Who is boss?

Why firm boundaries rule

“Toddlers explore by demonstrating resistance” Janet Lansbury

In our desperation to get kids to eat we can sometimes give them too much control over their diet. There’s no question that empowering toddlers and young children by giving “choices” can be an instrumental parenting tool.  Children are constantly being told what to do and what NOT to do, it’s no wonder kids often feel powerless. Providing simple choices can give them a sense of control while also teaching them decision making skills. However, when it comes to food too much freedom can actually feed problems, especially with kids who have a strong-willed, persistent temperament.  

Too much choice gives kids power over something where they actually need leadership. Ask a young child “What do you want for lunch?” and the response is likely to be something salty, processed or fried. French fries, chicken nuggets, pizza PLEASE! It’s difficult to not give in to these junk food demands when kids are clearly hungry and acting cranky. If you don’t want your kids to eat pizza and mac n cheese every day, the solution is simple – just don’t make it an option. Otherwise you are preparing their taste-buds for craving those sorts of foods ALL THE TIME. 

Toddlers and young children can’t be expected to make a healthy decision about their diet without lots of guidance. We’ve learned this lesson first hand, and relearn it over and over again. What kid hasn’t requested ice cream for breakfast? The good news is when you make healthy eating a way of life, over time your kids will start to crave fresh foods. The aim is to teach kids to respect the system, listen to their bodies and eat what you provide for them. As kids get older maybe they can be involved in meal planning at a high level, but young children need structure not choices when it comes to food. Remember, if they are truly hungry, they will eat. 

New Foods: Don’t get discouraged if your kid seems disinterested in the new foods at first. Young children are naturally neophobic — they have a distrust of the new. Even the most determined parents can be cowed by a child’s resolve to eat nothing rather than try something new. As a result, parents often give in, deciding that a bowl of Cocoa Puffs or a Pop-Tart, while not ideal, must be better than no food at all.” NY Times. Research shows that young children need to be exposed to new foods 10 or more times before they develop an affinity for it.

Offer choices unattached to food

This doesn’t mean you have to be a drill sergeant. Instead, offer kids choices that are unattached to food. “What utensil do you want – fork or spoon?” “Do you want the blue bowl or the purple one?” That way if they change their mind the outcome doesn’t impact the meal or waste food.

Break it down

Family meals should also be balanced and offer kids enough variety so that they can listen to what their body needs in that moment. Most of our meals consist of a protein, lots of vegetables and something simple and starchy such as rice, pasta or potatoes. When we dish up for Joel his plate has 3 sections. All of the elements of the meal are on his plate and he can choose to mix, combine or remove whatever he chooses. For example, meals are presented like this: veggie chili with rice and roasted cauliflower. Rice in one section, veggie chili in another section, roasted cauliflower in the third. A side dish for gauc. Some days he eats a huge variety. Some days he just eats plain rice. He goes through phases where he eats mostly meat and vegetables and weeks of just eating carbs. The important thing is that he has the opportunity to eat a balanced diet at every meal. We believe he knows what he needs and trust him to trust his body.

Have firm standards and rules

First of all, let’s set the expectations. Young children are going to have very strong opinions about what they should eat, when they should eat, and HOW they should eat. Let’s be honest, they’re going to have strong opinions about EVERYTHING!

When it comes to food it is not our job to cater to their every whim. Not only would this get incredibly expensive, it would lead to a lot of frustration and almost certainly create poor eating habits. It’s our job to give our kids the tools to start forming constructive habits around food. This means creating a rock-solid routine that they can rely on and sticking with it.

Consistency is hard work, but it is the only way to guide kids with an attitude of fairness. What are your house rules? Most people change their minds depending on their mood and circumstances. Mark and I are as guilty as anyone of letting bad behavior slide when we’re feeling chilled and snapping when stressed. When certain behaviors are allowed one day and not allowed the next kiddos don’t know where they stand. This is where boundary pushing blooms. Establish some house rules. Write them down and post them somewhere for everyone to see. Or talk about the rules out loud and often. The focus should be on creating healthy habits and eliminating stress from meal times. Figuring out your house rules will help bring clarity for everyone in family. Here are ours:

  1. No technology at the table
  2. At mealtime we sit at the table together
  3. You must eat your food experiments (aka no playing with food)
  4. Condiments must be eaten with food. Mustard is not a meal (this is a big one!)
  5. When you ask for something, say please
  6. Help clean up your messes (we’re working on it!)
  7. No shouting at the table 
  8. Above all else, stick to the schedule!

What is acceptable for one family may not work for another. Figure out what your standards are around table manners and stick with them. Do you expect your child to eat at the table? How do you feel about playing with food? Banging utensils on the table? There are no right or wrong answers, but kids need consistency and clear boundaries.

When a rule is broken it helps to stay unemotional. Remember kids are learning and most misbehavior is a cry for help. We believe in natural consequences. So if a utensil is being used improperly (banging on the table!) that utensil gets taken away. Playing with food and not eating means the meal ends. When babies and toddlers play with food, it’s usually a signal that they’re not that hungry.

Having firm guidelines will not eliminate tantrums, but it should reduce them. Food can be a huge trigger when kids are struggling with something. If they are tired, hungry or extra emotional, meal times can be especially difficult. The more they resist the more important it is to be loving, yet firm. Just the other day, Joel was having a tough afternoon. It was snack-time and he was munching on some carrot sticks. His dad came downstairs and took a carrot. This set him off on a rage, demanding that his carrot be replaced even though there were still about a dozen beautiful untouched carrots still sitting in his bowl. Kids can be sticklers for fairness. Perhaps asking permission first before snatching the carrot could have avoided this crisis. However, the reaction was epic. There was hitting, screaming and general hysteria. The meltdown had nothing to do with carrots and everything to do with a much needed emotional release. When emotions escalate to this level we usually step away from the table. This is a much larger topic which we dive into more on the post about The Magic of Self Regulation.

It took about 45 minutes to get him to calm down at which point snack-time was over. He never did get the carrots back, but he helped make dinner and ate 3 meatballs + a huge plate of pasta. The moral of the story is, it was a tough afternoon for all of us, but the message received was this: it’s ok to get upset over a carrot, but it’s not going to change the rules. 

Bending over backwards to please our kids is the exact opposite of what they need. We all wish we could live in a world where we could have exactly what we want, whenever we want it. The problem is that’s not real life. The hope is that by providing healthy food alongside love and support our kids will learn to embrace healthy habits that will guide them throughout their lives. 

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