I’m currently healing from two injuries and bearing the scar from a third: one knife stab, one first degree burn, and a 2-inch long second degree burn. I’m not into woodworking or freeform glassblowing or some other potentially injurious hobby. Nope, all of these wounds were created in service of one futile task, one with which you parents out there will undoubtedly resonate:
Making food for my daughter that she refused to eat.
Ah, the task that all caregivers of little ones dread. Alas, how can we avoid personal injury and the wrath/potential starvation (okay, the latter is not at all likely, really) of our highly irrational charges?
Well, I’ve learned the hard way, as well as from the families with whom I work, that it’s best to avoid this kind of scenario:
“I worked for an hour making a delicious, nutritious, 5-course, organic, vegan, macrobiotic meal for the family and he refused to even taste it!”
If this sounds familiar to you, here’s my first piece of advice.
Stop cooking for your toddler.
I mean it. As my injuries will attest, there’s nothing more resentment-inducing than the fruits of a slaved-over toddler meal going untouched (or, let’s be honest here, being pushed away violently in disgust and outrage).
Instead, I invite my families to think about meal preparation for their little ones not as cooking, but as assembly.
The paradigm of tapas, little Spanish appetizers or snacks, has come in handy for feeding our child in this regard. We might cook something warm and yummy (read: heat up a frozen Trader Joe’s entree) for ourselves, but our daughter will often get a variety of cold and hot finger food instead. Possible menu items might include:
- hot dog bites
- hard boiled egg
- deli meat slices
- smoked salmon
- baby kale
- peas and carrots
- cold cooked pasta
This could even be served informally, picnic style, on a breakfast tray on the living room floor (throw a piece of oil cloth or a splat mat underneath). And then, she is free to eat – or not eat – whatever items she chooses. (Handy tip: I freeze uneaten fruit and avocado bits to be used in smoothies later).
“Wait,” you’re saying, “I’m going to do this other thing you’re suggesting, and my kid still might not eat what I’ve cooked-er, sorry, assembled?”
Yes, that’s right, for you see, all you can do when it comes to your child’s eating habits is…
Take responsibility – your own, not your child’s.
You are not responsible for making your child eat. In fact, renowned dietitian, nutritionist, and family therapist Ellyn Satter‘s division of responsibility in feeding breaks down food struggles into the following responsibilities:
- The parent is responsible for determining what (is being served), when (it is offered), and where (the food is to be eaten).
- The child is responsible for deciding how much (to eat) and whether (to eat it at all).
That’s it. No begging or cajoling, no bribery of bites for prizes, no fear that our children are starving themselves, no excessive catering to preferences. There’s a lot of trust in this model – trust in our children’s awareness of their level of hunger and fullness, as well as what they are in the mood to eat at this particular meal. By offering trust willingly and clearly identifying what we are and are not responsible for regarding our children’s eating habits, we can move on to my third and final piece of advice:
Stop the struggle.
Life with littles is replete with power struggles; that’s just the name of the game in helping raise someone who’s just beginning to develop a sense of autonomy. Sometimes we need to leverage our power, but the rest of the time, it’s best to skillfully avoid power struggles, especially around food and eating.
Leigh Anderson, writing for Huffington Post Parents, shares the magic of the following six words for ending food struggles:
You don’t have to eat it.
Which in my house sounds more like this:
You don’t have to eat it. If you don’t want it, just put it on your plate.
(To explain, my child becomes repulsed by food she doesn’t want/like/respect and wants it G-O-N-E gone from her field of vision, grunting and shrieking, “Mommy wants it!” with the offending dismembered bite outstretched in her grubby little hand.)
Toddler tapas: great idea or greatest idea?
Look, I’m not claiming to have invented this concept (even though I feel like the name is pretty unique), and many of you may already be doing versions of toddler tapas already.
But I will say this: meal times are special times. We should do whatever we can to make them more enjoyable for everyone. So break out the tapas. Sit on the floor. Divide responsibility accordingly. And don’t sweat whatever your kid chooses not to eat. Seriously – you have bigger fish to fry (and for the love of all that’s holy, please don’t fry an actual fish for your kid. They most definitely will not eat it. Trust me on this one – I have the scars to prove it.).
Further reading related to this topic:
- The two arms of parenting
- Limit-setting 101: When to set a limit
- Limit-setting 101: Key ingredients for holding the line
- It’s time
- The dead man’s switch
- Minding manners
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!