I wasn’t prepared for the struggle of feeding toddlers. Naively, I thought the majority of the food challenge with kids lay in their first year and a half: making purees, learning to use a spoon, eating dirt. But now, a quick trip to the local organic grocery store can be the catalyst to my latest mommy meltdown. Should I buy the Cheerios, the Multigrain Cheerios, the Organic Multigrain Cheerios, or just skip right to the millet? I can’t get the white cheddar cheese because my four-year-old won’t eat white – and I won’t even touch the conventional strawberries lest I want methyl iodide (a carcinogen) to be part of my kids’ diets.
I’m not exaggerating when I say my children eat a rotating regimen of the same five dinners: pasta/rice, chicken, grilled cheese, hamburgers, and pizza. A vegetable and a fruit always accompany the main dish, but negotiations are often needed to see those disappear. Moreover, the girls also need to eat a good two hours before me and my husband, which leads to me making two completely separate meals each day. To say that dinnertime is daunting is a drastic understatement.
Need proof? Well, here’s a sample meal plan for toddlers provided by the American Association of Pediatrics:
1 slice wheat bread
1 soft-boiled egg
2 oz. orange juice
1 medium apple, sliced
2 oz. whole milk
1/2 peanut butter sandwich (1/2 Tbsp. peanut butter, 1 slice wheat bread)
2 oz. whole milk
4 baby carrots, raw
1/4 cup dry cereal
0.5 oz. cheddar cheese cubes
1/2 cup cooked pasta
1/4 cup spaghetti sauce with 1 oz. lean, ground beef
3 broccoli spears
4 oz. water
1/4 cup canned fruit cocktail in juice
1/4 cup low-fat fruit yogurt
Meanwhile, here is what each of my children ate yesterday:
Chocolate croissant from local bakery
Five bites of five different apple slices
4 oz. orange juice
4 gigantic chicken strips
(The older child just ate the breading off her strips)
Cheddar Bunnies (they are just fancy, organic Goldfish)
Three spoonfuls of brown rice with chopped-up broccoli, then declared “ALL DONE”
5 oz. bathwater
The cream filling from two Oreo cookies
Throw in a few nose byproducts along with a fingernail or two, and this is a relatively complete diet, right?
At least, it is to me. A few of my well-meaning mommy friends may question my weak feeding stance. There are those with children who are champions of the Clean Plate Club, and others with toddlers who adore saut’ed shrimp and stinky cheeses. They may ask, “Why don’t you just prepare one meal for the family?” or offer up recipes for braised lamb that their child “just loved.” To them I say “Awesome! Way to go!” But I, for one, am okay with not raising a brood of young foodies.
Sure, my children may allow only a handful of acceptable foods to pass their teeth, and their pink princess dinner plates may contain the same uninspired foods day after day, but I find comfort in knowing their diets can “tolerate” enough items in each food group: at least two fruits or vegetables (from yesterday’s menu, the apple slices and broccoli), a protein (the chicken nuggets), and usually a whole grain (the brown rice). Whether or not they eat all their veggies, however, is as unpredictable as a newborn’s nap schedule.
Isn’t this what kids do, though – assert their power over food? All day long they are being told what to do, what to wear, when to sleep. But what goes in their mouth is something we have no power over (have you ever tried to pry an 18-month-old’s mouth open and shovel in mashed squash?).
Besides, it seems we have even less control over our kid’s diet when we try to be, well, more controlling. Researchers at Penn State found that restricting a child’s access to “forbidden foods” only increases their desire for them. In the study researchers divided the kids into two groups: one group was given very limited access to a jar of cookies, while the other was allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted off a plate. It turns out that when access was restricted, cookie consumption nearly tripled.
I experienced a prime example of this during the holidays. Each of my girls received a chocolate advent calendar, which helped them count down to Christmas by letting them eat just one – one! – piece of chocolate per day from December 1st to December 25th. Around December 15th, one of the calendars mysteriously disappeared. Two days later, I found it hidden under a blanket behind my four-year-old’s toy chest. According to the number of chocolates left in this advent calendar, it was now December 25th.
And even if you’re not forbidding food, forcing food on kids is apparently just as bad. In another Penn State study, researchers found that coercing children to eat certain foods made it more likely that the child would dislike that particular food in the future.
So if being concerned over what our kids are eating is backfiring on us, what should we be worrying about? Perhaps nothing at all. Dr. Amy Maidenberg of Sage Pediatrics, a Bay Area integrative pediatrics practice, says that unless a child is failing to thrive (has no energy and is not growing), then she is getting enough nutrients for her current needs. Kids will eat when they are hungry. (What’s the alternative? They starve themselves to death?). Plus, if you make mealtime more a choice than a battle, you might have more success. Ellyn Satter, author of the book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, argues that feeding toddlers should be seen as a division of labor; the parent controls what and when food is offered, and the child chooses if and how much to eat.
So for now, I am following Ms. Satter’s advice, resigned to allowing my children to be picky. I will continue to offer them new foods when I find the inspiration and motivation. However, I know that for the foreseeable future, I will also continue to prepare two separate meals for dinner. And in one of those meals, the carrots are raw, the whole-wheat pasta is plain, the chicken is boring, and all food is separated into individual sections of a plate. Of course, whether any of it is eaten is up to my kids.