I have a confession to make. Last night my 2 year old asked for ice cream right before dinner…and I let him have it.
Part experiment, part-I’m-7-months-pregnant-it’s-100 degrees-out-and-I-don’t-have-the-energy-to-argue-with-you-right-now. As those of you who have come to one of our picky eating workshops know, we often tell parents to offer dessert with dinner–a philosophy most famously championed by Ellyn Satter, a prominent food and eating expert who favors a hands-off approach. Satter believes that it’s a parent’s responsibility to determine what and when to eat, but it’s up to the child to decide whether to eat and how much. She stresses that a parent should remain completely neutral and not exert any pressure on their child–positive or negative. According to Satter, praising, reminding, bribing, rewarding, applauding, playing games, talking about nutrition or how delicious the food is, and/or giving stickers are all forms of “positive” pressure (bad!). Reminding your child to eat or to taste something, making her eat her vegetables, warning her that she will be hungry later, insisting that she use her silverware or napkin, making special food, hiding vegetables in other foods, and/or letting her eat whenever she wants to between meals may seem like good parenting but is still pressure. In other words, trying to get a child to eat more will make her eat less, trying to get her to eat less will make her eat more, and trying to get her to eat certain foods will make her avoid them entirely. Satter recommends asking yourself why you are doing this. Is it to get your child to eat more, less or different food than she does on his own? If so, it is pressure.
Another one of Satter’s rules: Don’t promise dessert if she eats her dinner. Instead, put a small serving of dessert at each place setting at the start of the meal and allow your child to decide when to eat it; most parents (myself included!) have a hard time with this. (Keep in mind that some/most nights “dessert” means fruit, yogurt, or another healthy option.) Most children will eat the dessert first, discover they’re still hungry and eat the rest of their meal. Unlike adults they don’t think of dessert as marking the end of the meal. Giving it to them at the beginning allows them to decide when and how they are going to eat it. If you reward a child for finishing their dinner, she may end up overeating.
With that in mind, I figured I’d take the opportunity to test the theory out for myself. So I held my breath and gave G a very small dish of organic vanilla ice cream (the very smallest dish I could find–about 1/4 cup) plus whole wheat penne, chicken meatballs with tomato sauce and cut up watermelon. And guess what? He ate the ice cream first but didn’t finish it and still ate most of his dinner. Granted my son is a pretty good eater, but this serves as one more example that when it comes to eating, it’s best to trust your toddler!
Has anyone else tried this approach? If so, we want to hear from you!