April 6, 2013

Feeding a Child

I've always like to cook, but since I began a family the importance of eating well and trying to put good things on the table has had elevated importance. It feels like both a big responsibility and a big motivator to think of everything we do now as building the foundation for Willem's attitudes and habits around food. (And I know I'm biased because this is my hobby, but how he eats and views food seems pretty important since he'll be doing it a few times a day for his whole life.) Having this long-term view of what we are teaching him forces us to be better ourselves. 

I've developed some (passionate, soapbox-type) thoughts on the topic of feeding young children, from a combination of things I've read and our experiences. I know some parents will disagree, perhaps strongly, with some of these, and that's fine. These are some of the routines we've developed in our house. Most of these were obviously not relevant when he still ate baby food. Some of them I think will apply far beyond toddlerhood. This is what works for us right now, so I thought I would share.    

Sit down to eat, and eat together. All our eating times, but especially dinner, have predictable elements that together have become a ritual. He's got his little routine: climb up in his chair, get his bib ready, wait to be pushed in. On the very rare occasion that we've decided to have an adult-only meal after he's in bed, and we plop him at the counter to eat dinner while we're puttering around doing other things, he's a bit unsettled by it. "Why are you not eating? Why are we not eating at the table?"  

Whatever the routine around meals you envision in your house, make everything about it that is reasonable a ritual from an early age. Napkin in the lap, saying "cheers" with your glasses, not starting till everyone is sitting, whatever. Kids love and grab onto routines. When it gets questioned or tested, I like the phrase, "in our house," as in 
Child: "So-and-so puts her feet on the table." 
Parent: "In our house we don't."  

He eats what we eat. Really! We don’t serve separate kid menus. I don’t get out backup meals if he isn’t wild about what we’re having. When he doesn't love dinner, he always still eats enough of the meal that I know he won’t go hungry. He now seems to thoroughly get the idea that what is in front of him is what's on offer. His job is to try things, and our job as parents is to provide decent food at every meal, and some variety within the meal so that there are some choices. From there he gets to learn what he likes and how to pace himself and be an independent eater. The things that are sure hits of course get eaten first, and that's fine (and that's the reason that we say "one piece of cornbread is enough" or he'd eat a meal of just that). But after that he slows down and branches out and ends up making his way around the plate and digging into all of it, to one extent or another. How will he learn what he likes, or learn to try new things, if we only give him things we know he likes?

We feed him minimally processed, real food, that's homemade whenever possible. (Following from this, we try to only eat that ourselves—when we slip, we are careful not to do it in front of him.) We feed him good bread, meat, pasta, fresh fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, yogurt, cheese, and sometimes, but not every day, delicious well-made treats. We do not feed him crackers, pretzels, candy, many cereals, or other store-bought goodies and snacks with lots of ingredients. I believe babies, and people, develop a taste for what they get used to eating. I know he'll learn of the existence of Go-gurt and Doritos and Cheese Nips eventually and will eat them at his friends' houses and I will have to find a way to relax about that. But I think what's important is getting him accustomed to, and letting him develop a taste for the real stuff now so that the salty, sugary, packaged stuff doesn't win him over.     

Sometimes we serve his meal in a different form than ours to make it more palatable for him, either psychologically or physically/developmentally. For example, when we have a dinner salad, such as this chicken-feta-cucumber one, I serve him all the same things in a deconstructed version, each ingredient in a separate little pile on his plate: one token piece of lettuce (which he eats probably every sixth time, but I think that makes it worth it and putting it there sends the message, someday you’ll eat this just like we do), cheese, cucumber, chicken. Having safe little piles of each thing that he can check out helps him warm up to it better. And you don't want any one item, if they're all mixed together, to make the whole meal a no-go. So when it's easy to just plate his differently to make it more approachable for him, I sometimes do. 


We let him be as independent as possible when he eats. We offer to help when he’s eating something really tricky (like, lately, a half grapefruit with a grapefruit spoon, a tool he thinks is really nifty but can't quite operate himself yet). But otherwise we leave him to himself to go at his own pace and try what he wants the way he wants in his own time. If he wants to take his sandwich apart to eat it, that's fine. If he wants to take some of the tuna out of his tuna melt, that's fine. We do not count bites. We do not say he needs to eat X number of bites before leaving the table. Giving him the space to do his thing and not focusing the conversation on his eating is important.  

We do not push him to eat. I don't believe in encouraging/bribing/nudging/talking up/or otherwise showing that I care too much whether he eats any particular thing. If we push (about food or anything else), he will push back in response just for the sake of doing so, because he is a toddler. If he hasn’t touched a certain thing on his plate, we remind him it’s there, by saying “do you want to try your carrot/turkey/etc?We don’t praise him for eating his vegetables (lest he start to think there is any reason he wouldn’t eat his vegetables), but we do recognize and celebrate when he is “adventurous” by trying the different things on his plate. He'll stuff a leaf of lettuce in his mouth sometimes and grin proudly, saying he's being "ah-VEN-truss." I think that's great and I don't ask for anything more than that. 

Dessert is not a prize for eating. I know a lot of people disagree with this, but we don't think it works well to use dessert as a way to get kids to eat their meal. It makes them not enjoy the savory food for what it is. It causes them to not pay attention to when they feel done, but only to when mom or dad says they've had enough. In our house, with our child, we think it works best to not even mention that dessert exists until we are sure we're done and plates are off the table. Then it's a pleasant surprise that we all can enjoy, but not something he's "earned," not something he expects or thinks is coming every night. For now if he knows dessert is coming it makes it really hard to focus on anything else. He'll need to get past this eventually. But right now the healthiest perspective on dessert in our house is as a surprise extra at the end of some meals. 

Seconds: When he asks for seconds of something, we give it to him without a lot of discussion as long as he has tried most things on his plate. If he hasn’t yet tried something on his plate, we remind him it's there and suggest he try it, and as soon as he does we're happy to serve up seconds. We don't mention it beyond the one bite it takes to "try" something. He would keep going back for more of favorite things, like cheese or bread or fruit, until he burst if we let him. With really popular things like that, we decide where we think enough is enough and try to warn him “one more piece” and then say “that's enough of that.” I think the concept of having had "enough" even when there's more in front of you is a good one to learn.  

An easy way to avoid this is plating meals in the kitchen with portions we are comfortable with, or occasionally by serving the meal in courses-- leaving the biscuits or whatever popular item that might monopolize the meal in the kitchen while bringing the salad or soup or whatever to the table first.  

We do not feed him off our plates. I know this probably sounds like I'm a selfish, food-hoarding meanie. But I swear I'm not. And this one might be really specific to our kid. But we learned it a long time ago. If he thinks everyone's plate is fair game, he can be unbearable when we are eating something he loves (say, biscuits or berries). There was a time when he would gobble his in two seconds and if we still had some on our plate he would throw a fit wanting us to give him some of ours. When we began making a habit of saying, “you ate your ___; this is mine,” it helped us enjoy our meal more because we didn't feel the need to polish off our biscuit in two seconds flat but rather had the freedom to enjoy it bit by bit, and he started to learn and respect that. He doesn't even really acknowledge anymore when I'm still eating my banana and his is long gone; he moves on to the other things in front of him.

We make sure the not stealing off each others' plates goes both ways since we learned that if we cleaned up his plate in his sight, even if he was absolutely done, it caused a bit of a freak out. Willem can eat pretty fast and take rather large bites at times, so we want him to be assured that no one is going to take his food from him if he doesn’t eat it fast enough.

We realize this is a bit rigid and we don't want him to never share. Now that he's old enough to understand some gray area, we have taught him that there are times when people share food. When we go out to gelato or a restaurant, we each like to try a bite of each others' choices and that's part of the experience. 

Food presentation matters: Just because he isn’t interested in a food one way or one day doesn’t mean he won’t another day or in another presentation. I experiment (sometimes even within the same meal or snack) with cutting a food, like carrots, in different sizes or shapes, both to teach him flexibility (I will NOT have a rigid child who demands only crustless peanut-butter sandwiches cut on the diagonal), and because it's interesting to see which presentation is most successful. Months and months ago when raw carrots were a newer idea, I gave him raw carrot on his plate, some of it diced, some as skinny carrot sticks. He liked the little bits and ate all of them and then nibbled on the carrot sticks just a bit. The next time I gave him carrots both ways again, he liked the sticks and didn’t touch the diced. So there you go. I don’t peel apples for him, but I give him apples sometimes whole, sometimes in big chunks, sometimes in skinny slices. Now he'll just eat an apple any way you give it to him. But for a while, he ate all these variations in different amounts on different days. So the bottom line is try different ways, even in the same sitting for newer foods, and notice what goes over well.

Table entertainment: we try for no game playing or toys during meals, telling him that people just eat and talk at the table. We want him to continue to be as relatively pleasant at the table as he currently is and for him to be content with just eating and talking rather than having to start from scratch with this social etiquette when he is older. When games come up (peekaboo, for example, used to from time to time), we promise him we will play after dinner.

No food is ever out of the question (other than what they can't yet physically handle, obviously). Don't ever let yourself think, "oh, my child doesn't like X" or "we tried that, he didn't like it." While there are of course certain favorites (I haven't found a piece of fruit Willem doesn't want to devour), and ones that have never, ever been successful (raw onion) everything in between is dependent upon any number of variables-- how hungry he is, who else is present, whether it's leftover or new, what else is available on the table, his mood, how tired he is, etc, etc. Example: first time he tried avocado he ate half of one, the next six times wouldn't touch it, then we went to a Mexican restuarant and couldn't keep him out of the guacamole. I don't think you should label for kids what they like or don't like as if it's set in stone. They're kids! Let them keep experimenting; make the experimenting the point. Help them see that not all bread/avocado/pineapple/hamburger are created equal and give them many different chances to try things. And even once you're pretty sure he won't eat something (like that raw onion), don't let that stop you from putting a tiny piece of it on his plate if that's what your family is eating for dinner that night. He doesn't have to eat it, but he might surprise you and and try it and it might be the time he likes it. It also provides the chance to teach the important lesson that we don't shout "Ewww!", we don't put unwanted food on the table or drop it on the floor or give it to the dog. We just let it sit without making a fuss if we don't want it, no big deal.

Being done at the table: We always confirm that he is done before cleaning him up. (Sometimes even though he has slowed down, if we ask if he is done he says no and keeps eating. This is especially true with his milk.) On the rare occasions when he is done before we are, we remind him that we all stay at the table until everyone is done. I find that because of the routine of sitting at the table for about a half hour, not just leaping down the moment he is done, he tends to nibble a bit at the things he didn't jump into immediately, and he slows down and has some conversation and tries more things. I don't celebrate or want a clean plate. I just want him to try things, to sit calmly, to be polite, to be open-minded, to have some conversation between bites. 

He's two and a half, so such goals are obviously all a work in progress. But we're laying the foundation!


  1. Wow. I read that entire thing.

  2. To follow up. I wasn't a good eater as a child. I definitely still have my dietary eccentricities.

    I think I have to blame my parents. I don't remember details of eating rules when I was a kid, but you have to think that if the right policies are in place, everything would tend to turn out right.

  3. Love this, thanks. Matches many of my own thoughts and is more personal than reading random internet articles.

  4. Just catching up on your blogging from the past few months. Can I take more parenting classes from you, Amanda? (Seriously! I'm like, taking notes here.)