The second rule of baby food

I posted a while ago about the first rule of baby food.

The first rule of baby food, in short, is “there’s no such thing as baby food.” Babies can, with few exceptions, eat the same food as their parents. This is the easy rule.

The second rule of baby food is ten times harder, even though it basically tells you not to do anything. The second rule of baby food is:

Once you put the food on the table, your job is done.

I’m paraphrasing from Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine, which is really the last word on the feeding of older babies and children. (The book talks about breastfeeding but in much less detail than a good breastfeeding book like The Nursing Mother’s Companion.)

Satter puts the second rule slightly differently: you and your child have a division of responsibility, she says. You decide what and when to eat. Your child decides whether and how much to eat.

That means absolutely no cajoling at the table. No making sure they eat the peas and the larb. No getting upset if they want to fill up on bread. And no freaking out if they don’t want to eat a single bite of anything.

Probably no single piece of advice has saved our family more stress, even though it’s a pain in the ass to actually follow it, and probably no one follows it perfectly. Abiding by the second rule is as hard as choosing to ignore some of your spouse’s annoying habits.

Even though toddler feeding patterns have been notorious for as long as there have been toddlers, new parents still seem to be shocked and frustrated by them. There have been many days when Iris has eaten nothing more than half a cup of milk before her afternoon snack at 3:30pm. Other days, she’ll eat a whole piece of buttered toast and a bowl of Greek yogurt for breakfast and then be hungry for snack 90 minutes later.

Especially, I think, if you’re a guy (and more especially a guy who worked for years in tech support, like me), it’s easy to see the world as a series of problems that you might be able to solve. If you knew an adult who regularly skipped breakfast and lunch and then ate the fluffy inside part of the bread for dinner, you’d stage an intervention. But a toddler who eats that way doesn’t have a problem.

For all the parental handwringing, toddler eating is much less neurotic than adult eating, at least in the US. Toddlers eat when they’re hungry and the food tastes good. They won’t eat because the food is good for them or because you want them to.

Or let’s put it this way: If you look across the table, see a 20-pound kid, and think, “Oh, I can totally win this,” you may as well be saying, “Look at that small country in Asia. I could totally win a little war there.”

9 thoughts on “The second rule of baby food

  1. Neil

    I really wish my parents had read and followed this advice when I was little. Much trauma and emotional pain could have been avoided.

    Wait, Laurie has annoying habits? do tell…

  2. Maggi

    I totally agree. I have a two year old boy who’s appetite has mirrored a tiny hamster to a football linebacker – from one day to the next.

    We just have to roll with the punched on this one…

  3. karawynn

    I read similar advice a few years ago and tried it. Trouble is, we’re dealing with a child who is already both exceptionally volatile in temperament and inconsistently particular about food, and who becomes noticably more volatile with fluctuations in blood sugar. Letting her determine ‘whether and how much’ to eat was not a viable option; it merely shifted the nature of the battles, rather than diminishing them.

  4. mamster Post author

    kara, I admit it–Iris has always been a good eater. I’m curious: what do you do if you put food on the table and sit your daughter down and she refuses to eat?

  5. karawynn

    We’ve ended up with the following barely-workable compromise:

    1) I try to serve food that she’ll like or at least not hate, based on her last known preferences, while still having a protein and if at all possible a vegetable. This is periodically foiled by sudden changes in what she thinks she hates, but works more often than not. Once in a while I will make something complicated for the other three members of the family which I’m pretty sure Claire will balk at, and then I may prepare an easy alternative up front.

    2) If, as sometimes happens, I’m not cooking for the family but am preparing a quick meal just for Claire, or Claire and her sister, I try to give her a choice of two healthy things: (‘Would you like carrots or broccoli with your ranch dressing?’ ‘Do you want a tuna sandwich or grilled cheese?’) Psychologically, if she’s actively chosen something, she’s a little less likely to fuss about it than if it’s just presented to her. I don’t, however, cater to demands for different food after the meal is served, other than condiments. (And I had to get over taking it personally when she smothers the whole meal in ketchup.)

    3) Unless she’s obviously sick, she’s required to eat a certain minimum amount of food at dinner, largely because that (and weekend lunch) is the only meal we can control, and we know she usually eats no more than about two bites of lunch at school. Because of 1) and 2) it’s rare that none of the served options appeal to her, so getting eight or ten bites of something down her is seldom an issue now. After this minimum is met, she’s allowed to stop if she wants — but rarely does, because:

    4) Dessert is contingent upon eating ‘a good dinner’ — a larger amount of healthy food than the bare minimum, usually about 2-3 servings total. This is a Big Motivating Factor, though the loss of dessert is extremely upsetting to her, so it’s a double-edged sword. We sometimes allow within-meal substitutions, like if she really, really seems to hate the fish, but is eating the green beans okay, I might say that she can eat double the green beans and skip the rest of the fish. We also allow her to ‘take a break’ and come back later to finish dinner if she can’t eat it now but really wants to qualify for dessert.

    That pretty much covers where we ended up after several years of trial-and-error. She’s eight now, and dinner is a struggle maybe half the time but very seldom a war … which is a lot better than it was. We’ve sort of met in the middle.

  6. karawynn

    whoa, wacky formatting there. sadly, i can’t edit the post … it changed my 3 & 4 to a second 1 & 2 (I think because I switched from parenthetical to period delimiters).

    btw, we haven’t met, but I’m a Seattle friend of Stacy C’s. hi. :)

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