Toddlers & Food

After posting the Expectations post a few weeks ago, I got bombarded with questions.  Several questions in particular talked about food and toddlers.  Many mothers complained that their toddlers would only eat chicken nuggets or peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.

When I was pregnant with Kaylee, my mom and I had a conversation.  My mom isn’t a “you should” kind of person, but her wisdom in child rearing is remarkable, and whenever I seek her advice, it’s likely I’ll take it.

She told me that toddlers have two areas where they feel like they can control the situation.  One is sleep.  The other is food.  She said if you give them a leg up on either one of those areas, you’re likely from then on and to constantly have a struggle and a battle on your hands.  She assured me that I would be tested in the food department, and promised me that if I stood firm, I would win.

It took a couple of years, but when she was almost 3, Kaylee certainly tested us!  I served dinner one night and she looked at me and dumped her plate on the floor.  The meal was something new, so after gently admonishing her for dumping her food on the floor, I made her a new plate with extra veggies and salad and skipped the main course.  She ate some, but not all.

The next night, I made something I knew she liked – like spaghetti or something.  She did the same thing.  She looked right at me and dumped her plate on the floor.  I admonished her, less gently this time, and made her a new plate, which she promptly dumped on the floor.  I told her that dinner was over and got her down.  About an hour later, she told me she was hungry, but I told her that she’d have to wait until breakfast to eat again.

The next night, she did exactly the same thing.  This time, I didn’t give her a second chance.  She was immediately told dinner was over and I got her out of her high chair and told her she’d eat a big breakfast.

It happened again the third night.  By then, her dad wanted to give in, but I encouraged him to stand firm.  She was eating good breakfasts and lunches, and I promised him she wouldn’t starve to death for missing dinner.

By the fourth night, she ate what I cooked her without testing me and without complaint.  Other than the first night, every single meal was something she’d normally eat with gusto.  For a few weeks, I made sure that dinner was something I knew she liked, just so that we didn’t encounter a moment like the first night after such a hard-won battle.

The next time I cooked something new that she didn’t like, she was required to taste it.  I assured her that as long as she tasted it and didn’t dump her plate on the floor, she was allowed to not like something.  Sometimes she liked new dishes, sometimes she didn’t.  I learned what she did and didn’t like, and learned to make extra sides and salads when something was coming that she wouldn’t like.

I haven’t had much of a problem with the boys.  I don’t know if the way Kaylee eats encourages them to eat, or if they just didn’t battle me with food.  Scott isn’t a big eater, but he eats well for what he does eat.  Jeb is still young enough that it may come, but he eats enthusiastically, and eats anything given to him, so I don’t see it being an issue.

I did broach the subject of eating with the children’s pediatrician.  Scott often simply chooses not to eat dinner.  The doctor told me that between Scott’s age (4) and about the age of 6 is the slowest growth period for a boy.  He said that if Scott ate one well-rounded meal a day, that was really all of the nutrition his body required at this time.  Once I realized that, I just continue to offer dinner and he’ll either eat it or not.  He has gradually started eating more, and will at least eat some dinner sometimes, and most of his dinner occasionally.  But, he has always eaten a good breakfast and he loves lunch, so I don’t stress dinner nor do I compel him with bribes or pleading.

I knew a woman who had two teenage children.  They came to our house for a dinner party one time.  On the way to the house, she stopped at one store and bought some deli macaroni & cheese, and stopped at a pizza place and picked up a pizza.  When she got to the party, she said that she had to do that every day.  Her daughter would only eat that mac & cheese, and her son would only eat that pizza.  Period.  No deviation ever.  I told her they’d probably eat something different if she didn’t make those stops every day.  She was appalled at the suggestion, so I dropped the subject.

I have a friend who is astonished at the way my children eat.  She said that her children will only eat frozen pizzas or hot dogs, and loves to watch my children attack fresh vegetables, salads, and different meats.  I’ve told her that her children would eat something other than frozen pizzas or hot dogs if she served something else.  She said, “No they wouldn’t.  I’ve tried.”  I told her that if she didn’t offer them anything else, eventually they’d be hungry enough to eat real food, and would start training their palates to enjoy the taste of fresh food versus processed crap.  She said she’d never be able to stand firm enough to win that battle.

As I said to her, therein lies the problem.  And the result is that she has three children who, all under the age of 10, make their own decisions regarding food.  The end result is overweight, low energy, poorly behaved kids.  It’s easier to hand a deep fried, processed piece of rubber that is supposed to be a form of fowl to a kid and watch them eat it than to teach them how to appreciate real food.

Every child is different, and every strategy with every child is going to be different.  What worked for Kaylee may not work for your child.  But, the end result should be the same.  A child who concedes to a parent’s authority over a matter as important as what goes into that child’s body and when.


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