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reader question: my son serves himself huge portions that he won’t eat

Posted by on Jan 28, 2011 in Blog Posts | 15 comments

“Hi,
I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask for a while.
We’ve been working on implementing the division of responsibility in my house.  We’re not perfect, but we are improving.  But we’re having trouble with the children (5 and 6) and portion size. My son in particular will help himself to an enormous serving (of rice, for example), eat two bites, and announce he’s done. Do we control portion size in the first place?  Insist he eat what he takes?  Ignore it?  Save it and give it back to him later?  We don’t have a ton of food to waste, so this is driving me a bit nuts.
Thanks!”

Of course it’s driving you nuts! That’s their job!  :) OK, seriously, I’m glad you’re working on this, and though the DOR sounds simple (YOU decide what, when, where to serve food, YOUR CHILD decided if and how much to eat from what you put out)  there are inevitably practical questions like this that pop up. If you are following the DOR, then the one choice above “insist he eat what he takes” is clearly taking over his job of deciding how much to eat, so we need to figure out a way to minimize waste while you both stick to your jobs.

First off, you’re getting food to the table, sounds like there are choices for him and you are serving family-style which will give him a sense of control and often heads off power struggles before they begin. Good for you!

Here are a few thoughts for dealing with this issue. (I already emailed this mom, but can’t find the actual  “sent” email, so I hope she’s reading today :)

Show your son that you serve a small portion to start, but can always go back for more. Sometimes kids overload if they have experienced any food restriction, i.e. if you or another care provider has been limiting his pasta before now, he might be more likely to load up, just to be sure he can have as much as he wants. Scarcity, or the perception of it, often drives this behavior. He will need lots of reassurance if he has been restricted, or if he worries there won’t be enough.  (Or it could just be he sees this makes you crazy so it’s fun :)

“Timmy, I would like you to start with one spoonful, and we’ll leave the bowl right in front of you after we’ve passed it around. Once you finish  your first spoon of X, you can have another and another until your tummy is full. You can eat as much as you want to. You don’t have to eat your peas (or Y) to get more X.” Maybe you all model taking small portions for awhile until he gets it. (If you can avoid getting into the “we don’t want to waste food” directly for now, that might make it easier. Little kids are so concrete and if we talk too much about not wanting to waste food, he might feel that he needs to eat what is on his plate…) Older kids can likely get that nuance, and he might be able to as well, but it might be a bit more tricky. See what feels right.  If possible have enough filling food so that he can get full (but that doesn’t seem like the problem here…) For example, avocados are pricey, so the family might need to share one, but kids and adults can get enough of the cheaper foods like beans, pasta, tortillas, rice, ground beef, canned fruit…

Food waste is inevitable unless you force kids to clean their plate, or very tightly control what is being served, or unless you have a person like my dad who would happily vacuum up all the left-overs… Generally kids who are trusted with food portions end up wasting less in the long-term. Hope that helps!

How this plays out in my home…This morning, M had a piece of toast and wanted more. She had had yogurt too, so I asked if she wanted to start with a half piece. “No, start with a quarter, I’m not sure if I’m hungry.”  (I’m not sure she really knew what “a quarter” was, but that’s what I did.) By the time it was ready, she decided she wasn’t hungry anymore and I did throw it out, but it was only a small piece. I’d much rather she stop when she is full than pile on the guilt, “I made this, we can’t throw it away, you will eat it!” Nope.  As I have become more tuned-in to my own eating, I have been amazed at how I’ll be eating something, and literally mid-chew will know I’m done. I’ve even spit a bite into my napkin when I really knew I just did not want more. (Though I try to gauge things a bit better in general :)

Does that help?

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15 Comments

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  1. Sarah

    Food wastage is a huge issue, but the way I deal with it is to redefine ‘waste.’

    If I took too much food, or was served more than I can eat, and throw away the extra, this is considered wasting. But if I eat the extra, its not. How? If I eat when I am not hungry how is that NOT wasting? Whether I toss the extra into my gullet or the trash its still wasted.

  2. jessidehl

    Feeding the dog aside, I cook in bulk and freeze portions to save money. If the kids really like what we are having but aren’t hungry enough to eat it, they will request that I save it “for later”. I will then serve it to them for their snack along with a couple of other options. My husband will also take some of their leftovers for lunch, especially if they can be mixed up and thrown into a tortilla. You can also change the dish slightly by adding a little cheese to the rice, or adding leftovers to another dish.
    I’m very matter-of-fact about saving food–my kids are used to it. It’s a cycle like everything else we do. We save compost scraps and put them in the garden. We harvest garden food and end up with compost scraps.

    • katja

      lovely. I think the key is being matter-of-fact. I am sensitive to the issue because for many, the “we don’t want to waste food” is a way of pressuring and guilting kids into eating more (ala “think of all the starving kids in…”)
      Thanks for your input. Sounds like you’re doing it just right! My hub also adds beans or chickpeas to left-0vers to stretch them and we freeze extra rice in individual servings for left-overs too :)

  3. melanie.j.ryan@gmail.com

    Division of Responsibility makes so much sense, but what struck me in the responses to this question is the idea that if we are to feed our kids appropriately, we have to be ok with throwing uneaten food out. Fine, if you can afford it (a privelidged situation) – but what are the options for families where acceptance of wastage is not an option due to money? How can that be handled in line with the DOR?

    • katja

      Thanks Melanie, you are right, we don’t all have the option of throwing out food. I still maintain making the child finish the food is not OK. In our home, my Dad would often eat what we didn’t finish. I suppose that is one option. I’d be curious to know your ideas on this one, and other readers?
      An adult could pave themselves when they see the pattern and eat what remains. If the child is taught to serve self small portions and go back for more, there should be relatively little food waste. The food can be saved and served again as long as it is safe (in terms of how long the food has been out etc.) We often eat left-overs the next day for lunch… Where food wast is simply not an option, we tend to see families serve more familiar and accepted foods so that they know they can get their energy needs met first, which is perfectly expected and smart based on survival. Satter has a great “food needs hierarchy” that goes over this idea…

  4. Johannah

    Hi! That was my question and thanks so much for responding to it. I do think we are a bit anxious about implementing the division of responsibility over all (parents on slightly different pages) and seeing a lot of food get wasted makes it harder. That being said, I do think that letting him keep the bowl near him and cuing him to start small might help a lot.

    I hadn’t thought about it as a response to a food restriction issue. We’ve never prevented him from eating, but we did adopt him from foster care, and we don’t really know what feeding was like during his first year.

    Thanks for all the suggestions. They are much appreciated.

    • katja

      i hope you had time to look at a recent post about adoption. When the feeding history is unknown, the DOR can be really helpful, and also being very reliable about offering food every 2-3 hours for a little one. Keep us posted and good luck!
      He certainly may have experienced “restriction” not outright, but if he was not fed reliably or did not get enough or did not have the time to eat or if there was stress at meals. Lots of scenarios can play out like “restriction…”

  5. hayley

    would it fall outside of the rules if you saved what he didn’t eat and offer it to him as the next meal or snack? very nonchalantly, of course, not in a “you must finish what’s on your plate” rule, but that it’s what’s available. i think that might only take a few times of that happening before he realizes he doesn’t want to have to eat recycled leftovers later!

    • katja

      This is a bit nuanced. It gets to the question of motive. If you serve them because there is nothing else, and it is part of the offerings, it’s fine. If the approach is punitive, or meant to teach him a lesson, I would do so with caution. Is it much different than the doctor who told a client to just “serve roast beef and beans every meal and snack until he eats it?” I don’t know. It just seems that being direct about it and working on the behavior up front would be more direct and trusting.
      If you do need to serve leftovers, not making a big deal about it is best as you suggest. “Why are we having X again? I don’t like it, I told you last night!” “Well, we are having X and cut up pears, you can chose what you want to eat…” Does that answer your question?
      This is “advanced feeding” for sure :)

  6. Gretchen

    Our 2 year old loves to serve himself, but we do have a few “etiquette rules” he has to follow.

    He is not allowed to eat directly from the serving spoon or put anything back into the serving dish once he has put it on his plate. And he may only take 1 (serving) spoonful at a time. Once he has finished the serving, he may take another. It took us about a week to teach him this. Occasionally he needs a reminder, but it is rare.

    We also give him plenty of opportunities to practice scoping, serving and pouring outside of mealtimes. Using Montessori methods! While I am cooking dinner, I will give him things to practice with either at his small table or on the floor. We started with dry beans that he uses a spoon to scoop up from one bowl to another and back again. As times goes on, you can start to include smaller items or flour or water and so on. Makes a bit of a mess, but everything can be cleaned up again and it makes it so that he is not so focused on practicing these new skills at dinner time.

    • katja

      Great addition! Thanks. M loved when I put a big Pyrex dish out full of oats (I always put them back into the same box with a big X saying “Don’t eat these, for playtime!) She would scoop, pour, mix. It kept her busy while I cooked, and then she had a little broom to clean up the mess (sort of, this required my assistance) but she loved it!
      I like that you told us how long it took to teach him… So helpful for parents that it takes time to learn these new skills.

  7. jessidehl

    Just a note about the leftovers–our dog eats them. :) He comes to the table at the same time the family eats and loves it when the kids (5 and 3) scrap their plates into his dish. So, it’s not a waste for our family.