Question & Answer on how to tide over a hungry two-year-old before dinner

Feb 21, 2010 by

A question from Jen, a reader:

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!

Jen, Thanks so much for that question. It gave me a good launching off point and a lot to think about. I have quite a lot to say in response, which I will discuss starting here but continue with another couple of posts.

First off, I think it’s great that your son is good and hungry for dinnertime and that you only make real food available. That right there is a great start.

The main thing to consider is what kind of habits do you want to establish for your son? Now is the time to build good healthy habits such as not eating randomly outside meals and having a sound appetite for nutritious food and proper meals. It sounds like you’re working on those goals already.

Furthermore, you can also set the stage for good habits such as being patient and keeping his cool when he doesn’t get his own way. We certainly do not want him to get in a pattern of throwing a fit to get what he wants. Mealtimes offer opportunities to teach all these lessons daily. Those good habits that will set him free as he grows older should begin now. Feeding is a perfect vehicle with new opportunities every day to teach our child both healthy habits and good character.

A key opportunity in the scenario you describe is to instill in your son the ability to wait with grace. Even at his age, he can begin to learn to cope with delayed gratification.

A two-year-old can certainly can and should be trained to wait “moments” more for the meal. You might try saying something like, “No, sweetie. We are about to eat dinner. You’re hungry, aren’t you? I have some nice hot soup almost ready for you. It’s going to be so good. Can you smell it? Wait just a moment.”

Your little tyke needs to learn to understand and accept the idea of waiting, though he might not like it the first time he hears about it.

Be pleasant but firm, and keep the focus on the meal. Talk about his hunger rather than whatever other thing he wants to eat at that moment. I would avoid trying to placate him with a promise of getting later the thing he’s after. The snack itself is not really the issue. Also, you do not want him to begin valuing the snack more than the good, substantial meals you want him to eat willingly.  The meal is not something he eats first in order to get the treat he’s got in mind.

Tell him he is a big boy and that big boys are able to wait a little while. Give him a job to do to hasten the wait, like bringing something to the table, or going to tell Dad it’s time to eat. If it’s going to be longer than a few moments, offer a drink of water.

You might talk about why he’s hungry: was he too busy to eat well at snack time? Is he growing a lot?  That idea can distract him for a few minutes. Let him know you understand and sympathize with his anguish. Then at dinner, you might make a point of telling Dad how Junior waited patiently for his dinner.

In the famous “marshmallow test,” a researcher left four-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow and told them they could either eat it as soon as they wanted, or they could wait till the researcher came back, in which case they would score a second marshmallow for resisting the first one that long.

The researchers followed those same kids, and years later, found that those who had been unable to delay gratification for the greater reward at that tender age grew up to have more problems with school performance and behavior, and lower SAT scores. They also demonstrated less skill in dealing with stress. Learning self-control early will continue to give your son a valuable advantage in life.

I don’t really think this describes you, but many parents seem afraid to let their kids to ever suffer hunger for any amount of time. They rush to feed them something—anything—as if they were worried the child would pass out. This problem comes up often after the child has refused to eat a meal. A cycle is quickly established of the child not eating when and what he should and instead eating when and what he shouldn’t.

The older the child, the longer he can be expected to wait for meals or for anything else they want. ____________________________________________________________________________________

A good book on this subject: Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in our Homes and Schools by William Damon

Coming up:

· The problem with kids feeling free to browse in the fridge.

· The importance of the big-deal meal

Part II of my answer to Jen’s question

Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 21 February 2010 / All rights reserved

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Mary, habit formation is one of the pillars of Charlotte Mason, and I try to always look at what kind of habits we're forming as it applies to food. I'm gearing up to write another answer to this same question and it will address habits as well. CM is also big on the idea of "I will" vs "I want" and training kids to think about what they ought to do instead of being slaves to their wills. The Damon book I mention above is one we read when we were in the CM school. thanks for your comment!


I just want to add that when I included raw in describing our food, I was referring to dairy. I do cook!


Thanks for the great ideas, Anna! I came back to see if you had any thoughts, and I found a whole post. :) We are working to teach him self-control, so I love the idea of teaching it with meal times as well. He is an only child, so naturally he gets the focus of our attention most of the time. Also, being 2 years old, he's testing boundaries and isn't usually happy when he doesn't get his way (i.e. mom and dad don't jump to fulfill his every demand). I think I need to re-work our schedule a bit. He used to graze a lot after breakfast and not really eat a lunch, until I started reading your blog. :) Now I give him a heartier breakfast, and that holds him until lunch, which he now eats. He usually has 2 eggs, homemade yogurt and a piece of fruit for breakfast. I switch it up sometimes with oatmeal thrown in. On weekends when dad has time to linger with us, I make more special breakfasts, like homemade pancakes or waffles, with sausage and bacon. I've found he doesn't ask for or need a morning snack at all. He is hungry and ready to eat a good lunch when it's time. The issue is that he still takes 1 long nap each afternoon. He usually sleeps 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, with varying amounts of play in his crib before and after sleeping. It's not unusual for me to put him down around 1 p.m., and he doesn't start fussing to get up until around 4 - 5 p.m. Of course that is the time that I'm either beginning to work on dinner, or plan to start soon. We usually eat dinner around 6:30 or 7 p.m. So I don't blame him for being hungry! He usually hasn't eaten anything since around 12:30. I must remember to start offering a small snack soon after he gets up from his nap. I feel like it's my fault, because I don't always remember to do this. Sorry for the long comment! I can't wait to hear more of your thoughts. So my plan for now is to offer a snack after naptime, and hope this will resolve the issue. If not, I will use your tips to encourage self-control and delayed gratification, instead of "bargaining" that he can have the treat after eating the meal. Thanks again! By the way, I am a Food Renegade too. All of our food is grass-fed, pastured, raw, homemade, preservative, additive and dye-free at least 90% of the time. So he is getting really nutrient dense food.

Mary A.
Mary A.

I really like this! Is this some CM philosophy, having patience and learning to wait? I have read CM for homeschoolers for awhile and did go to a two day workshop in October by Sonya Shafer with Simply Charlotte Mason, so I am trying to incorporate her philosophy and methods at home with my two youngest. So, thanks for this helpful parenting tip; something I needed to hear since it does frustrate me that they nibble on this or that before dinner and aren't real hungry after I've made a good meal. Having them wait for the meal is a good way to teach self-control, which they need for many reasons in life. Also, kids can learn to help get dinner on the table if they want it sooner.