetite, 80, 7-15.

Wiggins, S., & Laurier, E. (2020). Our daily bread and onions: Negotiating tastes in family mealtime interaction. In E. Falconer (Ed.), Space, Taste and Affect (pp. 115-128). London: Routledge.

Wiggins, S., & Keevallik, L. (2021). Enacting gustatory pleasure on behalf of another: The multimodal coordination of infant tasting practices. Symbolic Interaction, 44(1), 87-111.

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