On Trusting Little Kids To Eat

Amy Palanjian of Yummy Toddler Food is serving mac and cheese and everybody's fine.

  
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Welcome to Burnt Toast, a newsletter from Virginia Sole-Smith, which you can read about here. If you like what you read today, please subscribe and/or share it with someone else who would too.

This week, I’m trying out my first audio newsletter! If that’s a confusing concept for you, I get it. Technology is so extra. Think of this as a podcast in your email. You can listen to the episode right here and now, or you can add it to the podcast player of your choice and listen whenever. And just in case you don’t like listening, or that’s not accessible to you, I’m including a full transcript (edited lightly for clarity) below.

I’d love to know what you think of this conversation, and of the whole audio newsletter idea — should we do more? (Leave a comment or hit reply to let me know.) I really miss my old podcast (more on that below), and I’d love to bring you more of my conversations with favorite researchers, activists, weight-inclusive healthcare providers and other writers I love.

For now, here’s my conversation with Amy Palanjian, the creator of Yummy Toddler Food. She answers your questions about picky 1-year-olds, ice cream-shaming 3-year-olds, raising intuitive eaters with food allergies, and more.

Virginia

Hello, and welcome to the first audio version of Burnt Toast! I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a feminist writer and author of The Eating Instinct. And joining me today is Amy Palanjian, the creator of Yummy Toddler Food. Amy, welcome!

Amy

Hello!

Virginia

Thank you for being here with me. For those of you who don’t know, Amy and I are also best friends. And we are co-hosts of the currently-on-hiatus podcast Comfort Food. But Amy is also many other things. So Amy, why don’t you tell people about yourself and your work?

Amy

Sure. So my primary work right now is on YummyToddlerFood.com. I do recipes, feeding advice, sanity — sanity for parents with little kids...

Virginia

I thought you were gonna say “sanity” full stop. And I was like, that’s amazing.

Amy

I wish! I am also the author of a kids cookbook called Busy Little Hands: Food Play. And what else? I have three little kids. I live outside of Des Moines, in Iowa. And I’m, you know, so tired of cooking like everybody else.

Virginia

And she’s not getting a dog because we were just talking about that and about how I have a dog that maybe I shouldn’t have. But she’s smarter than me. So I mean, we used to do this podcast Comfort Food, and we hope to someday do it again, when there’s not a pandemic, and we have more reliable childcare than we have in our lives these days. But if you guys like this conversation, and you want more of me and Amy, you can find, I don’t know, like 80 episodes or so, that we did over at ComfortFoodPodcast.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. So I’ll do that plug. And of course, all of Amy’s work is YummyToddlerFood.com.

So the reason I wanted to have Amy on is because lots of folks have been sending in questions that are very small-child-specific. And while I have parented small children, I don’t consider myself an expert at feeding them. But Amy, not only parents them, but also, you know, has helped thousands and thousands of parents figure this stuff out.

So the first question we’re going to answer is one that I think every parent has, at some point, which is: My baby used to eat everything. And now at 13 months, 15 months, 19 months, it seems like she’s dropping foods every week. Am I really supposed to just let her decide how much to eat?

Amy

Well, you don’t have to... but you maybe should.

Okay, so this is an incredibly common question. I think the thing that most parents don’t realize is that 1-year-olds grow less slowly than they did as babies. And so they are naturally less hungry, even though they are more mobile and all over the place. And so your baby, as a baby might have eaten all sorts of things, because their hunger and just what else was going on in their life was very different. And now as a toddler, they may be less hungry, and more interested in all the other things that they now realize they can do. And so parents often see this as picky eating, when, if they’re just less hungry, they’re not going to eat as much or as many foods.

And it can sort of snowball, if you then put yourself in the position of trying to figure out what they’ll eat. Because even if they’re not actually hungry, they may still eat some favorite snacky foods because those are easy to eat. And they’re comforting, they taste really good. But they may not eat other foods that you want them to eat. And so then you’re like narrowing the list of foods that they may eat. So what I recommend instead is just continuing with the Division Of Responsibility, which, if anyone follows Virginia, you probably know what this is. But it’s where it’s clearly delineated what your job is, at meals, your job is to decide what’s served, your job is to decide when the meal is and where it happens. And then we leave the kids to decide which foods and how much of them to eat, if at all. And by doing that, you really free yourself up from worrying about how many bites they took. Because as you know, as an adult, if anyone tells you how much to eat, or ask you to eat more or less, you’re going to have an immediate emotional reaction that is very disconnected from actual hunger. And so the less we can make that happen with this age, in particular, when all they really want is control, the better. And I think the saner everyone will feel during mealtimes. That may mean that your kids eat a lot less than you expect. But it also means that you’re not going to be fighting with them to get them to take a certain amount of bites at every meal.

Virginia

Which is exhausting and crazy-making.

Amy

And I think too, if you can consider what they’re eating over the course of a week or even two weeks, it’s probably going to look a lot better than what they didn’t eat for lunch today. Because they may eat a ton of breakfast and then not eat a lot of dinner. Or every other Tuesday, they may eat seven meals. There’s no one right way for kids to eat. And I think a lot of times, we’re trying to force them into this mode of eating certain amounts of food groups at every meal. And that’s just not the way that kids naturally eat.

Virginia

Yeah. And this phase can go on for many years, we should say, too. I mean, I have a 7-year-old, you have an 8-year-old, and we still see, you know, not this exactly. But versions of this from time to time. So don’t feel bad, if you’re listening and have an older kiddo still in this phase.

Amy

Well, and at least as they get older, they can verbalize more. And you can suss out what the true issue is. With 1-year-olds, it’s really hard because even if they can talk, they cannot always use the right words, or explain things exactly. And so it’s the combination of all of those challenges that make 1-year-olds tricky. And also, it can just be really jarring for parents to give their kid dinner, and then they just don’t want any of it.

Virginia

Yes. It is super maddening. For sure. Okay, that is really helpful. And for anyone who’s like Division Of Responsibility?! I will link to some stuff in the transcript. So those words that I just said, probably have a link on them if you’re reading this, and you can learn more.

So okay, next question. And this, I think, is going to kind of build on what we were just talking about: How do you get kids to eat the stuff their body needs without them thinking all the "other stuff" is bad? One of mine won’t eat veggies unless I sing each body part saying thank you, like her eyes sing thank you when she eats a carrot.

I don’t mean to be laughing at the mom who sent in this question. But I do feel like you’re making your meals harder than they need to be? Or perhaps just more musical. Yeah. Amy over to you!

Amy

So my initial response is: How do you know exactly how much their body needs? Does anyone know exactly how much anyone’s body needs?

Virginia

It’s not X number of carrots achieve eyesight.

Amy

Right. I think when we see portion size recommendations, and we see charts, and we see plates with servings on them, we assume that that is the perfect amount that our child needs. But it may or may not be. And so a lot of times we’re chasing these very arbitrary amounts that may or may or may not be what our kids actually need. So I think it’s very difficult in the culture that we live in, to not feel this pressure. Because we’re getting it from all sides. Like all day long, I feel like my inbox is filled with pitches for kids products that are like going to do all of you know, all of the things.

Virginia

Get them into Harvard and make a ton of money.

Amy

You know, I see products developed by neuroscientists. But food doesn’t really work that way. And so I think, honestly, if you just don’t worry about that, and you serve a range of foods, with a range of flavors, and a range of textures, and colors, you’re going to get all of that stuff in what you’re offering your kids without having to do math, without having to count grams, or percentages of vitamin A.

And it’s much more pleasant to, to come at it from the side of, “food is delicious, in all of these many ways.” How can I prepare this in a way that that’s easy for my kids to eat? That has a flavor that they like, and that I want to eat, too? You don’t need a master’s degree in nutrition science. I think we’ve like lost the plot a little bit on what matters, sort of big picture when we’re feeding our kids. Because this anxiety is not helpful to anyone. It’s not helpful to that mom, I bet she’s not enjoying her meals, and it’s certainly not helpful for that kiddo. And those nutrition messages for little kids are incredibly confusing. And I just think are beyond comprehension for the age group.

Virginia

Agreed, agreed. That said, if the carrot song was really good, I kind of want to hear it? But yeah, I feel like, unless you’re, I don’t know, very musically inclined, this is maybe more work than you need to be doing. But I think what this question kind of also gets at, and that you’ve touched on a little bit, is that we have this idea of how our kids should eat, which is not based in the reality of how kids really eat or how most families can really manage to eat. And it really mostly comes from diet culture, right? It comes from, as you said, these people sending press releases for crazy products, or the influencers we see on social media claiming that this is the perfect way to eat. So can you connect the dots on some of the subtle ways you see diet culture showing up but family mealtimes?

Amy

Sure. A big part of it is the control. It’s the question of, can I really just let my child eat fill in the blank, and really trust them to eat according to their own hunger. It's the doubt. We just don’t believe that our kids are capable of this. We’ve been told that we’re not capable of it. And so why on earth would we trust tiny little kids to do something that we can’t do? And so that’s one thing. Another is the pressure to have, quote, unquote, balanced meals. I remember seeing a post that was like, “an apple is not a balanced snack,” and you have to add all these other things. And that’s great. But that doesn’t mean your kid’s going to want to eat all those other things…

Virginia

Or sometimes you just want an apple, right?

Amy

And that’s not a bad thing. Just because you don’t eat a protein at every meal or snack, does it mean that you’ve done something wrong? I think about all of those subtle messages about the way in which we’re serving foods, that some things are not right, or that some things are not good enough. I mean marketing, yes, is one thing. But I sort of think that the way that we talk to each other about food is even worse. It’s the way that someone in your family, their relationship with food, might influence you, in ways that are less overt than a message on a package about it not being junk food or something. It’s much harder. That’s sort of a depressing road to go down, because it’s harder to deal with. But I think the subtlety of those messages that we’re hearing, just in our day-to-day life, are really hard to block out. And they really make feeding kids confusing when it doesn’t have to be.

Virginia

Yes. I think, as parents, we often need to sit with: Am I really worried about my kids intake here? Or am I worried about how I’m being perceived as their parent because we tie so much of our self-worth as a parent to their eating performance in a way that’s problematic. And if it’s more that you’re like, “Grandma’s gonna make a comment” or “my friends’ kids all eat XYZ and my kids don’t.” I think that’s a good way of being able to tell that this is more of a cultural noise thing.

Amy

I mean, even just think about — well, this isn’t gonna apply to you, because I know you don’t care about this the way a lot of people do. But let’s say, you have a meal, like a dinner, and there’s no vegetable —

Virginia

It is Wednesday at my house. Continue.

Amy

For many, many people, the immediate feeling is that you’ve somehow failed, you somehow didn’t do it right. And that meal is incomplete. But that’s not true. I think, if we’re trying to check off boxes of “I got my protein in today, I got all of these like macronutrients,” I just think we're going to make ourselves crazy.

Virginia

Especially with kids who, as you said, their intake varies over a day over a week, like this might not be a day when they’re eating vegetables, right?

Amy

I have sometimes have to almost force myself to just give them mac and cheese. And to just prove to myself that everyone is fine. Sometimes you just need to see it to believe that it’s fine. And then the next day, your kids might eat all the broccoli. You know, there’s other messaging around like feeding babies, where if they eat certain foods as babies, that will [supposedly] prevent picky eating, or if you feed them a certain way with solids, you’ll skip the picky eating phase all together. And it’s not true. And it’s incredibly damaging to parents who have more challenging kids, because it just sets you up to feel like you did something wrong.

Virginia

Yeah, totally. I think that’s so true. It’s really sad.

Okay, this question is maybe a little bit diet culture and a little bit manners, and I just didn’t even really know what to say, so I’m making you answer it. Okay. She writes:

Before COVID, I met my boyfriend’s cousins and their children for the first time. It was a birthday party celebration with lots of food. I had a piece of cake and was also offered a packaged ice cream sandwich, which I accepted. [Virginia: That sounds like a great combination.] The 3-year-old daughter of one of the cousins took it from me to put back in the freezer, because I already had a piece of cake and two desserts wasn’t healthy for me. I was pretty shocked but didn’t insist on eating the ice cream sandwich. I haven’t seen them since. But I expect we’ll get together late this summer when we’re all vaccinated. If a situation like this happens again, how would you suggest I handle it?

Amy

Maybe you invite them over and have a dessert bar, and everyone gets to eat as much as they want? Just, take it to the other extreme? I don’t know. I mean, I totally understand like, in the moment, that would be difficult to react to if you had no inkling that it was coming.

Virginia

Yeah, if a 3-year-old just stole your ice cream sandwich and also shamed you for it. Yeah.

Amy

I think, if it were to happen again, you can say something like, “These both sound really delicious to me, I’m going to eat them!” The End. Or “This is what I’m having for dessert!” The End.

Virginia

I like that you’re making it about your own choice versus like, needing to sort of chastise the child who, let’s be honest, is being pretty rude in that moment.

Amy

Mind your own business?

Virginia

Yeah. But you don’t want to make it into a parenting thing. You don’t have to parent that child around this issue.

Amy

Right. I think that that’s where you would probably get into a very murky territory. But if you can just claim it as, “This is mine. It is not yours, and you don’t need to worry about it.” I mean, then that goes with anything that’s on your plate, or your life, or whatever.

Virginia

So many of us are thinking about family gatherings that haven’t happened in a long time now. And I hear a lot of folks worried about, “my mother always makes this comment about what I eat,” or other relatives weighing in on things. So it’s helpful to just be able to set that boundary of what’s on my plate is my business.

Amy

Yeah, I always like to do a very short sentence, and then change the subject. So, “This is what I’m having. What color are your shoes?”

Virginia

That works for mothers and 3-year-olds.

Amy

Because 3-year-olds are really great at redirection. You can totally change the direction of their attention.

Virginia

It’s so true. Just ask a completely random other question.

Amy

“Where is your baseball bat?”

Virginia

“What are you being for Halloween?” Never mind that it’s summertime. Yes, absolutely. That’s really great. For parents — it’s hard to give advice for parents in that situation. But I mean, as a general rule, like, do you feel like it’s important to communicate to your kids that we don’t comment on other people’s eating habits? And is that something you are aware of teaching them? Or has it not really come up?

Amy

So we don’t really have comments at our table about the amounts that other people are eating. But we do have a lot of the “that looks yucky” type of comment. So we do regularly talk about how, you know, everyone gets to decide what they think is delicious. “This tastes really delicious to me.” And my 4-year-old will now use that language of “This tastes...” Usually “this tastes yucky to me,” which, at least she’s owning that as a specific thing. She’s not casting the blame more broadly. Because you want your kids to be able to go to school and not be judging other people’s food. So I think definitely working on that a little bit at the table in your own house when it comes up can be helpful.

I mean, we’ve had like, only Christmas meals with extended families. We have not eaten anything with anyone else in a long time.

Virginia

Period. This is reminding me, I’m trying to teach my kids to say “This is not my favorite,” rather than “I hate it” and putting their heads down and sobbing as sometimes happens. And I realized the other day, my 3-year-old is mishearing me because she sat down and said, “This is my favorite! I’m not eating it.” And it’s about my pasta sauce. So it really hurts. Because my sauce is amazing. But yeah, “This is my favorite! I’m not eating it today.”

Amy

I do often have to remind the kids that not every meal will be their favorite and that it is okay for sometimes it to be mommy’s favorite, or other people’s favorite. And that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the meal or that it’s bad, but we can eat the fruit on the side or whatever.

Virginia

Yes. There will always be something you can eat, but it might not be your favorite tonight. Yeah, I’ve recently announced that Tuesday is the night when I cook whatever I want because I felt like, we were getting into a slippery slope of all the meals being just their favorites. Which — you should serve your children’s favorite foods. That’s not a bad thing. But you know, Monday night is pesto pasta, that’s their absolute favorite. And Mondays are tiring, and I don’t want any fights at dinner on Mondays. And Wednesdays is taco night, which is their other favorite. And so I was like, you know what, Tuesdays are going to be whatever I pick. And it’s going to change week to week and they don’t love it. But they’re coping.

Amy

If I’m making one of my favorites, I almost always serve flat bread on the side. Because then I know that they have nothing to complain about because they like bread. Yeah, and usually the things that I want to make myself have Indian sauces or things, and so a flatbread kind of makes sense.

Virginia

I keep a lot of packages of dinner rolls in the freezer for this purpose. Other than occasionally, they get sick of the favorite. That really screws you. But anyway, that’s a whole other thing. My kids are quick to fall out of love with their favorites and have new favorites. It’s hard to keep up.

Okay, the last question is:

How do I do Division Of Responsibility when my child has food allergies?

This question has come in a bunch of different ways. I’m not going to read them all, because they’re all very specific. But I think what people are generally struggling with is, you’ve got this one big, scary food your kid can’t have. And somehow that feels like it’s blurring the lines of this responsibility question.

Amy

I mean, I guess there could be an issue, if like your kid was allergic to dairy, but you still kept dairy in the house? How do you not make them feel excluded? Is that the question?

Virginia

I don’t exactly know what the intent of it is. But I think it’s probably something like that, like, “Can we serve ice cream, with dinner or whatever, if one kid can’t eat it?”

Amy

I mean, I think you need to have a replacement for it, you need to somehow make the playing field fair. So you need to lean on other types of things that the kid can eat, like, make a list of all the delicious things that that everybody in the family can eat, put it on the fridge, where you can look at it. And then maybe like, when your kid is at school or at daycare, that’s when you can eat some of the other foods that they can’t eat. But I think make them feel like they are part of the family. And they’re a part of your food experience as much as possible, rather than making it their issue. And I think a lot of families are really good at this. I mean, there are so many products now that make this so much easier than even just a few years ago. So I think you just do Division Of Responsibility in the same way. But you have to just rethink what the foods are a little bit.

Virginia

That makes sense. Often the tone coming across in these emails, and certainly this is something I remember dealing with when my older daughter had more medical food issues, is: Often there’s a lot of anxiety about growth with a kid who’s got a lot of allergies and whether they’re eating enough, And so maybe this is also about, “Can I trust their fullness?” And I feel like, for the most part, the answer is absolutely yes. You can still trust your child to know their hunger and fullness even if they can’t eat certain foods. Right?

Amy

Yes. If there is a medically indicated reason that the kid can’t feel their hunger or their appetite levels are skewed because of medication or some other issue, you want to talk to your doctor and find a feeding therapist who is trained in those specific things. Because navigating that alone is going to be incredibly challenging. But otherwise, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to trust your child with whatever the food is, whether or not it has nuts or doesn’t have nuts.

And you know, I think on the growth issue, this is a whole other topic. But if your child is growing, even if it’s not like leaps and bounds, if they are growing, if they’re meeting their milestones, if they seem happy, if they seem like themselves, you probably should just leave them alone. If they’re dropping off of their growth curve, and your doctor is really concerned, that’s a different issue. But just because you’re at the lower end of the growth scale, or the higher end, doesn’t mean that there’s a problem.

Virginia

Yes, absolutely. And I’ll put some links to folks that Amy and I both really trust if anyone is looking for feeding therapy help along those lines. [Check out: Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating, Thrive By Spectrum Pediatrics, and Responsive Feeding Therapy.]

But yeah, I think the fundamental message of even if this is a kid who’s got certain foods they can’t eat, and maybe that means you’re worried about their overall nutritional makeup (because you’re having to skip out on certain food groups) — still, working on how to trust their hunger and fullness cues is going to be super, super important. You know, maybe even more important for a kid who’s got to navigate food in a slightly more fraught way.

Amy

Yes. And if anyone’s looking for like specific substitutions that you can’t find it just email me and I’ll poll my Instagram community because someone recommended a dairy-free parmesan today that I didn’t know about.

Virginia

That’s awesome. And check out Amy’s website, because all her recipes always have notes about substitutions you can make if you need to take out a common food allergen. She’s amazing at figuring this out.

Amy

Well not 100%. But I try!

Virginia

Well, okay, you aren’t 100% amazing. Maybe not 100% of the recipes have this, but I have noticed this as a recurring theme. Amy, thank you so much. This has been fantastic. Again, I’ll put links in the transcript to YummyToddlerFood, and to our old podcast archives for anyone who wants to go down that rabbit hole with us.

Amy

Thanks for having me!


You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia

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