Part II: Q&A on tiding over a two-year-old before dinner

Feb 24, 2010 by

This post is the second installment of my answer to the question of a reader, Jen, a few days ago:

My two-year-old eats really well most days, and we only have real food in the house. There are times though, when I’m moments away from having a meal ready, and he has the refrigerator open pointing at the yogurt or applesauce. I often tell him that after he eats the soup, spaghetti, red beans and rice, or whatever it is we’re having, then he can have the yogurt. I’ll say, “First we’re going to eat the soup, then we can have some yogurt.” Is this wrong? Is this like offering a reward? He usually complies without much of a fuss, though occasionally he throws a bit of a tantrum. I think the problem is he’s hungry, but the food isn’t on the table yet. If it’s going to be a while before dinner is ready, I’ll let him have the yogurt or applesauce to tide him over. Thought? Thanks!

Here I want to address something that jumps out at me, jars me in the above scene: it’s the image of a two-year-old, standing before the open refrigerator door, pointing at what he wants, unchallenged about taking that liberty.

This scene reminds me of the time one of my daughter’s friends came over. She was about 10 and it was one of the first times she’d been to our house. She opened our fridge wide and peered inside and said, “I’m hungry.” I said nothing, but I thought, “What are you doing in there, kid? You don’t belong in there!”

I have a thing about an open fridge door. My mom always got after us for standing there with it open, browsing, letting all the cool out. So it bugs me for that reason.

But my discomfort with the image goes beyond worrying about the fridge itself. Some one standing in front of an open fridge, particularly a small child, is to me the picture of eating outside of meals, of random snacking. Neglected eating. The open fridge opens the door to mindless eating. To me it speaks of a utilitarian view of food, food as simply animal fuel. It’s also a depiction of bored eating, purposeless, solitary. It symbolizes the culture of food as background noise, eating while watching TV or while working on the computer, or while playing a video game.

All those things are everything I think eating shouldn’t be. As much as possible, eating should be purposeful, deliberate, celebratory, civilized, organized. It should be done with our full attention and in the company of friends or family.

Now I can tell from your messages, Jen, that you are careful and watchful of your family’s eating. So that’s also part of why the image of your toddler sticking his nose in the fridge stuck out like a sore thumb to me.

So here’s my advice, to take for what it’s worth, or not. To create a home atmosphere where respectful, healthy eating is the norm, parents need to be the gatekeeper of the food source at least until good habits are well ingrained.

The structure of regular, definite meal and snack times is one of only a couple of effective tools available to a parent to get kids willingly eating what the parent wants them to eat. It’s a powerful one, though: the best way to train children to be hungry when it’s time to eat and to eat what the parent has planned for them to eat.

Meals and healthy foods are more appealing when you haven’t been foraging and nibbling on whatever you found in the kitchen before mealtime. The more we eat outside of meals, the less we eat during meals. It’s a cycle, for better or worse. Snacking prevents good old anticipation for meals from ever building.

“You’re going to spoil your dinner,” my mom would say when she caught us “piecing,” as she called it.

Kids don’t usually give a darn whether they spoil their dinner; they don’t have that kind of longer-term thinking or understand the bigger picture. Not leaving the choice up to them is an effective, gentle way of hemming in the child to eating the way you know best that he should. Consider also the various habits you can build: of self-control, of awareness, of orderliness, of patience.

Now my kids are older teenagers and they are always hungry. I tell them they’ll spoil their dinner, but they just laugh and say, “I’m always plenty hungry for dinner.” And it’s true. They have healthy habits established and they are completely unpicky. But I still let them know I prefer they keep all their appetite for the good dinner I’m preparing.

I’d recommend making the fridge off bounds for your little guy unless he asks permission for something particular and you’re OK with it. You might also ask him to get something out of the fridge, as you involve him in preparing a snack or a meal, always under your direction.

Part I of my answer to Jen’s question

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 24 February 2010 / All rights reserved

3 comments
Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Jen, I'm tickled pink that you got some useful information out of my posts. Mission accomplished! I love to answer questions like yours. I'd love to answer more if you have any others, and send your friends my way, too!

Jen
Jen

I also wanted to tell you that for the last week or so, since I implemented the regular afternoon snack, dinner time is much more pleasant! Before, he would often be so hungry that he was grouchy and whiny by the time we sat down to eat dinner. It was difficult to actually get him to eat at that point. My husband and I mostly dreaded dinner. It's a wonderful change! Now he is happy and pleasant at the dinner table, yet still eats a great meal. In fact, he's eating dinner much better now! So thanks to your blog: we got the morning snacking out of the routine and he eats a great lunch, and now we've worked out the afternoon snack and he eats a great dinner. Awesome!

Jen
Jen

These are more great thoughts, Anna. Your mom and my mom sound a lot alike in their views of open refrigerators! It's only recently that my son has been able to open the refrigerator, and it WAS a jarring sight to me. It is annoying as well. My only consolation is that he only does it when he is truly hungry or thirsty, and I haven't met those needs in time with a meal or snack. In fact, since I began regulary offering an afternoon snack after his nap, he hasn't done it at all. :) I thank you for that, because it was your mention (in your first post), about discussing with him why he might be hungry that I realized it's partly my fault. You suggested asking if he was too busy to eat his snack, when I realized I wasn't always offering him a snack! Also, he just turned two last month, and he isn't very verbal yet. He isn't capable of actually telling me when he is thirsty or hungry. He is still mostly in the gesturing/grunting/babbling stage, so I think pulling on the refrigerator door is the gesture he's developed to communicate those needs to me. I agree that this is a habit that I do not want to take hold, so I will begin explaing to him that he needs to come to me when he needs something instead of opening the refrigerator himself. Even though he doesn't talk much yet, he understands everything. Thanks again for putting so much thought into my question! I really appreciate all your helpful thoughts and advice.

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