Ask Virginia: Can My Kid Eat Cake For Breakfast?

Plus: What to do about complimenting weight loss, hangry toddlers, and why nutrition doesn't have to be your top priority at every meal.

Q: My 2-year-old wants food every time she sees it, even if she just ate. She’s good at asking for food when she’s hungry and we don’t have limits on meals and snacks, but if I’m putting something in the pantry and she sees snacks, she demands them. I don’t want to be restrictive but also want her to be able to listen to her hunger, not just her eyes! 

I checked in with my girl Amy Palanjian of Yummy Toddler Food on this one because I think I have personally blacked out a lot of what is difficult about feeding this age group. (Is it everything? I seem to remember it was everything.) “First, leave the possibility open that she is actually hungry, even if she just ate,” Amy says. Toddler appetites are weird and mercurial this way. It sounds like she’s able to eat her fill at meals and snacks, but for little kids who are prone to that “one bite and done” approach to meals—because moving/playing is so much more interesting than sitting and eating—it can be helpful to ask them to check in with their tummies and see if they need any more food before they’re excused. I often say, “Can you check how your tummy feels? Will it be full till [next eating opportunity]?” as a way of reinforcing our (loose) eating schedule. (The key here is to respect whatever answer they give you—otherwise this kind of question can turn into a passive aggressive form of pressure.)

But yes, humans are also hard-wired to respond when we see food and this is a feature, not a bug, except when you’re just trying to put the damn groceries away and have a small person clinging to your leg demanding crackers. “I think it’s likely that she’s just happy to see food she loves and is having a normal reaction of wanting to eat some of it,” says Amy. I love that framing because it takes the power struggle out of the equation: We don’t need to see this as bad behavior, or a kid being “obsessed” with or “addicted” to snacks. She’s just being two. And also, honestly, four or eight or twelve or forty—we all get excited when we see foods we like! 

The real trouble with this at age two is that she doesn’t fully grasp time or object permanence. So while I get excited when Dan unloads the box of Extra Toasty Cheez-Its from the Walmart haul, I also know that the Cheez-Its will still exist in the cupboard once he closes the door and that I can come back and eat them later when I’m actually hungry for them. That’s all a lot murkier for a toddler. Amy suggests saying something like, “These Zbars are delicious. I love them too! Would you like to put one on the counter to have for snack after we play?” (Or insert-any-other-logical-but-not-too-far-off-time here.) “Give her the chance to claim the thing she wants and save it in a special place, while you stay in charge of the schedule,” Amy explains. “Then deliberately go do something else together. Yes, she may have feelings about this and that’s okay.” Don’t withhold the food longer if she has a tantrum about it. In fact, it may help to keep the time between seeing the snack and eating the snack short to start. As she learns that you always follow through on a promise to eat a favorite food, she’ll be able to understand waiting longer. 

One last thought: Because this is such a human tendency, it’s also perfectly okay to say, “yes, I got your favorite cookies! Do you want some while I’m putting the groceries away?” As I talked about in last week’s solo episode, my version of this struggle is a preschooler who often wants snacks right before dinner. For years I’ve thought of this as some kind of failing on both of our parts, until someone recently said to me, “You know how adults like appetizers?” Right. We do. It’s also true that adults can eat appetizers and still participate in dinner and a small child who has filled up on impromptu snacks will be much less interested in joining you at the table. Regardless, it’s useful to consider how much our objection to a kid’s poorly timed food requests is based on a valid assessment of their/our needs—and how much comes from a diet culture tendency to demonize all snacks and displays of food enthusiasm. 

Q: My son’s guitar teacher lost 50 pounds from Spring to Fall. I’ve avoided mentioning it, as I stay away from complimenting weight loss. But I feel like she’s fishing for a compliment, and I’m unsure what to do. Should I stay silent? Or is it better that I acknowledge her weight loss?

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