You Are in Control

My daughter, G, loves food and always has. When she was a baby starting out on solids, she ate everything I served. In fact, in her first year and a half of life, she only rejected two foods: pasta with sardines (I was actually surprised) and peas, which I was glad never to cook again 🙂

Of course, G is only three-years-old, so she has her problems like any other child. Toddlers are not the most cooperative of children, no matter what a parent claims. I just can’t believe there’s a single toddler out there who hasn’t refused to eat something at some point or disobeyed her parents or thrown more than one tantrum. If a parent claims this, they’re either lying, delusional, or repressed the memory.

Anyway, we have our obstacles. When G was a baby, she wasn’t wary of food. Now at three-years-old, she’s more suspicious, more hesitant. Then, of course, there’s the issue of the maturity of a toddler! There are foods my daughter LOVES that she’ll absolutely refuse to touch. It has nothing to do with being picky, it has to do with being obstinate, being in control. Young children have so little control over their own lives, they’ll grab it anywhere they can and one of the few things you can’t force on them is food; it’s not like you can hold their mouth open and cram it down their throat. So, for parents, making sure their children are good eaters is a slippery slope.

What you need to remember, though, is that you are in control, not your child. You decide when and what your children are allowed to eat. Oftentimes, we get caught up in the anxiety-driven thought that our kid is starving. She didn’t eat her breakfast or lunch! She’s refused everything I’ve offered and only wants cookies! She has to eat SOMETHING. I guess it’ll have to be cookies…

No! Don’t do that to yourself or to your child. You should never allow stress or anxiety or fear to influence your decisions, especially when it comes to raising a child. Your children need to know that you’re in control, not them. For one, they’ll actually be more comfortable knowing they have someone to rely on. Two, when they’re older, they’ll respect you and love you for being a parent. And three, they behave better when they know who (to borrow from Pamela Druckerman) “the decider” really is.

And just to squelch those fears, every doctor I’ve ever spoken to (yes, my children see multiple) and every piece of literature I’ve read on the subject has said that, what’s most important, is what your child consumes over an entire week, not within one day. Their appetites are all over the place. Sometimes a kid doesn’t want to eat a thing, sometimes he eats two helpings at every meal. Seriously, there have been days when G has eaten little more than a banana and some crackers and other days when she’s eaten eggs, toast, cereal, yogurt, and fruit just for breakfast and two helpings of dinner, plus multiple healthy snacks afterward (carrots, peppers, more fruit and yogurt, and maybe some cookies after all is said and done). You really never know what’s going to happen. Bottom line, so your kid goes to bed hungry sometimes–that’s not exactly torture. At some point, probably fairly quickly, he’s going to eat what you tell him to eat because children have instincts and they like instant gratification; they’re not going to allow themselves to starve to death. So don’t act like that’s happening if your kid skips dinner.

And with that we begin lesson number one–you are in control. How you exert your power is up to you, up to your instincts, up to what you’re comfortable with. But always remember that you are the one in control.

If you lived in France, you’d probably be very strict. Children eat at a specific time, they eat what you serve, and if they choose not to eat, then they eat nothing until the next meal; and they absolutely do not snack (except for one special treat at a specified time between lunch and dinner). Maybe you’re not comfortable with that level of strictness, though. It certainly appears to work for the French, but it’s not something I, personally, am capable of adhering to, so maybe some of you aren’t either!

For my household, I’ve come up with a course of action that I’m comfortable with and that appears to work for my daughter. And that solution is offering a healthy alternative, which she always accepts at some point. So, let’s say G doesn’t want to eat the dinner I made. She’s tasted the salmon and broccoli, but decided she’s not going to eat it. Maybe she’s asking for cookies, maybe she’s only said that she’s “all done with dinner” and decides to leave the table. Either way, she’s not eating the meal I made that the rest of the family is eating. What do I do?

First of all, I do not allow her to eat a drop of junk food. If it’s not healthy and she hasn’t even attempted to finish her dinner, she’s not eating it, no matter how hard she cries. That’s the most important part. And, once she’s gotten the idea that I’m unwavering and it’s pointless to try, she’s less and less whiny about it, though she’ll always make the attempt!

Anyway, I give her a choice, a healthy alternative that I know she enjoys and I let her know that she always has to eat something healthy before she eats dessert. Right now, she doesn’t quite understand what I’m talking about–she’s not so in tune to the meaning of “dessert.” But eventually she’ll understand and that’s the point; one day, she’ll know first thing that she’s not touching junk food until she eats something healthy first.

As for now, it goes something like this: “If you’re still hungry, you can eat either an apple or a banana. If you don’t eat either your dinner, an apple, or a banana, you’re going to bed hungry.” That’s it. I don’t give her too many options because that becomes overwhelming; a lot of kids are indecisive and make easier decisions when they have few choices. A different night, maybe I’ll offer her an egg or yogurt (depending on whether she had either earlier that day). How about a salad or some fresh veggies? If she asks for something completely different, but it’s healthy, I absolutely say yes. As long as she’s eating something healthy and it doesn’t require me to cook an entirely separate meal, I’m game. You go right ahead and eat that.

Now, the key to this alternative working is that you need to know what healthy foods your child actually likes–most like some form of fruit, so it’s always good to keep these in the house, even if it’s frozen fruit that you need to defrost first. It might look a little mushy to you, but your toddler probably doesn’t care! And if you can’t think of a single healthy food your child likes, well…a misstep was made somewhere between now and when your baby first started eating and that’s something you’ll need to work to fix and a topic I’ll discuss at another time.

Back to the subject at hand. Children have no idea what they’re doing in life. They haven’t been around very long, their minds haven’t matured much at all, they need direction from their parents. It’s our job to teach them how to be healthy, autonomous adults and that’s a really difficult job. You need to be strong and you need to keep that backbone straight and in place. It might tear you up to hear your kid throw a tantrum or cry, but she needs you to be the strong one because she can’t be. And, after not too long, you’ll see it pay off.

Stay tuned for Lesson Two and Three, the fun stuff. Tips and tricks to get your kid eating well from the start and through the future!

P.S. For a closer look at why you shouldn’t replace a healthy diet with junk food “just so [your child] eats SOMETHING,” watch this BBC documentary, “Fast Food Babies”.  It’s an eye-opener.

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