When my son Josh was young, and by young I mean between when he started walking and age nine, he didn't much like eating, especially dinner. I think kids just want to move or run or sparkle or play and you can't do very much of that when you're tableside.
At first, I believed he'd starve to death if he didn't have a real dinner or at least get some kind of disease from malnutrition. Someone told me children would never starve if there was food on the table but being a first-time mom, I wasn't sure if I could believe that.
I tried all kinds of kid-friendly meals (which mostly comes down to pasta, strawberries and yogurt) but also hoped slipping some veggies in here and there where I could would help. Josh was a grazer, and luckily liked cucumber, which he ate while we were shopping. Berries and summer fruits seemed attractive to him too, so I slipped those into lunch boxes daily.
Still, we never did make much headway with dinnertime. After a while I made a deal. I'd try to get him to eat as much as he could (maybe 10 percent of his meal, if I was lucky), and then when he said he was done, I said he needed three more bites of something before he could leave the table. He took those bites, and that was how we left it.
Later, if he got hungry, I wasn't one of those moms who said, "You didn't finish dinner. Deal with it." Instead, I let him have fruits or veggies or even a little toast and butter. Milk or hot chocolate were OK at bedtime. And somehow, as children do, my son grew up and got big enough to play football in seventh grade.
By the time Josh was eight or nine, I decided I was done obsessing about nutrition. That didn't mean I wasn't obsessing about other stuff, though. My son was very active, and probably too active for a lot of his teachers' tastes. Several asked me to get him tested for ADD or ADHD. Health food store employees told me to cut out sugary juice drinks and never allow sodas.
I suppose I could have, maybe even should have, done some of this stuff. But the last thing I wanted was to give my son pills of any kind just because he was antsy. I worked with him a lot at home on homework and he knew we expected good grades and he had to pay attention in school, even if he didn't like it. I tried to minimize sugary drinks at night but I stopped obsessing about what he was eating and when.
I don't know if this was the "right" thing to do, but I can say junior high seemed easier for him than elementary school and high school seemed better still and he started to shine in college. In looking back, I feel lucky that all my coparents (husband, Josh's dad and his wife) were great parents too. I have a feeling my son's stepmother was responsible for Josh learning to try and eventually like a lot of new foods.
Seeing where my son is now (and wondering what he'll be like as a parent) makes me realize that most of the time, we parents are too hard on ourselves. Yes, we mess up (and I did a lot) but even with those messes, I still think our ledger falls closer to the "OK" side of things than not. And as for dinner time, well... I'm here to tell you (promise) -- those three bites really can be enough.