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reader question: How do you deal with grazing and tantrums in a 3 year-old?

Posted by on Aug 22, 2012 in Blog Posts, Uncategorized | 13 comments

From facebook reader:

How do you deal with a 3 year-old who asks for food and then refuses to eat it, and then throws tantrums from hunger? I’d love to keep a structure, but if she doesn’t eat lunch she’ll want a snack 45 minutes later which she’ll usually eat. If I don’t give her that snack she’s an emotional wreck, and then I’m an emotional wreck. It’s like we’re stuck with grazing and awful behavior and I don’t know what to do.

and the follow up…

Once we figured out that if she was flipping out there was an 80% chance it had to do with hunger, things calmed down greatly in my house. The problem is that my daughter is (again, like me) quite hyperactive and doesn’t want to stop long enough to eat a meal. Today at lunch she was crying “I’m hungry, I want a hot dog” so we got that for her. Then she was dancing around, going in and out of the potty, talking to everyone, and despite repeated attempts to get her to sit for 5 minutes to eat, she wouldn’t. So we have to leave after a good 30 minutes of this and immediately “I”M HUNGRY!” Cue screaming fit in the car.

I was asked this recently on facebook (lots of fun stuff happening over there as it’s much easier to post links to articles etc.) This mother is not happy with the grazing routine, the demands for food, and is trying to implement structure. She has astutely sensed that hunger triggers tantrums, but knows something else is going on as well.

(These reader answers are general as I don’t know specifics, and when I say “your” I am talking to this mom, but also all my readers, so I’m trying to bring in as many suggestions as I can to address this issue.)

Beyond my initial thought which was earplugs and/or noise cancelling head phones, this is a real problem for many families. Tantrums are no fun, and some children are master tantrum throwers. Keep in mind that if your ultimate goal is to avoid all tantrums, parenting won’t be much fun because the child has the power, the ultimate trump card.

Tantrums may increase in the short term as children resist changes or loss of control/power, so knowing that going in to any changes in routine may help. Tantrums often work, that’s why kids keep them up. In this case, the mom states that the tantrum usually results in the child getting a food handout.

Apparently the most reinforcing reward for behavior is intermittent reward. Think of the rat hitting a bar for a sugary treat. If he gets the treat every time, or every tenth time, that’s nice, but if he sometimes gets it on the third, sometimes on the 50th try, that intermittent pattern leads to the most persistent seeking for reward. Sad news for us parents, or as a friend put it, “We’re screwed.”  That time I caved in after 45 minutes? Now she has been reinforced to go even longer the next time. Cruel reality 🙂 (I remember being on the phone with a relative who gave in after 6 hours of pestering for a cookie. What lesson has that child just learned?)

If you feel powerless about tantrums in general, then some general parenting resources to deal with discipline may help. I’ve mentioned a few in my resources section, some of which I’ve read as a parent looking for guidance in my own home, and others I’ve researched for clients. Asking for help is a sign of good parenting. So, with that said, here we go…

This mom is not happy with how things are going. That is a clue that something needs to be changed. Here are a few thoughts, using Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) as the guide.

your jobs: decide what, when, and where to serve food
your child’s job: decide to eat it or not

Usually when parents are stuck with feeding it’s because the parent is doing the job of the child, or is allowing the child to do the parent’s jobs. Going from the limited information I have, there are a few areas where the DOR seems to be getting crossed, and a few suggestions to try.

First off, the note mentions that the little girl is “crying for a hot dog”, so they got her one. This suggests that the little girl is given too much control over what is being served. Were the adults already sitting to a meal? It wasn’t clear, but it sounded like lunch had started and she asked for a hot dog. So mom makes the hot dog. (What is everyone else eating? Were there other options she could have had? Were others cleaning or at other tasks while she was expected to sit on her own and eat?) These scenarios are more common for my clients where the children are smaller than average, or are particularly selective eaters, or whose tantrums may be outright rages if there are behavioral challenges as well. For many parents who worry about weight or nutrition, the temptation is to make something the child asks for in the hopes that the child will eat something…

So we have the child taking over the parent’s job of what, and the when because when she screams or tantrums for food she usually gets it. Likely she is not then sitting and eating and paying attention or getting a balanced intake, so it’s a vicious cycle.

1) Plan a balanced meal offering, including three or four choices. When she asks for a hot dog, consider saying this,”We’ll have hot dogs again soon. This is what’s for lunch.”
2) Work on transitions, before meals and snacks, give her the five minute warning, wash hands, have a routine that has more calm activities before meals and snacks.
3) What kinds of foods are for “snack?” Often these are more appealing foods like crackers or cookies, or granola bars and children will refuse to eat meals, and then beg for snacks or treats. Include a variety of foods at meals and snacks.
4) Sit and eat with the child.
5) Meals might only last five minutes. Ask that she does sit with you. You can even set a timer for five minutes. Try not to give in to the 30 minute attention dance of trying to get her to sit at the table and eat.
6) Do meals have adequate fat and protein, or is she ricocheting from a high to low blood sugar level several times a day? If meals and snacks tend to be high in sugar or carbs with little balance, after the peak of energy, she may have low blood sugar that contributes to the tantrums and hunger.
7) Feed her with positive attention during meals, ask her questions, engage her. Ignore her when she is not at the table. Is she getting attention with all these diversion tactics? Is there a sibling who may get more of the attention? (Nurtured Heart Parenting and other ideas for reinforcing the behaviors you want to see, and making the table a pleasant place to be where good things happen, might help.)
8) Expect her to be capable. Ask her to help you lay the table, even if it’s just putting napkins out. Praise her for helping, tell other adults what a big help she is, particularly if there is a sibling in the picture. (Apparently, when children hear you praise them to others, that makes more of an impact than praising the child directly.)
9) You may want to offer a meal/snack every two hours initially, no handouts in between. Use the phrase “We’ll eat again soon” when she begs for food.
10 ) Address behavior. (I like the 1-2-3 magic book, but parenting and discipline strategies vary greatly with every child.)

Just a few suggestions. Parents, how have you dealt with this issue? What parenting resources have you found most helpful?

P.S, and don’t forget, it should get easier as kids get older. Three can be a tough time, certainly was much worse than the “terrible-twos” for us! It’s amazing to see how these little kiddos can swing from calm and lovely, to tiny Tasmanian devils at the drop of a hat. The rapid and wild swings of mood were the hardest thing for me to deal with at the time…

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  1. Camilla

    I think it’s worth distinguishing a manipulative tantrum, from a tantrum in which a child has completely lost all grip on rationality. It’s easy for someone to say “don’t reward the tantrum” if all they’ve seen is the former. If you’ve got a kid who really goes off the deep end, and is in the habit of violent tantrums that last a long time or result in injury, and they’re inflexibly fixated on something, well, my call has been to try to avoid meeting his inflexibility with my inflexibility.

    I can well imagine situations in which it’s better to try to talk things through in advance, adjust the daily schedule, and not face the showdown. Three can be a really rough age… this one sounds to me more like a “three years old” issue, than a “you’re not doing mealtimes right” issue.

    Of the parenting books _The Explosive Child_ by Greene is the one that helped us the most.

    • Jennifer Hansen

      YES. There is a big difference between “How far can I push you?” and “My brain is full so I’ve lost the plot.” For one thing, the former can (IME) be headed off by a matter-of-fact response plus removing the audience. Like so:

      “I want an apple.”

      “What do you say?”


      “Cut up?”


      *Mom cuts up the apple the exact same way she always does*

      “Noooooo!” *wail, sob, moan, cry like I shot her dog*

      “This is the exact thing you asked me for. This is your snack. I’m going to leave it on the counter for you and do laundry now.”

      *Mom leaves the kitchen*

      *Daughter quits hollering after a couple minutes, and is found by Mom quietly munching an apple slice*

      That’s just a boundary test. Now, if my daughter had been sick, tired, not aware of her own thirst, overloaded by new experiences, etc., she would’ve flipped out when I left the room. That would probably have ended with me putting her in her room to get her mad out until she was ready to come out and get a hug/drink of water/food/whatever–or until she just plain fell asleep.

  2. Grace

    Thanks Katja. I don’t mean that she should force her child to eat lunch she doesn’t want or like, or keep presenting a plate of congealing food to her! But if the problem is with a child who is too distracted (and in her words “hyperactive”) to sit down to a lunch she would otherwise like, a gentle reintroduction in the vein of “would you like to sit down for some more lunch?” could be a next move before moving on to snack.

    That said “snack will be soon” is a fine solution too, if pushing through a meltdown now will me she readjusts to eating regular meals and snacks.

    I really enjoy your blog, I found it through my work as a nursery school teacher, wondering why children who ate well and happily at nursery would refuse the same foods at home. Parents couldn’t understand it!

    I put it down to our low-stress atmosphere- with twenty five toddlers to feed, we only have time to put a serving of today’s food in front of each child (always including a well-liked staple like rice or pasta) and if they don’t want it we simply take it away and there’s no food till our snack. And honestly, we offer a meal or snack + water every hour and a half or so, so it’s not like they are going to starve.

    • katja

      Your school sounds wonderful! Yes, a calm and pleasant atmosphere without pressure does wonders! I actually watched a mom at a restaurant today threatening her 3 or 4 year old… “If you don’t eat two bites of chicken I’m going to lock you in the hot car!” I couldn’t believe it…
      Thanks for clarifying. The gentleman who suggested the child just eat what he didn’t until he eats it also recommended “a side of spanking.” The way you suggest it is perfect, and your motives are not punitive.
      I’m so glad that you are enjoying the blog. Thank you for your kinds words…

  3. Grace

    That should say the parent gets to choose what is served.

  4. Grace

    “if she doesn’t eat lunch she’ll want a snack 45 minutes later which she’ll usually eat. If I don’t give her that snack she’s an emotional wreck, and then I’m an emotional wreck.”

    If she doesn’t eat lunch and then wants a snack straight after, have you thought about offering the “lunch” foods again if at all possible? I know it’s hard if you’re out, but at home, 45mins after a meal is not too long to heat food up again for her, rather than let her have a “snack” food which as mentioned above, might well be a carb and sugary, highly-palatable food. If she’s really hungry and asking for a snack, try the lunch foods again!

    As you said, you get to choose what you serve. If you don’t eat your lunch foods, you don’t then get to pick a different snack. It’s wasteful, if nothing else.

    • katja

      I’d love to hear from readers how this tactic has worked for them, or if that was tried on them as kids… This was suggested on facebook, where I left a reply. Here is a little of what I wrote. “Many clients share that their traumatic experiences around food, forced to eat, crying and gagging, punishing tactics etc ruined how they related to food. For some it didn’t, and I suspect temperament and other factors are at play, but I don’t think those tactics are necessary, and I think they can do harm.”
      I think it depends on the motives (punish, versus matter-of-fact not having enough food) etc, but generally I don’t advise this tactic. On FB, someone reminded that you can always say, “snack will be soon” and then make sure it’s not just “treat” foods… Thanks for writing in!

      • Camilla

        For my older son, at 3-ish, the (related) problem would be that he would give up on eating, and then we’d clear (or finish up ourselves) his leftovers, triggering a meltdown. The solution was very simple: as he was getting down, from the table, we’d ask him to take his plate out.

        Incidentally, I once took pictures and blogged the progression of a tantrum that lasted fully 55 minutes… because I gave him a choice of oatmeal toppings, and then he changed his mind after I’d applied brown sugar (his initial request). I think if you’ve got a kid who’s determined to be high-friction, no matter how solid your mealtime parenting is, mealtime meltdowns are going to happen. And yes, he’s much easier to handle at five than at three.

        My other specific suggestion is the Cesar Milan school of child-rearing: lots of hard outdoor exercise (perhaps right before lunch, so she has a good appetite).

  5. Kahla

    I took a course on media and children and they talked about the very thing you did (with regards to marketing toward kids), that parents either need to always give in to their children’s nagging, or never give in. If you give in some of the time, that just encourages them to nag more, because maybe this is one of the times you will give in after a long time!

  6. Jesse

    I put out a snack plate for my son each day. It houses a variety of snack foods such as crackers, dried cranberries, granola, apple slices, veggie snacks, and cubes of cheese. I replenish as necessary. If a meal does not go over well, I know that he still got adequate nutrition through that plate. If he is overly hungry, he too sometimes rejects the very food he was looking forward to only a moment ago. I’ve found that offering him a half-banana will often settle him down and enable him to take his meal seriously. Maybe your daughter has a favorite healthy food that you could offer to take the edge off?

    In addition, my son is offered a portion of family meals but if he rejects it, his only alternative is a peanut butter sandwich. I do like having this alternative because I remember being a child and not liking all of the meals my mother served. As adults, most of us would not like being told exactly what we had to eat with no room for rejecting foods that we dislike.

    • katja

      Thanks for sharing what’s working for your family. Is the snack tray out all day? While that “grazing” can work for some children, I find that in general, trying to have times where children eat, at meals and then snacks in between roughly, tends to work better. Many children with the snack tray will eat more than they need to, and others will eat less. Many parents of small children are told to have food available all day, but that actually decreases overall intake and nutrition, so particularly for small or selective eaters, I don’t recommend the “nibble” or snack tray be left out all day.
      The half banana is like the “appetizer” concept, and makes sense. If children are too hungry, it makes meals tricky. I also offer something small (note, this is different from a “snack” where the child eats until satisfied.)
      As for the peanut butter, again if it works for you, sounds good, but many families get stuck with this strategy, with children only ever choosing the easy-out and not learning to like more challenging foods. An option is to plan meals that include something the child can eat and generally does eat, like bread, pasta, rice so they have an option that is already at the table.
      Families need to find what works for them, and for their child’s temperament and personalities.
      Thanks again!

  7. Ashley

    I’m the mom in question. Lunch is often a variety of leftovers and in that situation she asked for a leftover hot dog from the other day while we were making lunch for the rest of us.

    Definitely some food for thought here. Thanks.