09/18/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Hey Servers, Leave Those Kids Alone!


Dear Server,

You look really busy. We see that your tables are full, and you may be putting out literal fires back in the kitchen. But if you have a moment, we would love to take a few things off your list of responsibilities.

You don't have to worry about getting our children to eat veggies, or more or less food. It's not your job to decide how much our children have to eat before they can "earn" dessert, or if you think they are too skinny or too fat. You don't have to keep track of any of it!

Please refrain from commenting on what or how much our children are or aren't eating. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn't say it to an adult, don't say it to a child. Here are some examples of what not to say:

  • "Wow, you ate all your broccoli, that's so healthy!"
  • "How do you know you don't like it if you haven't even tried it?"
  • "Look at you, finishing your whole omelet! Way to go!"
  • "If you finish your plate, I'll bring you a cookie."
  • "You really want more rice? Haven't you had enough?"

Now, here is where you might think we'd go on and on about how we're the moms, and it's our job to make our children eat more veggies and control their portions.

But, guess what? It's not our job either! It's actually the child's job to decide how much to eat from what the parent provides. (This is known as the Division of Responsibility in feeding, widely applied by nutrition professionals and agencies.)

By choosing your restaurant and helping our children choose from your menu, we've already done our part. Now we'd like to enjoy our meals and the company of our family. Once you bring out the food, maybe check if we need refills or anything else, that's all we really need. (If you're up for a little banter about the weather, our kids' tabletop drawings, or your favorite local theater, that would be more than welcome.)

Oh, and if we ask for dessert with the meal, we mean it. Studies show that bribing kids with dessert often backfires, making them more focused on the sweets and less interested in the other great foods on the table. And if we pass on dessert, you don't need to convince us they earned it by eating their veggies, or try to talk us into ordering it to go. Dessert with the meal or no dessert -- this is a conscious, informed decision on our part -- we're not being bad, mean or lazy parents. What and when we feed our children is our job, eating -- including what and how much they decide to eat from what's on the table -- that's up to the kids. We get that it's not how most of us grew up, but it's how we've chosen to feed our children (after many years of research and clinical practice).

And for you children's menu designers? Know what else you can skip?

  • How many calories children burn riding a bicycle for 30 minutes. Bike rides should be fun, not penance.
  • Advising children that eating fruits and vegetables can "prevent diseases." Young children don't need to shoulder the burden of disease prevention, especially not on a Friday night when we're trying to relax and have a nice time.
  • Lecturing children to "Know when to say 'Whoa!'" while you offer a brownie ice-cream sundae bigger than their heads.
  • Telling children to eat "right" when their choices are fried chicken, pizza, fries, macaroni and cheese -- or tell them to "eat right" even if all you offer is locally sourced, organic, heirloom or artisanal. We are at your restaurant already.

We trust your comments have been made with the best intentions, assuming parents could only welcome your support in the crusade to get kids to eat better/more/less/differently. Many parents do. But we believe that we don't have to manipulate children into learning to enjoy a healthy variety of foods. They have that drive in them already, and given support and freedom to do so without undo pressure or interference, they will learn to accept and genuinely enjoy a greater variety of foods at their own pace. We actually don't want them to eat something simply because we told them to.

We understand that not every parent feeds this way. Parenting styles differ, and feeding styles do as well -- these are personal decisions every parent makes. We simply ask, as your customers, that you allow us to make those decisions for our own families and to keep the commentary to yourself. Keep the conversation neutral, and everybody's happy!

These are just a few thoughts offered in good faith. We appreciate you, we like your restaurant, and we'd like to come back!

Thanks for your consideration and hard work,

Katja Rowell MD (aka the feeding doctor)
Katherine Zavodni MPH, RD, guest contributor and clinical dietitian specializing in eating disorders

The authors felt compelled to write this general letter after several comments over the years from well-intentioned servers persisting with unwelcome interference with young diners. Readers, we'd love to hear what your experiences have been while eating out. Do you welcome these kinds of comments, or dread them?

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