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small kids don’t know what they want to eat until it’s in their mouth

Posted by on Oct 1, 2010 in Blog Posts | 13 comments


This is a scenario I see or hear about over and over. A mom standing in the kitchen with a 1-2 year old child asking over an over, “What do you want for breakfast?” (or lunch, or snack…)

“Do you want noodles?” pause….
“Do you want eggs?” pause….
“Do you want a cereal bar?” pause…
“How about a Go-gurt?” pause…
And it goes on until there is a positive, or at least not a negative response.

So, let’s say Susie asks for noodles with butter. Mom makes it. Susie looks at it and says “Yuck.” (Maybe she’s been munching on crackers while she’s waiting for the noodles because she’s crying that she can’t wait, and she’s so cute and she’s small and hungry!)

So, she has rejected what she ‘ordered.’
Do you get mad? Try to reason? “Well, this is what you asked for! You liked it the other day, don’t be so picky…”

Susie throws it on the floor and asks for a granola bar. Now you’re late for music class, you grab a juice box and a granola bar that she nibbles on in the car, and she whines off and on for all of music class that she’s “HUNGRY!” and she nibbles on some more granola bar and maybe some raisins on the way home, and then it’s almost dinner time.

“What do you want for dinner?”…

Small children shouldn’t meal plan. They can’t. Heck, I can’t some days! Remember, as the parent of the young child- and I include young school-aged kids in this group- it is YOUR job to meal-plan. It is your job to think of balanced options that you can offer, and your job to enforce the structure that will help her learn to like new foods and tune-in and eat the right amounts.

So, how does this feel…
“Jimmy, it’s time for breakfast in five minutes, please get ready to put your blocks away.”

Meanwhile you think about what you like to eat, what might have some fat, protein and carbohydrate.

“Jimmy, come to the table now please. You see we have toast and you can choose butter, jam or peanut butter. I also made a plate of scrambled eggs and there’s some melon. Would you like milk or water? Oh, you chose toast and jam. Can I help you spread it? Here is a spreader so you can try…”

Meanwhile if you can, sit down yourself and enjoy some eggs or toast with your tea or coffee.

Jimmy doesn’t have to worry or chose. It’s not his job. He just gets to show up and eat from what you made. He gets to tune-in and eat until he is full (which might be two bites, or a cup of melon and two pieces of toast.) Then he gets to wait 2-3 hours until snack time.

My table? I enjoy eggs and think they’re a great and easy food to balance nutrition and give kids energy, but M isn’t a fan. If I ask if she wants an egg, she says, “no.” But, if I cook an extra (medium-boiled and she doesn’t eat the yolk mind you) she always asks for it when it hits the table and usually asks for another, but I don’t boil 2 extra because it’s just too wasteful and I don’t want to eat 3 eggs! I also often make a scrambled egg and put it in the middle of the table so I can eat some, and she occasionally helps herself to some with little or no yolk. A pan-scrambled egg takes less time than microwaved oatmeal…

Kids often ask for foods and then don’t want them, or say they don’t want or like something, and eat it a few minutes later (if we can keep out of the fight!) M did this all the time too. “I don’t like steak!”
Me: “OK, you don’t have to eat it, there are other choices.”
Most often the food she was just complaining about was then eaten happily without comment a few moments later.

Does this sound like meal-time at your house? Do your kiddos ask for and reject foods, or eat what they say they don’t want?

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13 Comments

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  1. krys47

    This was a great post for me to read. My 17 month old has recently become very proficient at communicating. If he does not want something, he will shake his head when he sees it and then immediately throw it on the ground if I offer it. To simplify things, I would question him like your dialogue at the beginning of this post. For a kid in a high chair, how do you do it? Do I serve family style and let him tell me what he wants? Like I said, he will often throw food immediately on the floor if he doesn't want it – its like he doesnt want it near him if he is not interested in eating it.

  2. Kris

    I've found that if I make what my daughter wants for breakfast, she'll usually decide she doesn't want it if she sees me eating something else. So, I try not to ask anymore, and just make myself breakfast and assume she'll eat some.

  3. KellyK

    I have to say that as someone who doesn't have kids but wants them at some point, one of the things I love about your blog is that it makes the idea of feeding kids less scary. It sounds so much less stressful to just put together a meal and let them pick and choose from those options.

    I find that a lot of the time, I don't know what I want to eat either (especially if I wait til I'm hungry to think about it, since a growling stomach tends to short-circuit my brain), so *of course* a little kid isn't going to know.

  4. familyfeedingdynamics

    rsmr,
    LOVE your stories! It's not easy, is it! M has really picked up with her milk intake, so don't give up offering it and I would say try not to pressure (it's tempting.) I have to say, I never thought I'd buy Go-gurt, but she seemed to prefer it to reagular yogurt. We got the Yoplait Simple (Costco) and she liked it straight out of the freezer. It might be awhile before she finds her way back to milk, so looking for ways to boost calcium in the rest of your offering may help you avoid pressure. (Search calcium for old posts and Child Of Mine has a great couple pages on calcium strategies if your child is off milk. Keep us posted!

  5. familyfeedingdynamics

    faeviante,
    breakfast in our house is also a little different. We don't all eat the same thing mostly, but I do offer her 3-4 things that are easy to reach, we keep cereal, toaster, bread etc at arm's reach by the kitchen table.
    We know when it's not working. I've tried offering different foods too, and I see how it doesn't work.
    M, the other morning when I asked if she wanted oatmeal or toast said, "You just put something out, and I'll eat it or not."
    Loved it!

  6. familyfeedingdynamics

    Clio,
    it is tempting, isn't it when kids are on the extremes of the growth curves. I still have those urges to cross the lines of the DOR, but as you know it just doesn't work. Doesn't mean it's not hard though!

  7. familyfeedingdynamics

    Letts family. I agree that it's hard to look like you don't care if kids don't try new foods, eat more or less than you are comfortable with at first (whatever the transition is, it's hard!)
    The good news is, it gets easier! You are feeling success already, and those successes and good feelings about food add up. You won't have to fake it for too long because over time your kids will show you that it all evens out, and that they mature with eating. But, it does take time. I still have that impulse of worrying she is eating too much at times, or not enough milk etc, but then she shows me she is capable over and over. It's quite a journey~

  8. rsmr

    We are getting used to our new pre-K routine, so breakfast with my 4-1/2 year old is limited to bowl of cereal or pbj–no time to cook. Sometimes I think even THAT choice is too much, as she just struggles and hems and haws…argh.

    It's so funny to me that when I do give her choices at a restaurant, 9 times out of 10 she will pick something and then eat what's on MY plate, not hers.

    Completely off-topic, but I wanted to share (your pain): as of a month ago my milk-loving child just stopped drinking milk. I offer it, sometimes she even says yes, maybe takes a sip, but then she's done. There must be something biological going on, maybe she doesn't need it any more? That's what I'm hoping, because she really doesn't eat more cheese or yogurt to compensate.

  9. faeviante

    Thanks for reminding me. At breakfast time I tend to forget about that because it's not very common to cook in the morning where I live, so breakfast is kind of a mix-and-match event where everyone just picks whatever they want out of ALL the cold foods that are available. That's too much to choose from for a two-year-old.

  10. clio

    Lol, I am SO glad that I never played the "what do you want" game. I watch other families do it and it almost never goes well.

    I have to admit though, C is not a big eater, and sometimes it is hard to stay with the DOR. I am tempted to try to find something she likes. This is especially true when says an adamant "no" to EVERYTHING on the table! I know I would pay for it though if I started to try to short-order cook…

  11. familyfeedingdynamics

    revmom. brilliant! Of course, we give choices, but we choose what they are :)
    I also tried to ask M about lunch, and had the same experience. Frustrating, she didn't care, we just struggled if she didn't want yogurt… I went back to just putting in balances options as you suggested. Half the time she eats the yogurt, the other half she doesn't. No problem! You are so nicely tuned in to your kids. Yumm, muffins :)

  12. revmom

    I do tend to give her choices… but restricted ones. We are having cereal for breakfast, what kind of cereal do you want?

    Do you want milk or juice to drink?

    I see you have finished all the dinner that Daddy put on your plate. What else would you like to have with your lunch? (the answer to this is invariably "ice cream").

    On the theory that involving kids in food prep is one of those Good Ideas, I tried giving her more say about school lunches- but she just doesn't care, 3 hours before eating it, what goes into the box. So now, I fill up her lunchbox with a combination of protein and carbs and fats… mostly things I know she has enjoyed in the past. And what she does with it when her teacher says it is lunchtime is up to her.

    Hmm… adults decide what and when and where, and she chooses whether and how much… where have I heard that before?

    That said- at 4 1/2 she has been known to do meal planning… sort of. "Mommy, today is a good day for making muffins because we can make them after dinner and then I can have them in my lunch for school tomorrow". But that is far more about knowing how to get me on board with her muffin-making plan than thinking ahead about lunch.

  13. Moo

    Oh, Dr. Rowell, where were you and Ellyn Satter when I was a child! I consistently rejected food as a child but was seldom presented with other choices, and my parents and grandmother were the most loving and caring folks any little girl could have asked for. I empathize with all those parents who are struggling with feeding and the contrariness of children (like I was) who don't know what they want until they eat it–or don't!

    Choice is key, and no pressure, both of which must be difficult to achieve on a daily basis. All the while, parents are being bombarded by conflicting advice from their pediatrician, and well-meaning family and friends. Kudos to you for being a voice of calm and reassurance.