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Food Fight

By Joanie Randle
Athens GA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 5, September-October 1998, pp. 147-48

food fight n. 1. an altercation of a benign nature where food is thrown between two or more participants. Tomatoes squished, condiments squirted, and general bedlam ensued as a food fight broke loose in the school cafeteria. 2. a power struggle between parent(s) and child originating in an attempt to get the child to eat his meal. "Don't start a food fight with me!"

When our babies are nourished exclusively at the breast, we know that they are being fed the most nutritious food in the world. We are intellectually secure in this fact and know intuitively in our hearts that human milk is best. Then along comes the adventure of starting solids. Suddenly baby is grabbing everything he can and eagerly exploring its taste, texture, and smell. Toddlerhood follows and with it comes episodes of picky eating. Preschoolers test the patience of parents at mealtime during these early childhood years. Traditionally, family mealtime is a time when the family comes together to reconnect after a busy day and to enjoy one another's company. But sometimes, the peaceful evening meal turns into a battleground of wills where children complain about what was served, ask for a specially prepared meal, or flatly refuse to eat. Mealtime can deteriorate into a food fight between parent and child. Contrary to what many parents may think, toddlers and young children do not engage in food fights simply for the thrill and challenge of upsetting Mom or Dad. Parents often unwittingly set the stage for a food fight by expecting children (toddlers especially) to have the same eating patterns and habits as adults. So how can parents prevent falling into the power struggle known as a "food fight"? When your baby starts solid foods, avoid commercially prepared baby foods and feed your baby from your own plate. This will allow him to develop a taste for your cooking. Your baby has enjoyed the variety of flavors he has been exposed to through your milk and he will continue to favor those tastes he has come to know. Feeding baby from the family's mealtime menus will also encourage the habit of eating the food served and will avoid setting up expectations that children get separate meals prepared just for them. Sometime between baby's second and third birthdays, many parents slip into thinking that it must be time for baby to eat three meals a day like an adult. This belief is at the heart of many food fights. It is important to keep in mind that toddlers do not eat like adults. They have different fueling needs that mimic the cue feeding of infancy. As they make the transition from "feeding on demand" to more structured mealtimes, toddlers need lots of guidance and patience. It is unrealistic to think that a toddler will eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any snacks between meals. Many parents encourage midmorning and early afternoon snacks, but discourage late afternoon snacks for fear of ruining the child's appetite for dinner. This can be extremely frustrating for a toddler who has learned to listen to his hunger cues. As a breastfed infant, he ate when his body told him he was hungry. He nursed until his body told him he was full. He was never expected to wait until an arbitrary hour of the day to eat and he never over-ate. As an older toddler, he may be told to wait for dinner when his body is telling him that it's time to eat. At other times, he may be expected to eat when his body is telling him he is not hungry. Here are some tips that will help you avoid sending your child mixed mealtime messages:

  • Keep toddler portions toddler-sized. When a toddler cleans his plate, it can be an opportunity for praise. If he is still hungry, he can have seconds.
  • Look at the day's activity level and snacking pattern. If it's been a lazy, rainy day that was spent nibbling and reading, the child will be less ravenous than at the end of a day when he's played outside, barely stopping for a drink of water.
  • Notice your own appetite: are you famished by dinner time? Don't assume your children are hungry at the same times you are or that they are as hungry as you are.
  • Serve only fruit or vegetable snacks after 4 PM. This will take the edge off children's immediate hunger without satisfying their appetite for very long. They will be hungry again by the time supper is served, and if they've already eaten vegetables, they're halfway through dinner.
  • Keep the child's overall eating pattern in mind. Often toddlers will gravitate to one food for several days and will exclude other food choices. Usually this only lasts for a few days before they move on to other foods. Drawing attention to this eating pattern may make it last longer.
  • Avoid using food as a reward for tasks unrelated to food, e.g., offering a special ice-cream treat in return for picking up toys.
  • Offering dessert after the evening meal regardless of whether children have cleaned their plates will remove the association between treats and special occasions. Yummy desserts will lose the "forbidden" status. Remember that children tend to crave what they cannot have.
  • Rule of Seven: It will take approximately seven exposures to a new food or recipe before a child will accept it. Children will often reject the new and different in deference for the familiar old standbys.
  • Establish rules of the table (for example, "Try at least one bite of everything."; "If you cannot compliment the cook, don't say anything at all!") and teach or expect age-appropriate table manners.
  • Establish a ritual such as giving thanks for the meal, lighting a candle, or holding hands and telling each other how much you love each other. This will give children a signal that it's time to settle down and enjoy this time together.

One sure way of engaging your child's cooperation during meals is to involve him in the preparation of food. Give children age-appropriate tasks and never leave the kitchen when children are handling knives or working at a hot stove. Toddlers and preschoolers are great at preparing salad greens and helping you measure, stir, and pour. Preschoolers especially like counting out forks and napkins. School-aged children can help with most cooking tasks when properly supervised. Cooking teaches math skills (learning the standards of dry and liquid measurement, for instance) and the importance of following directions. Teaching children to cook gives them life long skills!

Vegetable gardening is another activity that helps children feel more involved in their food choices. Children who tend the family garden will enjoy eating what they have helped grow. What fun for a child to nurture a small plant, watch as the fruit grows to maturity, then pick it at the peak of flavor and enjoy it with his family. The child enjoys such a sense of accomplishment! What should you do if all the tricks fail and you and your child are engaging in a food fight despite your best efforts? Have a parental summit meeting and map out a strategy to defuse the situation. (It is very important for both parents to be working from the same game plan!) These tips may be helpful for developing a strategy:

  • Stay calm and avoid losing your temper with your children. Remember that power struggles will be avoided if you, the parent, refuse to engage in them.
  • If your child refuses to eat at mealtime, don't insist that he must.
  • Children will eat when they are hungry, especially if they see that they cannot draw you into a power struggle over food. Offer a banana or an apple before bedtime if you are worried about your child going all night without food (especially children who no longer nurse at night).
  • Avoid yelling, bargaining, or bribing to get your child to eat. This will surely result in a food fight!
  • Look at what you are eating and drinking. Children will inevitably desire whatever it is that you are eating whether it is a diet soda and a cupcake or a glass of fruit juice and an artichoke!
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