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