Question from a reader: When little Johnny wants more waffles, but no eggs & fruit
Dear Sacred Appetite: Just found your blog when searching for ways to avoid picking eating in toddlers. I nanny for newly 3-year old triplets. One is rarely picky, the other two are more picky when it comes to certain types of foods. I love everything you have said here (and in a couple other posts) and it makes perfect sense to not force a kid to eat a certain food if they don’t want it. I do still have a scenario that I haven’t seen addressed much on this or other blogs when it comes to toddlers and food. Let’s say little Johnny has eaten all his waffles, but hasn’t touched his fruit or his eggs. He asks for more waffles. The parents and I have been telling him he needs to eat what’s on his plate first before he gets more of something he already ate. Is this an ok approach? Do you have a suggestion for what else to try/say to him that would be more effective? – Laurel
Laurel, thanks for your question! That must be quite an adventure to nanny three-year-old boy triplets! I have plenty of thoughts in response to your question.
The first rule of feeding children should be: Never directly try to get a child to eat anything, ever. That means don’t ask them to, don’t tell them to, don’t require them to in any way, such as making eating something a condition to get something they want (an egg for a waffle). Don’t pressure or push them to eat anything, ever. That doesn’t mean that you let them eat whatever they want. That nobody ever has to eat anything should be well understood at the table, however.
Children have appetites and that is what you need to leverage and allow to drive their eating. When the right habits, food and atmosphere are present in the home, no child needs to be told to eat, ever. The ideal is to serve a meal of several healthy dishes and each person present serves themselves the amounts of each that he or she feels like eating, with consideration of sharing with others. Everybody has freedom over their own eating and all enjoy eating together as a social occasion.
Why not tell a child to eat? Because it causes the child to see the food as something YOU want them to eat, and not something they want to eat. They are likely to continue to view that food negatively. I can’t stress enough how important it is to avoid making eating about what you want them to eat vs. what they want to eat. If children don’t eat outside of meals and are only offered healthy options, you’re far more likely to avoid or eliminate such problems.
Ellyn Satter’s famous “division of responsibility” in feeding children tells us that it is the parents (or caretaker’s) job only to decide what foods to offer and how they are offered (what and how is very important, though). It is the child’s job to decide what and how much to eat. Stick with that rule. Offer only good choices, then back off and allow children to choose from among them. Don’t worry if they don’t eat certain things. My exception to that rule would be if a child is eating more than his share of a food item, that it’s natural and normal to gently and lovingly say something like, “The rest of us want some, too. There’s not enough for everybody to take thirds.” Children need to be taught to consider others. You can deliberately choose to create scarcity of certain items (only make that much) in preparation to say that at the table.
Furthermore, pushing a child to eat something naturally creates resistance. Our natural tendency when pushed is to push back. If you tell little Johnny he has to eat an egg before he can have another waffle, he may well get a feeling in his heart that he hates that egg and that when he grows up, he will eat 100 waffles every day, and no eggs ever, and so there. His feelings toward the person who does this to him might be just what you would expect you yourself to feel in this situation.
What happens also if you tell a child that in order to get more of that food he loves, he has to eat some other food? He will eat that other food, then eat more of the food he loves, even if he’s full by then. Thus we encourage a child not to listen to his own body and its trustworthy cues about eating. We train them to overeat and to not be in charge of their own bodies. We are way too involved at this point. We are not sticking to the division of responsibility.
One solution to the problem is not to serve foods like waffles that are nutrient poor and teach kids to love sugar and carbs. That’s what I would do: just quit serving waffles. Children really need nutrient dense food, and so do parents. Serve only foods that it will be harmless to pig out on a bit. Once kids get a taste of sugar and junk food, which are engineered to create addictive cravings, they are going to naturally crave it. That they want it doesn’t mean it’s OK for them. The average child will always eat the junk or sweets rather than making the mature choice of eating an egg and fruit. Having such foods available is likely to always create a struggle if you’d rather they not eat much of them. So until children develop a healthy appetite for healthy food, it’s up to parents or caretakers to protect children from themselves. I would keep all sugar and junk food away from kids as long as possible. We do young children no favors when we serve them addictive sugary foods and then expect them to use reason and self control. If you cheerfully serve only nutrient dense foods like eggs and fruit, that problem will be eliminated.
You can at least limit sugary foods like waffles. Simply limit the waffles without pushing the eggs and fruit. Get children used to only getting one waffle every time (though that will be another battle to fight). You have the right to say, “One is enough.” Be firm. They’ll be hungry maybe after just one, and without being told to eat the eggs and fruit, they might eat them, independently of being pushed or pressed. But that will be their problem, not yours. Otherwise, knowing that they won’t get anything else to eat till the next meal, eating more will be their choice to make, depending on how hungry they are and how much they really dislike eggs and fruit. If they are told to eat them, they aren’t going to want to, though. They will want to be their own men, as well they should be.
Another option is just to make a rule like, “If you’ve eaten something that day, you can’t eat it again.” That’s a pretty abnormal and extreme move to make, but if you have a child who is eating abnormally, that rule could help change the dynamic, if held to matter-of-factly for many months in a row. The problem I see is that the cook can never serve leftovers, which would be a big problem for me! Nobody is being made to eat anything, ever, but the narrowness is being discouraged, by simply not allowing them to stick to the same foods. No pushing, but pulling away. The rule could be dropped once normality is reached. Sometimes you have to go to such extremes to bring normality back in.
The important thing is that instead of telling them they must eat the thing you want them to eat, just keep them from eating the thing you don’t want them to eat. Be matter-of-fact, cheerful and firm. Don’t worry and waver. Leave it at that, and let them decide based on hunger what else they will eat. Give them the job of making sure they get what they need from what you present, instead of trying to control so much. The appetite is like a river: it has its own force. You don’t have to push it, and trying to get it to go in the right direction by pushing doesn’t work; you only need to block it from the wrong direction and it will automatically flow in the right direction. And everyone will feel better about each other as a result.
I hope you will browse more of my posts because I think many of them would answer your questions and provide a great deal of help! Here’s one to start with.
Your job as a parent or caretaker of children is to:
1. Offer only the best food options possible (nutrient dense, delicious, well prepared, well presented)
2. Train the child in good habits (eating only at the table, learning manners and social skills, eating only at meal time or scheduled snack time . . . )
3. Create a positive, pleasant atmosphere with conversation at the table (no battling over food, no pressure, no negative talk about the food allowed . . .)
4. Treat children as you would another adult as regards what they choose to eat. Respect the child’s ability to choose from among the options offered and to know what tastes good to him and how much he needs to eat. Don’t scrutinize and over control at the table. Don’t say how much of anything a child must eat (unless they are not leaving enough for others). Serving family style is a great way–it’s nearly miraculous–to treat children with respect and grant them the control they should be having over their own eating. Three-year-olds are old enough to start learning how to pass dishes and serve themselves.
Good luck and keep me posted how things go!