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Crazy Mealtime Theater: saying ‘no’ to the oatmeal tantrum

Posted by on Dec 18, 2012 in Blog Posts | 11 comments

I am fortunate to have a very competent eater. She self-regulates and enjoys a variety of foods, but not all by any means, and that’s okay.  At just 7, we’ve been at this Trust Model for more than five years. And yet, we still on occasion have scenes like this…

Asked M this morning what she wanted for breakfast. She said, “I don’t know,” so I got my toast ready, and a few boxes of cereal on the table, milk, bananas, clementines. Our toast was hot, so hubby and I start buttering and there were options at the table that she usually would eat.

M: I want oatmeal
Me: I’m sorry honey, it’s too late for oatmeal. I asked earlier what you wanted. (I could have not said that last part…)
M: I didn’t know I wanted it then!! AAHHHHHH!!!!

Cue the screaming, shouting tantrum that she kindly took to her bedroom. (She knows the table is a tantrum-free zone.)

Hubby and I are looking at each other. It’s been a while since a full meltdown, and it seemed like she needed to get something out. (Remember, every child is different, and you know your child best, so perhaps stepping in earlier or differently works for your child.) A few minutes later she emerges wiping her tears, and I scoot back to offer a cuddle. She sits on my lap.

M: I’m hungry, can’t I please have oatmeal? I’m sorry I screamed.

And here is where I almost cave.  I think, “It’s just oatmeal,” I look to my husband, with imploring eyes, and he mouths, “Don’t you dare.” (Make her oatmeal that is.) Because we know better, because that would be caving in to her show of force, because that would reinforce that tantrums get her what she wants. Because that would be letting her take over my job of putting food out and having her choose, because that’s catering to her demands. (This is nuanced if you’re new at it as I had given her choices initially, and had she requested earlier it would have been fine. One good rule of thumb is if you have to get up from your own meal to prepare something, it’s crossing the line and catering…)

And I knew he was right, but it was hard. Hard not to get up and make her oatmeal because it feels loving and nurturing, and I empathize in these moments with my clients who have very small children, or children they adopted who have experienced real malnutrition, and how all-consuming that urge is to feed and nourish and please and love with food, and how hard this Divisio0n of Responsibility stuff can be.

Me: “I’m sorry you’re disappointed, Honey, we can have oatmeal tomorrow. How about some Rice Krispies with sugar.”
M: “Lots of sugar?”
Me: “We’ll have it how we always have it.” (With sugar on top.)

And that was that. She sat and calmly enjoyed her cereal and milk and a little banana. Until she got a little rough with the cat and had to clean the cat litter, then it was tantrum-city again.

See a few past installments of CMT. You’ll notice that most happen around breakfast, traditionally our most challenging meal of the day. And yes, I think it’s okay at breakfast to let kids have more choice if you are all eating different things routinely (this also depends on the child’s age and skill-level with eating.) We seem to rotate between toast, cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, boiled eggs (whites only),  left-overs, biscuits—all served with some kind of fruit (not always eaten) and milk…

smoothies
picky eating
fickle tastes

more on kids and tantrums around food

What have your experiences been? Mine are generally if I wait out the tantrum, meet the emotional needs but hold firm, that soon enough it blows over. This is often what my clients share as well…

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11 Comments

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  1. Katie Tufford

    I am struggling with this with my 17 month old – he doesn’t like the grown-up food I offer at dinner, so I end up feeding him the chicken nuggets or pasta that I know he will eat because of the urge to nourish you mention above. I think I need to pull out my copy of Child of Mine and reread.

  2. Rachel Young

    I love this post. Out of curiosity, how old would be old enough for M to cook her own oatmeal? I remember making my own in the microwave around that age, but I don’t think I did it on a regular basis until I was closer to 8 or 9.

    • katja

      thanks… we all seem to prefer it on the stovetop, I mix half quick oats and half regular oats, but a great question. I think she’d be able to handle it, and I’ll suggest it! I am excited to get my electric stove. I have to say, cooking with kids of a gas stove feels more scary with the open flames…

      • Rachel Young

        I feel you on the gas stove thing. I prefer gas from a strictly cooking standpoint, but I think I’d like to stick with electric until the kids are older.

  3. Martha

    Thanks for this post! As a new mom with a 10-month-old who wants to tell me what sounds good for breakfast [lunch and dinner], and consequently throws a tantrum here and there, this was good instruction for years to come.

    • katja

      Yes, sounds like you have a very smart and strong-willed little one! being prepared in advance for the toddler years, which I refer to as “the perfect storm” for eating is critical! Toddlers become naturally more choosy and interested in getting their way. Continue to offer a variety of foods, even if he “doesn’t like them.” I see so many parents with a “list” of foods the child will and won’t eat, based on transitory preferences and refusals. Your child may refuse bread 3 days in a row, but keep offering it! We went back and forth on bananas, scrambled eggs, beans and other foods many times. If you don’t serve it, they won’t learn to like it. Good luck! There are great resources out there to help you navigate this, from my book, Love Me, Feed Me, to Child of Mine, and Secrets of Feeding a healthy Family. Good luck and hang in there!

  4. cecile

    Thanks for sharing your “not-so-happy” stories as well, it makes me feel better ! I’m having this problem with Lucas at night: he eats, then asks to be excused, go play, we read a story, he goes to bed… and then comes back saying he’s hungry. It’s difficult sometimes not to cave in, but I noticed that if I just say calmly, “no, diner is done, you’ll have breakfast tomorrow”, he usually just goes back to bed. Now, if we (Stefan, usually) start on the “you did not finish your soup, etc, blablabla”, then he starts crying and things are a lot more difficult ! Thank you again for all your articles, they are truly helpful, on a day-to-day basis.

    • katja

      I’m glad it’s helpful, that’s my hope! Yes, they do try to suck us into arguing, and it’s so easy and logical! ‘No you can’t eat now, you didn’t eat a proper dinner…’ For me it’s been such a gift and a revelation that doing that doesn’t help, no one likes it, and there is an alternative :)

  5. Carrie

    thanks for your post! I am so excited you have a blog!! I am about 1/4 into your book. I can’t wait to get to read the rest but these days we are dealing with tantrum after tantrum. Gahhh. We have just completed week one of our new approach with the DOR and the things that I have read so far with our overly picky/oral defensive 5 yr old. It is interesting that after some of his accpeted foods came back before starting this they have disappeared again and his is just eating apples and some sort of carb at each meal. We now do it family style like you suggest and so far he only reaches for apples. sometimes he doesnt eat anything at all. I have also switched to your snack ideas and he will eat the carb/protein combo. Do you think he will eventually pick up his normally accepted foods again? He tells me he is hungry of course 20 min after we finish a meal or snack. so far I have not caved unless it is right before a meal and I do your appetizer idea. How long does the transition usually take?? Do you ever ‘cave’? when sick, tired, stressful family event, trip, etc? Also, he is in therapy for attachment stuff right now. Is not feeding him when he says he is hungry affecting that or does the consistency of the DOR reinforce/support the attachment process he is currently in therapy for??Just don’t want to ‘un-do’ anything we have accomplished so far. thanks!!! ps. my mom read the entire book on Christmas when they were here because she wanted to be able to support us in our endeavors. I thought that was pretty cool:)

    • katja

      Carrie, I’m sorry things are so hard right now! I sometimes recommend folks read the whole book, or even one or two books before they jump in, as so many scenarios come up that are challenging. Perhaps look at the common obstacles section in the backs of chapter 3,4,5… That often helps…If you are a week in, it’s hard to know if foods are coming back or not yet. This is the “almost impossible patience” I wrote about. My own child, without any sensory or oral issues would not choose foods for weeks and even months on end, and then enjoy them again, so be careful of thinking of foods as “yes” or “no” but maybe, just “not right now” or “not yet.” I think it’s critical to keep serving the food you want to eat and enjoy, along with choices he usually or almost always chooses (chapter 3,4) And of course, when kids are sick, all bets are off (read the appendix on this one, feeding when kids are sick) I also have a blog post on it. Yes, family trips, events, I “cave” all the time, but we have also been at this for years now. Early in the transition, sticking with it as much as possible helps, but having just come home from a family visit, where M was allowed to have a piece of chocolate with most breakfasts, and a small piece of cake with a meal or snack pretty much every day (sometimes two), yes, I cave and am flexible. It’s always been most challenging for me to holiday with other children who have free access to food all day long and graze. I generally play it by ear. Sometimes I let M graze with them, others I try to stick with our routine. It’s interesting as she sees other kids forced to eat and try things, how she says, “I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to” and remarks about how awful it is to watch her friends who are forced to eat and try things, and how it makes dinner “not fun.” She has even refused to go back to a friend’s house where the mom forced M to eat something once. Anyway, I guess my point with that story is that they see that they have in some ways more freedoms, more control over what goes into their bodies, but maybe not as much freedom over when they eat. I see how much better she feels and acts when we are not grazing too, which I why I try when I can to have the meals/snacks with protein, fat and carb, and that’s what I tell people when they think I’m being mean by not letting her graze all day. “Thanks for the offer on the cake. I think we’ll save it to eat with lunch.” Then I might explain to the adult how much better we all feel (and act) when we eat that way.
      I would love to know what your mom thought? Oh, and I don’t think that appropriate transitions and limits will affect the attachment process. I certainly think that saying something like, “We’ll have snack soon, the kitchen is closed now,” said in a loving way, with eye contact, a hug and maybe some redirection (or whatever you are finding works when you are redirecting) is far better for attachment, than fighting or forcing a child to try new foods. (I am not saying you are doing this, but I see the food battles that are so frequent and upsetting to be a far greater threat to attachment than helping a child learn about limits and regulating emotions etc.) What do you think? Sorry for the delay in reply, I was hoping to have more access to internet than I did…

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