Growing up, my parents subscribed to the clean plate philosophy. At every meal we were expected to finish all the food we were served and drink our full glass of milk, regardless of our personal feelings on the meal. I don’t blame my parents for doing this at all, it was the common food philosophy of the time and my mom always cooked well rounded, healthy, and for the most part (cough sloppy joes cough) delicious meals. But for me, it was a struggle. I hated milk, and like most kids did not like vegetables, so I spent many nights at the dinner table literally for hours until I finally realized that the only out was to choke down the things I didn’t like.
Even now as an adult, I struggle with cleaning my plate. I have had weight issues on and off since middle school, and I think in some part, my inability to sense when I am full and my desire to please whoever is cooking by finishing all that’s on my plate are parts of the issue (candy is another part, definitely). And so as my son has started to grow and participate in meals with us, I realized that we had to do something different for him.
My husband and I really wanted to find a balanced approach where we have some control over what Eli eats, but where there is no pressure or forced eating. And we wanted to do all of that without forcing me to become a short order cook because that’s not good for anyone. It sounded impossible, but now that we’ve gotten into the groove, it’s actually pretty easy.
Each night Eli’s meal is comprised of three to four items. One of them is whatever main course we’re having, regardless of whether I think he’ll like it. The other two to three things are fruits, veggies, if we’re having a carb or grain with our meal, and often yogurt. I may cut up a piece of fruit, but nothing on his plate requires separate cooking. Of the three to four things on his plate, I always make sure that at least one to two of them are things I know he’ll eat. And then we all sit down together at the table and eat what we want. There are no forced bites, there is no requirement to eat anything in particular. There is always extra food if he wants more (within reason, I put limits on grapes and other things that will make him sick), but there are no battles. And it is amazing.
Some of our philosophy is based loosely off of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which I adore. We basically decide the what (is served), the when and the where of Eli’s meals, and Eli decides the what (is eaten) and the how much. There are some nights when he cleans his plates and has seconds — he can literally eat twice as much spaghetti as I can. And there are some nights he eats five bites of yogurt and then tells us he’s all done, and we respect his decision. We don’t offer snacks (though we do offer milk shortly before bed) after dinner, and he’s never had an issue with this. If dessert is served, we offer him a small amount, regardless of what he eats for dinner. Food is neither a reward or punishment, we just make sure that the sugary treats are consumed sparingly and in reasonable portions.
I know it sounds kind of crazy to let your toddler choose how much they eat, even when it sometimes means eating nothing, but I think it’s helping Eli to build a good relationship with food and helping him learn what he does and doesn’t like and when he is full. And best of all, food isn’t a battle here. No one wins or loses. There’s no stress around the table; it’s just family time. And we all enjoy it tremendously.
What is your toddler feeding philosophy?