Is there any activity on this planet more frustrating than feeding
a toddler? I mean, is somebody somewhere trying to clean a highway with a
toothbrush? Empty out a lake with a teaspoon? Analyze a statement by Donald
Trump? Not even kidding—these are the types of awful tasks you can compare
to the nightmare that is getting a toddler to sit down and eat three meals a
If it isn't picky eating and refusing to touch vegetables, it's changing
likes and dislikes daily, or skipping meals on a regular basis. I can almost
see the mischievous gleam in my daughter's eyes as she rides in the grocery
cart. It's like she's thinking "As soon as Mommy stocks up on my favorite
foods, I'm going to suddenly decide I don't like them anymore. Sweet!"
This too shall pass, we tell ourselves. It's a kid phase like any
other. But we still have to get through it with a few shreds of sanity and
self-respect intact. After months of battle, I've discovered the key to
surviving a meal with a toddler. Guess what? It has nothing to do with food.
This magical solution is not about creatively hiding the
veggies or cutting melon slices into miniature snowmen. (Who does that?! I
blame Pinterest.) It's not about finger painting with hummus or offering truffles
and Gorgonzola to your nine-month-old. The real challenge is dealing with your
own anxiety about your child's nutrition and learning to trust that she knows
how much she needs to eat.
I'm not the genius behind this solution. I want to give
credit and tearful gratitude and maybe a case of champagne to the baby and
child feeding guru, Ellyn Satter. Satter's book, "How To Get Your Kid To Eat: But Not Too Much" was my first introduction to the concept of "the Division of Responsibility." It was a huge revelation. For the first time, someone was telling me that it
was NOT my job to get food INTO my child.
Satter explains the division of responsibility this way:
"Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which
it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they
It sounds so simple and reasonable and freeing. But it goes
against all your mom instincts. When your kid is a newborn and even an older
baby, getting food into their tiny bodies feels completely like your
responsibility. If you are breastfeeding, you have to physically get your
nipple into your baby's mouth in order to feed her. If you are bottle-feeding,
you have to hold the bottle to her mouth.
Satter reveals a truth that is so hard for parents to accept: all children know how much they need to eat.
If your baby doesn't nurse well or has problems gaining
weight, the burden of guilt and anxiety becomes even more intense. Pediatricians
start pointing at dots on the growth curve. Your mother-in-law criticizes
whatever feeding method you use and recommends another one. You obsess over
weight checks and ounces of breast milk or formula. It's scary and unsettling
and inevitably makes you feel like you are doing something wrong.
Then your baby becomes a toddler, and suddenly all the rules
change. You no longer have to get food into your child's mouth. But her eating
habits and attitudes about food are now um, challenging. She might eat a huge
lunch and a tiny dinner. She might demand oranges every day for a week and
refuse to touch her chicken and broccoli. She might love peas today and hate
them tomorrow. And this is all apparently normal.
Satter reveals a truth that is so hard for parents to accept: all children know how much they need to eat. You have to trust your child to
eat the food and the amount that is right for her. Trying to get her to eat
more or less, or something she doesn't want to eat, is just futile.
Satter breaks down the facts. "The average toddler eats from
960 to 1700 calories a day. Add on to that a normal 20% over and under
day-to-day variation, and that child will eat between 760 to 2040 calories a
It's a huge range. It can drive you nuts. But it's normal. And
sadly, you can't control it. Here's what you can control. You can present a
range of wholesome and kid-friendly foods at each meal. You can offer healthy
snacks. You can model healthy eating for your child and insist on basic social
behaviors at mealtimes. And no matter what your toddler eats, you can learn to smile and move on with the day. She
won't starve. There is always another meal or snack a few hours away when she
can make up for it.
Trust me, I'm still working on this. But I've mostly managed
to tame my panic attacks when my daughter eats two cherry tomatoes and one
pasta noodle for dinner, or announces that she's "all done" at lunchtime
before I've even served it to her. And I've noticed that when I don't react to
my daughter's eating, something changes. "All done?" I say cheerfully. "Okay,
let's go play." She studies me, puzzled that I'm not taking the bait. And then
she reaches for another bite.