As the mother of a toddler, I am often asked about my 21-month old daughter’s eating habits. In fact, on our recent trip to Spain, it was the topic of many conversations with friends and family (perhaps because food is such an integral part of the Spanish culture?)
¿Cóme bien? (Is she a good eater?)
¿Lo come todo? (Does she eat everything?)
¿Cómo consigues que coma las verduras? (How do you get her to eat vegetables?)
These questions – all from a place of good intentions and honest curiosity – have left me wondering, how do we define “good (or “bad”) eaters? and, I certainly don’t eat everything!, and I don’t! I can’t make her do anything!
So, for those of you curious how D. and I maneuver the tricky culinary adventures of eating with a toddler, I thought I’d share what I have learned from more seasoned parents, as well as from my own reading into RIE parenting and Montessori.
- First, I trust my daughter. I trust that she, above anyone else (besides God), knows her body and the food it needs. If she’s hungry, she’ll eat. If she’s not hungry, she won.’t I remind myself that a toddler’s nutritional needs are vastly different from those of an adult: picky eaters are the norm, and some days they eat more than others. I relax, knowing that she’s fortunate to be receiving vitamins and other nutrients from my breast milk. So, I trust that my daughter will eat what she needs to eat. No pleading, no bargaining, no threats, no bribes, no emotional tug-of-war, no games. Children control three areas of their lives: sleep, bathroom, and eating. I cannot force E. to eat, nor should I. Eating should be a pleasurable experience, whether you’re a toddler or an adult.
- Second, following the advice of the Ellyn Satter Institute (AMAZING site!) and her division of responsibility: I, the parent, decide what, when, and where, while E. decides whether and how much. I prepare one, and only one, dinner for our family of three. I cook healthy, varied, and delicious meals, meals that D. and I enjoy (what). I help my daughter eat on a schedule, and we always, as often as possible, eat dinner together as a family (when). Seated, at a table whenever possible, with other people (where). Those are my responsibilities as E.’s mother. E., on the other hand, controls if she wants to eat the salad I made for dinner or the sandwich for lunch. She decides how much steak or how much toast to eat. (And, yes, that means there are days she eats very little and other days she eats no vegetables.)
- Eating is a sacred, communal act. By sacred, I mean set apart, its own activity. By communal, food is to be shared with others. So, we no longer snack on the go, in the car or in the stroller from point A to point B. No more, “here, eat this cracker while you run around the playground with your friends.” No. Food, and mealtimes, are sacred. Purposeful, worthy of our fullest and undivided attention. I try my best to set apart unhurried time to sit down and eat together. For breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack time, E. eats at her child-sized table, while either D. or I sit next to her. For dinner, we all sit together at the kitchen bar. Ultimately, I have found that our move away from constant snacking has not only helped E. become a more focused and conscious participant in mealtimes, but it is helping her become more in tune with her own body’s needs. Yep, you guessed it. I “run the risk” of letting my toddler’s tummy start to rumble. (gasp!) However, “…there is a difference between feeling hungry and being hungry….What does that mean? It means being comfortable if your stomach is empty, and being able to wait until your next mealtime–even if you do feel hungry.” I want E. to learn to self-regulate, to understand what hungry and full feel like, to associate food with nourishing the body and with sharing it with others around a table.
- D. and I have agreed to speak to our daughter about food with the same language that we would use with each other, or with any other adult. This means we don’t label her eating habits or talk about her in front of her using third person (“I don’t think she’s hungry” or “Why won’t she eat ___?”). It means no emotional manipulation (“Just one more bite of salad for mommy”) and no threats or bargaining (“If you don’t eat your chicken, you can’t have dessert”). Our daughter, although she may only be a year and a half old, is a fully-formed and competent human being, deserving of the same culinary respect as any adult. We do, however, love to talk authentically about food with her. (“Isn’t this roasted cauliflower delicious?!” or “Cantaloupe is my favorite fruit.” or, “Would you like more bread?”)
- I invite E. to participate in as much of the meal and food preparation as possible. I love this principle from the Montessori philosophy! Based on the belief that young children are interested in “practical life” activities (i.e., cooking, cleaning, helping with what mom/dad are doing), Montessori encourages parents to include their children in their everyday activities. So, E. helps me bag the avocados at the grocery store; she loves to climb up on her stool in the kitchen, decked out in one of her aprons (sewn by Grammy), to watch papá cut the cabbage and carrots; she loves setting her table in the mornings for breakfast (her own child-sized tools and utensils are kept in a low cabinet in the kitchen); and, her favorite of all: taste-testing! It’s been truly amazing to witness how her involvement in a meal has increased her willingness to try new and previously eschewed foods. (Yes, this principle means a messier kitchen, but it’s worth it!)
If something I write here resonates with you, or if you disagree with an idea, or if you’ve got questions, I’d LOVE to hear from you. The purpose of this post to give you a glimpse into our home, and at the same time perhaps even start a dialogue about food and toddlers, NOT to implicitly condemn other parents’ decisions. Because, gosh darn it, I know we’re all doing the best we can!