Thanks to Claudia for asking this question in response to my recent Psychology Today article because it’s an important issue that lots of parents struggle to resolve.

Claudia’s question:

I have twin 22 month olds who could honestly care less about eating most of the time. There are days where they eat breakfast – a smoothie made with 5 oz milk, half a yogurt, some protein powder (sometimes) and either a cereal bar, a waffle (homemade with added veggies, hahah), or dry cereal… and then will NOT eat lunch at all… but when they wake up from their nap around 3 they are STARVING.  So, then they will eat a sandwich, veggies, etc.  But then of course they are not interested in anything for dinner.  I need help deciding if my kids own their own eating patterns and habits, or if I am supposed to draw a hard line for them and determine what and when they should be eating?!?!

Basically, this boils down to a simple (yeah, simple…right!) philosophical question: Who decides what, when, and how much your kids eat?

The way you’ve posed the question—Who is responsible for your kids’ eating patterns and habits?—sets up a false dichotomy. The answer isn’t “you” or “them.”  Rather, the answer is a hybrid: both you and your kids work to develop their eating habits together.

  1. Know where your kids are starting (based on their age, development and personalities).
  2. Figure out where you’re going.
  3. Develop a strategy to get your kids from here to there.

The strategy you settle on won’t be a straight shot because if your kids could eat the way adults do, the way you want them to, you wouldn’t wonder what to do. You would set up a structure and your kids would comply.

Alternatively, if you leave your kids to their own devices, they’ll be…well, kids.  And kids aren’t mature enough to make all of their own eating decisions.  They don’t know about, nor do they care about, social conventions for eating.  They want what they want when they want it.

When it comes to teaching kids to eat right, you need to find the middle ground.  Read The Goldilocks Approach.

In principle it doesn’t matter when your kids eat.

It doesn’t really matter whether your kids eat two main meals a day or three, and it doesn’t really matter whether those meals come in the morning and the night, at brunch and at dinner, or as in your case, at breakfast and in the middle of the afternoon.

But principle isn’t practice. 

It sounds like this is a pattern that isn’t particularly pleasing to you, and I’m sure the twins don’t exactly appreciate it either.  Who wants to ruin a perfectly wonderful nap by waking up feeling famished?

I know I’m going to get into trouble with a bunch of Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility proponents—If you’re not familiar with the Division of Responsibility it’s the idea that parents decide what, when and where kids eat, and kids decide how much they eat —but you’ve got a situation here where your kids are eating too much at breakfast and it’s throwing off the whole day. I suggest you cut back a little.

Remember, infants feed on demand. Toddlers require more structure.

(We know the twins are eating too much because they stay full for so long, though kudos to you for packing their breakfast full of so many quality nutrients.)

Don’t worry that your kids will starve if you cut back on the morning meal. Lunch is on the way!

When developing a structure for your kids’ eating you have three distinct goals to balance.

  1. Getting a good meal into your kids.
  2. Teaching your kids to eat at conventional times.
  3. Disrupting your family life as little as possible.

Right now, you’re only achieving the first goal. What’s more, you’re achieving it at the expense of the other two goals. I recommend you adjust breakfast to make it a little lighter. It will help you move towards all three goals simultaneously.

There are lots of ways to lighten the breakfast load:

  1. Serve smaller portions.
  2. Eliminate the mix-ins (protein powder in the shakes, veggies in the waffles).
  3. Serve different kinds of food (apple slices and a peanut butter for dipping).

Also, consider saving the smoothie for later in the day.  Lunch? Pre-nap snack?

There are lots of bumps on the road to civilized eating.

So don’t expect too much.  If you get your children onto a more normal schedule, you may still find that they’re hungry at odd hours (most toddlers could stand to eat dinner around 4:30) because that’s the nature of the beast. But stick to the course you chart out and your kids will develop the habits that they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

For more tips on finding the middle ground for feeding read How do you handle it when your children protest the new food on their plates.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~