Whenever parents ponder the problem of providing appropriate portion sizes for toddlers and preschoolers, the issue of how to handle seconds inevitably arises.

That’s what happened in response to my last post Are You Teaching Your Toddler to Overeat?  One reader asked:

“I put appropriate sizes on my daughter’s plate, and I don’t make her eat or encourage her to eat more. If she eats, she eats, she’s the one who knows if she’s hungry or not.  Often she will eat all of her fruit or bread or something, not touch anything else, and then want more of the thing she ate. Should I give it to her, or in that instance, tell her ‘no’ because she hasn’t eaten anything else, and then encourage her to eat the other stuff on her plate?”

I threw the question back out to parents on my Facebook page, and I agree with a lot of what people had to say.  However…

The primary solution to the snag of seconds happens long before the battle.  This is definitely a case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  That’s right, you can actually prevent the seconds situation from occurring.  Here’s how.

Prevention Part 1: Set aside the goal of getting your toddler to eat a certain amount—or a certain type—of food.  Instead, think about teaching your tot to eat right.

Shifting your goal from worrying about consumption to shaping habits won’t just enable you to keep the highs and lows of any one meal in perspective (though this is certainly a benefit).

It will also help you avoid a common parental pitfall: Relying on a set of strategies that bite you in the butt in the long run.  Read The 2-More-Bites Tango: How YOU Can Take the Lead and Wheelin’ and Dealin’:10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trade Peas for Pie.

And, if these benefits aren’t enough, consider this:

Shifting your goal from consumption to habits will enable you to set up a feeding system that works by transfering your attention to when and how food is served and by altering the parent/child dynamic. It also will drastically reduce the pressure you put on your child to eat.  Read The Pressure-Cooker Problem.

The result:

  • You won’t have to monitor what your child eats.
  • You’ll be able to encourage vegetable consumption without talking about vegetables.
  • You’ll be able to make peace, stop being the enforcer, and start enjoying meals.

Never compromise your long-term goals for the sake of the immediate meal.

Prevention Part 2: Take the pressure off dinner by serving higher quality food through the day.

Here’s a math problem (and possibly a traumatic flashback to fifth grade):  Two children are eating dinner.  One child has eaten 2 bites of vegetable at each of the earlier meals and snacks, for a total of 8 vegetable bites before sitting down to the main meal. The other child hasn’t eaten any vegetables yet today.  Which child’s parent is more likely to crazed about how many carrots her kid consumes at dinner?

Change the dinner dynamic by upgrading the rest of the day. I recommend you serve a fruit and/or a vegetable at every meal and snack.

Even if you don’t achieve this goal every day, you will increase your kid’s consumption, thereby resolving most of the seconds dilemma. And let’s be honest, vegetables are at the heart of this problem. Would you really care if your toddler asked for seconds after barrelling through the broccoli without so much as checking out the chicken?

The benefits of serving a fruit and/or a vegetable at every meal and snack:

  • A net gain of vegetable consumption over the course of the day. Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids’ Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life.
  • When the whole day is healthier you can relax at dinner.
  • The more frequently kids are exposed to vegetables, the more familiar vegetables become.  And increasing familiarity is the secret to vegetable-eating success.
  • Upgrading snacks will get you out of the Nutrition Zone Mentality since snacks are where the nutrition action really happens. Read Snacking and the Nutrition Zone Mentality.

Eating is really a matter of math: Kids eat what they’re exposed to the most. (And what they eat the most determines the nutritional quality of their day.)

Prevention Part 3: Downsize your expectations and the portions you provide.

Part of the problem with seconds is simply a problem of portion size: You pile on the pasta and the peas (hoping your child will eat at least some of the stack).

  • Even if your toddler eats some of the peas, the part that remains looks untouched, compelling you to ask your tot to do more.
  • From your toddler’s perspective, the mountain looks unscalable. Why try?

Put very small portions of food on your child’s plate.  And, make the portions of different foods fairly equal.  In other words, don’t put two bites of broccoli and ½ cup of pasta on the plate.  Put down two bites of broccoli and 2 bites of pasta.

This is definitely a case where less is more, especially if you have a reluctant eater.

Other advantages of serving smaller portions:

  • You’ll be giving your child the number of bites you normally negotiate down to, thereby avoiding the need to negotiate.  Read Raising Lawyers.
  • You won’t be tempted to pile up the preferred foods and minimize the monsters—thereby inadvertently teaching your tot that some foods are desirable and others are tolerated.  Instead, you’ll be teaching that all foods are created equally.
  • You won’t have to worry about your child overeating in order to get to the good stuff.
  • You’ll be teaching your child a valuable lifelong lesson about portion size.

Prevention Part 4: Teach your child how to eat.

Think about eating from our kids’ perspective: They tuck into their favorites first. Then, after they’re kind of full (or totally stuffed) parents come along and tell them to eat their veggies.

Turn that baby around by teaching your child to eat some of everything before she eats all of anything.  I describe this method of grazing around the plate—which I call One-One—in more detail in the post: My child asks for seconds of pasta before she’s even touched her peas.

Remember, kids don’t know when they are going to be full.  One-One gets a portion of all the goods into their guts before they’re totally goners.  Share this rationale with your toddler: “It’s hard to know when you’ll be full so I would like you to eat a little bit of everything as you go along so you don’t get too full on pasta before you’ve touched your peas.” It might take awhile for the lesson to sink in but don’t let that deter you.

Put all the parts of the prevention plan into action.  Then, when your child asks for seconds of the pasta before he’s touched his peas…

Say OK.

Then dawdle.  “I’ll get you some more pasta after I finish a little more of my dinner. Why don’t you work on the rest of your meal while you’re waiting.”

Don’t stress about it.

Try again tomorrow.

Then, put your focus back on perfecting all the parts of your prevention plan.  It won’t just solve the problem of seconds, it’ll change the entire way your child eats.  The prevention plan: It’s where you’ll find the secret to success.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~