The other day as I was wrapping up a meeting for work, a friend I hadn’t seen in a few months walked by. She asked how I was and I muttered something about how everyday feels like a battle of wills with my toddler. Her response?
“Well, how would you feel if people were telling you what to do all day?”
I’m honestly not sure what I said in response, if I said much of anything, but I can tell you that days later I’m still thinking about it. We try to give our girl choices to help her feel in control of her world but there’s a limit to how many “real” decisions she can make because sometimes we have to do certain things at certain times (such as leave the house or get dressed or wash our hands after using the bathroom). But one place that we’ve been letting her make meaningful decisions for some time now is at the table.
If you read My Food Philosophy page, you’ll recognize this advice from feeding expert Ellyn Satter:
“The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether.”
In practice, this means that we choose what’s on the table for dinner and we try our best not to coax, bargain, or coerce her into eating something that she doesn’t want to eat. Actually, we do this both because we like the concept but also because the more we push her, the less likely she is to try something. (And the more likely she is to throw it on the floor or spit it out of her mouth.) We talk about what’s on her plate—how things taste, where ingredients came from if there’s a story we think she’ll like, or how she helped me prepare something—but it doesn’t always mean that she’ll eat it. And sometimes she asks for something that’s not being offered and I have to weigh the options. If it’s cheese (and it often is), I usually get up and cut her a few slices. If it’s a snacky food like crackers, I usually encourage her to eat her meal first.
Here’s a look at how this played out on a recent Saturday:
5:40 am Snack: She asked for crackers and milk when she woke up (at the crack of dawn) and ate them while we read books on the couch.
7:30 am Breakfast:
Offered: Oatmeal Muffins with butter and honey, banana, milk.
Eaten: The top of a muffin, a single bite of banana, about 1/4 cup of milk.
10:30 am Snack (while hiking, image shown above):
Offered: Oatmeal Raisin Peanut Butter Bites, homemade-by-grandma fruit leathers, Cherrios and raisins, and almonds that I had stashed in my pocket for myself. (This assortment was meant to cover an afternoon snack as well.)
Eaten: One Oatmeal Raisin Peanut Butter Bite, 3 fruit leathers, 1/2 of the container of Cherrios, and most of nuts (maybe 1/4 cup?) over the course of about an hour. Water.
1:00 pm Lunch (at a friend’s house with their two kids):
Offered: Chicken Posole, avocado, tortilla chips, salsa, and grapes. Organic Oreo-type cookies.
Eaten: Tortilla chips, salsa, and maybe 3 grapes; water; and a cookie (and pleading for a second but we’d eaten them all). No interest in the soup at all (even though it was delicious!)
4 pm Snack:
5: 30 pm Dinner:
Offered: Slow cooker black bean chili with shredded cheese and skillet cornbread. And a cup of milk.
Eaten: The black beans from the soup, a small pile of shredded cheese, a few bites of cornbread. Milk.
As you can see, the intake of produce was slim. Slimmer than I would like, clearly, but the goal here is to trust her ability to regulate her hunger and that what she eats will balance itself out over the course of the week. I do my best to fill our house and our table with food that I feel okay about her eating, so it only seems fair to be okay with letting her decide what and how much of it to eat. She’s actually become more choosy recently, which has thrown me for a bit of a loop, though I think it might have something to do with a slow down of the whopping growth spurt she had through the fall.
(This chart from Raise Healthy Eaters is very helpful in basic expectations of what to expect from kids at the table as they grow from babies into little kids. Pickiness seems to peak around 2 as their growth starts to slow.)
There are days when it seems like she’s living on milk and crackers. (Or milk and Cherrios.) And I won’t lie and say that I never worry about whether she’s getting enough nutrition. BUT, letting the table be a place where I purposefully back off—a place where she’s in control—seems to result in happier mealtimes and a happier little girl, so that is taking precedence right now. And while I don’t always succeed in getting us out the door in the morning without some tears, I’m relieved to not have the same drama at the dinner table.
How do you guys handle it when your little ones are choosy at the table? Do you do “no thank you bites” or have a policy that they have to taste foods before they can say they don’t want it? I’d love to hear!
I’d love to do this sort of post regularly so we can help each other feel less pressure about our kids not eating “perfectly” (and also to share ideas for what to feed them!). If you’d like to share a “What She/He Really Ate”, please send the name and age of your kiddo, a picture of them, and a list of what you offered and what they ate at specific times to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.