Parenting is a whole lot of love, patience, joy, and frustration. Basically, an emotional rollercoaster, am I right? Case in point, the mealtime gamble of “will they or won’t they?”. Will they only eat one bite of their absolutely favorite meal? Will they turn up their nose to the same dish, yet again? It’s easy to feel like you’re walking on mealtime eggshells. Can’t they just eat what we serve?! There’s nothing more frustrating than preparing a meal after a busy day and serving it to kids who groan, stick out their tongue and say “yuck”. Even worse, the stress that comes from knowing that as soon as your kid sees their meal they will cry, whine and demand something else, or just hold out for their bedtime snack.
So, what’s a parent to do? There’s a lot you CAN do, but first let’s start with what NOT to do.
Becoming a short-order cook can happen without you even realizing it’s happening. Most kids, at one point or another, will display picky eating habits – this is absolutely normal, although worrisome to many parents. Toddlers are seeking a sense of control, and food is often one thing they can control (or so they think). So, when your toddler goes on a food strike, or refuses everything but peanut butter on toast, this can easily translate into separate meals or catering to their preferences. Because… survival. Right? So, what happens when you start short-order cooking? Of course, your toddler starts eating (because short-term bribes and catering will work), but their long-term food acceptance, relationship with food and overall nutrition will suffer. It can perpetuate picky eating and discourage narrow their palate. Plus, being a short-order cook is a lot of work! And I don’t know about you, but parenting is tough enough without also running an at-home restaurant.
Kids are born intuitive eaters, which means self-regulation comes naturally to them. If they’re feeling full, they’ll stop eating! And if they keep going, that’s a lesson learned with natural consequence. According to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (sDOR) our job is simply to provide the what, when and where – which basically means provide a variety of food, at appropriate meal and snack times, in a distraction-free eating environment. This will help encourage kids to stay on their intuitive eating path. The role of kids in the sDOR is to decide if they eat, and how much. That’s it! When it comes to grazing, self-regulation goes out the window because kids lose the ability to feel hunger or develop an appetite for their meals. And if kids are already full on snacks, there’s no way they’re going to feel slightly hungry before a meal. Meaning it’s highly unlikely they will eat, and way more likely that they’ll request food later on when hunger kicks in. My recommendation for timing of meals and snacks is between 2-3 hours for little kids (under 6) and 3-4 for older kids (over 6).
I understand it sucks to throw food away, and that it’s frustrating when your child comes to you asking for food immediately after a meal. If this happens, do you give them their meal as their snack? In short, no – and for a few good reasons. The main one being, we never want to make food punitive, and offering a snack that is a previously rejected meal can create anxiety around food and can be seen as punishment by your child. And in order to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food, we never want to associate food as a reward or punishment. Bottom line – I don’t recommend giving kids’ leftover meals for snacks. Instead set them up for mealtime success by managing snacks throughout the day and setting mealtime rules and boundaries. For the leftovers or food that your kids don’t touch at a meal (and would be safe for consumption), feel free to repurpose into lunch the next day or to freeze for another meal!
Kids are crazy smart and often times when they don’t eat their supper they’re relying on mom and dad’s predictability in offering a snack pre-bedtime. Chances are this bedtime snack is their favorite, because as parents we never want to see our kids go to bed hungry (or wake up in the middle of the night), so we give them something we know they’ll eat. Am I right? But if bedtime comes roughly two-hours after supper your kid doesn’t need a snack. Their opportunity to fill their tummy was at mealtime! Now if your child has gobbled down their supper and is still asking for a bedtime snack, I would probably offer one. Kids go through periods of growth, or burn crazy amounts of energy, meaning they might legit be hungry. As a parent – use your judgment in these scenarios and don’t offer the same snack every time.