I Do Not Cook Two Dinners: how we avoid mealtime battles

by | Oct 20, 2013 | Cooking, Parenting, You Ask, Kendra Answers | 62 comments

Kaitlin from More Like Mary wrote me asking about how we deal with toddlers’ picky eating habits. I fired off a quick email back to her before I remembered the super-frustrating food allergy issues her family is dealing with. Our family does not have any allergies or food sensitivity issues. I don’t know what that’s like. But, like Kaitlin, I do make the majority of our food from scratch. I prefer that we eat unprocessed foods and we eat things in such large quantities now that it makes a big difference in our budget to avoid having to buy all that prepackaged stuff. So, hopefully, even though we’re coming to the dinner table from different places, the things that work for us can still help her and you too.

With my first two kids, I viewed getting food into them as a battle. I was always concerned about whether they were getting enough food. I worried about them feeling hungry. I cajoled and bribed and threatened and begged at mealtimes.
But slowly, as I had more kids, I developed my general parenting strategy of not allowing myself to be strong armed by the unhappiness of small children. It took longer to begin applying that strategy to food, since here in our land of plenty we view food as something we must DO to our children. But eventually we stopped allowing whining and complaining and tears at mealtimes, just as we don’t allow those things at other times. And boy, has it made our days more pleasant.
Reading the classics really changed my perspective on kids and eating. Jane Eyre, Little Women, Five Little Peppers, everything by Dickens . . . it’s hard to read about children desperate for food, grateful to suck the oil off of some newspaper that used to hold fish n’ chips, thrilled with mother’s Sunday dinner of boiled tongue, and still have sympathy for a perfectly healthy four year old who turns his nose up at homecooked meals and says he’ll only eat chicken nuggets.
Eventually, I just stopped believing all those parenting magazines that said I needed to feed my children six times per day and bring healthy snacks with us whenever we went out and serve them only bland foods, peeled and crustless, and, ideally, arranged into an appealing underwater scene or classic board game shape.

seriously? 1. This is a SNACK? 2. That looks like a lot of work. 3. What happened to the rest of that sandwich? Does it get tossed out? Or does mom get to eat whatever’s not a whale for her “snack”?

I do make stuff like this for parties and feasts, but not for everyday. I just don’t think it’s a realistic approach to food, especially not for a big family.

So, without further ado, here’s how we avoid mealtime battles:

1. Hunger is the best sauce.

Apparently this is a very old saying. Like, Socrates old. But the first I ever heard of it was in another book, the original The Adventures of Pinocchio (which is a fun read-aloud, by the way, and very different from the Disney-version). He turns his nose up at a meal offered to him as he’s off on some crazy adventure, until he can’t find anything else to eat for the next three days, happens back upon the same kind lady and finds that he really, really does want to eat what she’s offered him.

As it turns out, my kids are NOT going to starve themselves as I used to believe. If my kids won’t eat, it’s because they’re not hungry enough.

Just after reading Pinocchio we used Lent to cut out snacking between meals for all but the very youngest kids (under three) and it made a huge difference in what my kids were willing to eat at mealtimes.

Outside of Lent, if my kids are genuinely hungry, and have eaten the food that was offered at the previous meal, they can have a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack of fruits or vegetables or cheese or nuts. If they turn their noses up at unprocessed snacks, they aren’t actually hungry.

I pack a lunch for us if we’ll be out over a mealtime, but other than that I do not bring food along for anyone but the baby. The rest of us can be a little hungry. We won’t die.

2. Eating is its own reward.

I do not cook two dinners. My kids, all my kids, even the babies (we only rarely use baby food), eat what we are eating. If I’m making Thai or Indian food, I make sure to have a less adventurous curry available and some veggies and bread. But we all eat the curry, even the toddlers.

(Children who are sick do get special meals, but we have a whole set of rules that go along with being on a “sick day” so that that loophole doesn’t get abused.)

My kids know that complaining about food or refusing to eat won’t get them anything else, so they don’t do it. And in our house, making unpleasant faces at or disparaging comments about the dinner mom made gets one immediately sent away from the table until you are ready to apologize and eat cheerfully.

But we do allow for free will. I understand that people have preferences about food. I have them myself. I also know that not liking a particular food doesn’t mean you can’t choose to eat it anyway, and that’s what we recommend for our kids. If they “offer it up” for a particular intention, it makes for an excellent sacrifice that’s easy for kids to do and understand. But we don’t force our kids to do that.

They may choose not to eat what we’re having, but then they don’t get anything else to eat until our next meal. Even little kids. Our kids may choose to eat something they don’t especially like, or they may choose not to eat it and have the naturally occurring consequence of that choice. Other consequences or punishments aren’t necessary.

For babies, I offer them what we’re having. If they’re not hungry and don’t want to eat that’s fine, but I don’t offer them anything else. We figure either you’re hungry or you’re not. We don’t believe in “I’m not hungry for chicken.” But I do offer a snack later if baby wasn’t hungry at lunchtime.

If it’s dinner, I just pack their food up with the rest of the leftovers. If it’s a sandwich or something that wouldn’t normally be saved and the child just isn’t hungry at that time, I’ll often put it in a baggie on the counter and that’s the food that’s available in the house for all kids until it gets eaten.

So, if it’s a feast and we’re having dessert, you don’t get dessert if you didn’t eat your meal. But not because I’m rewarding my children for eating their meal. Eating is its own reward. What you get for eating is: to not be hungry. In our house, if you don’t eat dinner you don’t get dessert because you’ve activated the ‘no food until the next meal’ policy.

I also don’t let meals become a test of wills. I serve my little kids very small portions, and allow them to have seconds (of everything, not just the potatoes) if they’re still hungry. And we set reasonable time limits for mealtimes. Once everyone else has finished, I’ll give a five minute warning. Then mealtime is over. And you’ve either finished what’s on your plate, or I take it and you don’t get anything to eat until the next meal. And no complaining.

It’s important to remember that in those toddler years the amount of food a particular child needs can vary wildly from day to day or week to week. If he’s having a growth spurt he might spend a few days or weeks eating twice as much as he usually does. But then he’ll spend the next few days or weeks genuinely not as hungry and not need as much food.

3. We’ve made adventurous eating part of our family culture.

We never let our kids think they’re doing us a favor by eating. Eating is awesome. We’re all lucky we get to do it.

We make a point of presenting new foods as a fun and exciting thing to do. Often, we try new international foods on vacations or in conjunction with a saint’s feast day. So, our kids have a generally positive response to trying new things.

eating escargot in Portugal

For whatever reason, some of my kids have very odd favorite foods. Bobby (7) loves onions and Anita (4) loves mushrooms, tomatoes, and olives. Sometimes we let them bail the other kids out, by finishing up those items for them.

I know spicy food is a real sticking point for a lot of families. But my kids do eat spicy foods. I think the key is twofold. First, we don’t tell the kids, “Oh, that’s spicy, you won’t like it.” Because then they’d believe us. Second, we don’t say, “That’s not spicy” when a kid thinks something is spicy. What we do say is, “Tierneys like spicy food.”

If one of the things we’re having for dinner really is spicy, I only give the littlest kids the tiniest bit, but they do have to try it. Because Tierneys like spicy foods.

So, that’s what we do. As usual, I just tell you guys what has worked for my family. If you’ve got something else that works for your family, please keep right on doing it with my blessing. But if, like I used to, you have little kids whose pickiness is creating problems in your family life, I hope that what works for us might work for you too.

——————————And since it’s Sunday, here’s what I wore to Mass . . .

And, hey, I wore separates! I rarely wear separates becasue it’s so much more work coming up with an outfit. Dresses are so easy. And I think getting the right proportions are trickier with separates when pregnant. But, I wanted to wear my birthday necklace again, so I built this whole outfit around it.

Shirt and Sweater: Target
Skirt: Ann Taylor Loft
Bump: 34 weeks
Necklace: Anthropologie
Belt: Coach
Shoes: Leopard Wedge Pumps
bought from Amazon
with my Amazon Associates money, thanks guys!
Linking up with the good ladies at Fine Linen and Purple who are hosting yet another What I Wore Sunday. Head on over to check out what everyone else wore to Mass today!
Happy Sunday!


  1. Amelia @ One Catholic Mama

    I don't take snacks or a bunch of food places either (unless we will be out over lunchtime)..not even for the young toddler (13 months), because she still nurses whenever she wants, so if she's really hungry, she can always nurse. For snacks, pretty much the only option in our house are fruits, vegetables, "trail mix" (which I make myself..walnuts/raisins/coconut/chocolate chips), or yogurt. Occasionally we have muffins or homemade granola bars or cookies if I happen to have made any (usually just Sundays or around feast days). At dinner, my kids all HAVE to eat some vegetables (we eat a lot of greens, like kale, collards, swiss chard) and the protein/meat part (if we have one…usually chicken or beef, occasionally pork). Carbohydrate sides (pasta, rice or potatoes) are always optional, but I make them eat at least a little vegetable and protein. If they are still hungry, we do let them eat a peanut butter sandwich or yogurt, but they have to make or get it themselves, and that is the only other option.

    I definitely agree that hunger is the best sauce, and we've managed to avoid a ton of dinnertime struggles by simply not giving/allowing snacks in the 2.5-3 hours or so before dinnertime. We go on family walks almost every day, so a lot of times I'll make dinner and we'll either go on a walk while it's baking in the oven (if it's something that will take at least 40 minutes or so), or I'll cook dinner in a cast iron pot (which retains heat really well and keeps food hot), we'll go on a walk and then eat as soon as we get back.

    • Jen

      Around here (5 kids and counting) we recently established the “alternate menu” (such a creative name, I know!) It was created by me to contain all (most?) food groups, be a smidge easier on the palate than my average cooking, and be 100% cookable by kids themselves. It looks like this:
      – slow-cooked oatmeal with chia seeds, milk and a yogurt cup
      – a salad with meat or cheese and a boiled egg
      – a ham and cheese sandwich with lettuce, milk, and a fruit

      That’s all, folks.

      Each child old enough to understand (4+) may ask me “what’s for dinner” in the afternoon. If they don’t want to eat what I’m cooking, they may make their own meal from the menu. They must do 100% of the work & cleanup, it must include ALL the pieces listed (no skipping the protein, for ex), and it must be fully finished and ready to serve at 5:30pm sharp.

      This has cut down on 100% of the complaining around here. You have no one to blame but yourself if you are “stuck” with a dinner you can’t stomach.

      If you forgot to plan ahead and decide at 5:25 you dont want stir fry with curry tonight – tough. You should have planned ahead so you’d have time to make your own dinner from the menu. Poor planners like this have no further recourse to alternate food options & don’t get dessert (if there is any) unless they eat all of the regular dinner I’m serving that night.

      I’ve enjoyed this method so far because
      a) I cook foods I genuinely know certain kids will hate (one child gags with certain textures & I used to avoid those foods. Now I don’t & she cheerfully shows up in the kitchen at 1pm sharp to make her own dinner almost every night. Did I mention she’s barely five? We cook side by side most evenings now & we both love it!)
      b) for most of my kids, the effort they have to exert in cooking their own meal usually convinces them to just eat mom’s cooking after all
      c) the kids are more grateful for all meals now that they know how laborious it is to put one together. Some of their items (like the salad or the bowl of slow-cooked-oats) can take them a good hour to create from start-to-cleanup.

      I want to add that we’re dealing with anaphylactic food allergies & those items are not an option for ANYONE in our house. Then two family members must also eat a low-acid / low fat diet due to irritable bowel syndrome (now I cook acidic items and those folks create an alternate meal that day if they feel they can’t handle that night’s ingredients. There’s also my quick-to-gag gal, and she has discovered she loves to cook anyway so I think she’ll be making her own dinner probably forever now!

      Babies eat what I serve everyone. They are usually very adamant about this and pitch a fit if their high chair tray doesn’t look exactly like the sibling’s plate next to them. Picky babies/toddlers with real issues like reflux or food sensitivities do get customized alternatives not available to others. But those alternatives are still chosen by me and if you throw them on the floor you’re honestly not hungry. You can try again (same items) later.

      And that’s how we roll for now!

      • Jen

        I want to add we literally can’t say “our family loves spicy food” because we have two folks (my husband being one of them) who spend the night running to the bathroom if the spice level (among other things) is moderate. No shame in that. When I’m pregnant I can’t drink milk (usually a staple around here). No shame in that either. So I avoid blanket statements about everyone liking a certain foods or flavor.

  2. Cristina

    We love spicy food round here and the boys snub their noses at it so I usually just set aside an unspiced portion for them. I'm going to have to try the "Reintjes (Reintjeses?) like spicy food" because they really need to get over that if they want to be part of our family! Is it sad that I've been married eight years and I'm still not sure how to pluralize my last name? 🙂

  3. Elizabeth

    We recently finished our second reading of the original Pinocchio in our house, and it's a favorite of all the kids thus far! I did classical Catholic homeschooling for a few years, and we still read the literature. My older kids are currently enrolled in a classical school, but we may go back to homeschooling when we move.

    I also do not prepare two dinners either, and our kids like spicy foods, fruits, veggies, etc. We have similar, but not exactly the same, rules. We put a little of everything on each child's plate. They must eat a certain number of bites (based on age), nothing huge. My husband is big on table manners and wants them to know that they will not eat over at a friend's house if they have not mastered those manners. So trying a little of everything is a must but, to avoid overeating, we require very small amounts of food to meet this requirement and make sure the plate starts out small. If they are hungrier, they are free to eat whatever they want on their plate or at the table, so long as they continue to practice their manners. We don't eat a lot of bread with dinner, so fortunately it's rarely an issue that the kids fill up on bread. Otherwise, we have to modify the rules a bit. If they aren't hungry, then they can stop after trying a little of everything politely. And they don't get something else to eat until the next meal either. Great post! I think peaceful, joyful mealtimes are so important, and it looks like your family has mastered that.

  4. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    No worries about the food allergy stuff! Your short email was already super helpful. Just cutting out snacks for the last two days has already made a huge difference.

    This is great. I'm going to do my best to try your approach.

    But a question (I always have follow up questions!) What do you do when you are out somewhere with friends and everyone else has a snack? Keeping in mind my little one is 2 years, 8 months. So I think it would be really hard on her to be left out of the snack. This happens at least weekly for us. Suggestions?

    • Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

      And I didn't even say THANK YOU! You've been such a great help, so don't be surprised if I start filling up your inbox with questions….. 🙂

    • Amelia

      That is super frustrating, especially since that snack that people bring usually is something like goldfish (at least around here). I'm not Kendra, but we eat A TON of apples, so if we are going someplace where everyone will have snacks, I might bring some apples. All my kids like apples (even the baby-toddler), so that usually works to keep them happy.

    • Kendra

      I'm with Amelia on this one. If not giving her a snack is going to make your day more difficult, then give her one. Then just adjust your expectations for what she'll be able to eat at dinner. I'd serve just a really tiny portion, and realize that what she already ate counts as food for the day.

      And you're welcome!

    • S

      Ugh, the whole "MUST HAVE SNACKS" playground culture was so hard when I was a nanny to a two year old and one year old! Their parents and I had decided "enough with the constant snacking!" And then, of course, at the playground my little charges would be left out of snack time and feel jealous of (or beg off of) other kids' snacks! Even if we'd just eaten a great breakfast or lunch (so I KNEW they weren't actually hungry, they just wanted those always present goldfish). We ended up mostly sticking to our guns, even when other parents gave us the "you're starving the children!" stink eye. Except, I would bring plenty of water, fruit, and cheese (you could just do some sort of nut butter or lunchmeat for your kiddos, something protein packed). That way if the children were truly still hungry, I could give them something that would ride them over until the next meal, but not *replace* it.

  5. melody

    Great ideas here! I was raised as a latchkey kid in a broken home and ate whatever was in the fridge (which sometimes was pretty pathetic). So I have spent the last 17 years of married life trying to figure it out. Add horrible pregnancy illness for the majority of my pregnancies in which I could barely walk to the kitchen and we've got a good balance of successes and horrible failures. This past year, I've discovered that my half a lifetime of chronic pain and illness is due to… food. Surprise! So our food journey is changing again. I trade off cooking meals with my teens and we're learning together how to get it done. If I could do it over, I'd do it your way and just adapt for the intolerances.

    • S

      Melody, I know you've written about it before but I would love to read more about your specific way of eating- meal planning, shopping, and snacking included. I'm feeling the need to shift to a less grain heavy diet (we're sort of Nourishing Traditions now, but with WAY too much sugar due to my sweet tooth…)

  6. S

    This is awesome. So darn sane and civilized. You'll have to share your curry recipes on the blog!

  7. Christy from fountains of home

    Preach! We hold those same rules around here and where ever we go people are impressed that our kids finish their plates, will eat anything, and don't complain. And packing snacks for more than three kids is no joke and simplifies life by just cutting it out.

    And I'm in love with those shoes. And I can't believe you're already 34 weeks. My blog friends pregnancies go so fast in comparison with my own. 😉

    • Rosie

      I was thinking the exact same thing! Internet pregnancies are always faster than the real-life ones 😛

      And yeah, we totally have these same rules – I used to struggle with dinnertime but once we cut out any afternoon snacking (and any food at all after lunch unless they're DESPERATELY hungry in which case they may have some apple) dinner made a huge improvement. I've also found that having a garbage disposal at the table (my oldest) has made my 2-year-old willing to eat *almost* anything!

  8. Christine

    Thanks for sharing. We have low tolerance for pickiness with our 3-year old (the baby would get a pass, but she's actually a great eater). At dinnertime, if we're eating something we know he's not a big fan of, we often serve him one type of food at a type, in the order that we know he likes it (so, meats and veggies are usually first, and we save things like bread or applesauce for last). He has to eat some small amount of the less-favored items before he is allowed a serving of the things he most likes. This ends up working to get him eating a little of everything about 95% of the time. If he refuses, I conclude that he just wasn't very hungry that day. We rarely have dessert, but when we do, he knows he won't get any unless he eats a good dinner.

    I don't usually like leopard print, but those shoes are super cute!

  9. Jessica

    Glad to know I'm not a weirdo for not carting Cheerios with me everywhere I go with my one year old. Related question (maybe a future post?), how did you institute family dinner? I'd like to start this with our family, but my husband often isn't hungry as early as the baby and I are or he's the one that wants to eat something "off menu." Did you guys always eat together before kids?

    • Kendra

      Family dinners were part of our families growing up for both my husband and I, so we've always made a point of having them, pretty much as soon as baby could sit in the high chair. But I know plenty of other families who eat in shifts.

      My husband is pretty flexible with mealtimes and eats what I make, but I know that isn't the case for everyone. If a family meal is your goal, I'd try to shift baby's eating and sleeping schedule a tiny bit at a time until it matches up with when your husband would prefer to eat. If it's a disaster then you'll have to go back to what works for the baby obviously, but it's worth a try.

      And maybe your husband would be willing to give you some input on meal planning, so at least some days he knows he'll be getting something he wants. I know it's easy for me to slip into the habit of just cooking what I feel like eating all the time. But my husband is stuck with it too. So I do try to cook things he likes even if I don't like them, at least sometimes!

  10. Kelly Maureen

    Kendra do you do baby led weaning? How do you decide what to give to the babies first? Do you have an order?

    • Kendra

      Yes, although I'd say I push a little on it towards the end there. My youngest, Frankie, is really the only one who weaned himself, and he was the youngest at 12 months. The others have all nursed for 14-19 months.

      As for food, I let them have tiny bits off of my plate of anything they're interested in eating. Gus' first foods were mango lassi and onion soup, Frankie's first food was ice cream from a street vendor in Puerto Rico.

      So . . . I'm pretty relaxed about it.

      We don't have a history of allergies in the family, and I think my babies actually do better transitioning to solid food that they are slightly familiar with, since it's what they've been getting in my breast milk. Totally unscientific. But it's worked for us.

      I've had babies that loved solid food and others that were totally uninterested. As long as they're still nursing I consider any solid food they eat to be just bonus calories.

  11. Kris

    Oh, we are so on the SAME parenting page with food! I used to not be – with my oldest I was SO consumed with what he was eating, how much, etc. I'm convinced now that he is picky because I made him that way. We basically have all the same rules. If I make something new, or something I know someone doesn't like, they get a small amount and can have seconds. I'm more concerned with them trying new things and trying things they have not liked previously than I am about quantity. And I agree with you about the hunger issue. kids will eat what you give them when they are actually hungry. In the reverse, if they are claiming the "I'm starving" mantra and they won't eat something healthy, then I know they are not truly hungry. As for the spicy, mine actually will eat something new that is more spicy than they will something bland. And spicy doesn't always have to mean "hot" – I think it also applies to really flavorful. And most kids prefer something flavorful – even babies.

  12. E

    Thanks for all the suggestions. I have to admit that I have been totally enabling with my 3 YO. She is so picky and will wait to eat something that she likes. She even gags on bread with very small seeds in it. UGH. And she gags on any meat (except bacon !?!?). But we are making her take bites of what we eat at dinner every night and then she can have something I don't have to cook like yogurt or applesauce. But this food stuff has been so frustrating for us, because DH and I like to eat and will eat just about anything. Where did she come from? 😉

    • Anonymous

      I don't know if ths will be helpful but my almost-3 year old did the same thing with meat and would refuse to eat just about anything other than applesauce and yogurt. I heard it might be a difficulty with chewing/swallowing so I started cutting up his meat into really teeny tiny pieces and it worked… Just thought I'd throw it out there since it was helpful to me 🙂

  13. Theresa

    We used many of the same strategies with our first 2 kids, even though they are both picky eaters, but when my 3rd had weight gain issues (and even fell off the weight chart!!!) we had to be more flexible with serving things she would actually consume and now the first 2 have gotten worse! Eeeeeepp!!!

    I think your advice, though, really helps make mealtime a special time for families and a LOT less stressful. I can't wait until we get back to that point again!

  14. Sarah

    All I want to know is more about that spinny thing (shoot, I know there's a name for those…) in the center of your table with the statues on it. Are those glued down? Did you make it yourself? Do you change it for the seasons? I love love love!

    • Kendra

      It's called a Lazy Susan, my grandparents had one when I was growing up and I always wanted to have one for myself when I grew up and had my own grown up house! We bought it from an unfinished wood place online and painted it to match the table.

      I change out the stuff on it to go with whatever feast day we're celebrating!

  15. Anonymous

    Great post! And another cute Sunday outfit!

  16. Sarah

    Thank you for this! I am still sorting out our eating situation. I am a first-time mom with a 13-month old who went from accepting EVERYTHING I offered him prior to age 1, to rejecting a lot of foods. It's tough because he is so tiny and doesn't yet have a long-term vision of, "I am going to be hungry later." It's also tough because I was told 1-year-olds are big eaters who often will eat everything. So why won't mine???

    He cries and cries and spits the food out if you try to get him to "just try it." (We're talking about every imaginable kind of food, from bread to chocolate icing to spicier more exotic things). I am frustrated because I am starting to feel like a Chef instead of Mom to try to get some kind of balanced diet into this kid. I always swore I wouldn't be the Mom catering to the kids' whims, but at his age… ARG! I feek stuck.

    At the very least, I can implement these ideas when he is older (in the meantime, I continue to offer him most of my food in an attempt to cultivate his tastes a little and broaden his horizons. Occasionally he surprises me like the other day when he wanted my spaghetti squash with meat sauce. But I have to kick into survival mode most days and follow-up with snacks or "approved" food. Sigh).

    • Michelle

      A 13-mo-old is still really a baby. Mine oldest at that age had just gotten through her bread-only phase. She would eat her morning yogurt, and was still nursing a lot, but other than that it was only bread. That's when we started buttering it! Kids that age will sometimes eat their balanced diet over a week. Don't worry about what or how much at this age- just offer good food and let him choose to eat or not.

    • Kendra

      I'm with Michelle on this one, I'd let him eat what he'll eat, but I've just learned to not stress out about it like I did with my first. Frankie (my sixth) was below the chart for a bit on weight, and was super picky about table food but I managed to keep convincing my doctor that we were okay and that he didn't need formula and now at almost two he's 70th percentile and eats what we eat.

  17. Ellen Mady

    I love your approach! I haven't had problems with my tots over not wanting their food yet (2 1/2 and 1 1/2), but I sense that it's on the way… I'll definitely be trying some (read: most… probably all 🙂 ) of your ideas! Thanks for sharing…

  18. Happy Homemaker

    Amen! We do it the same way. People always remark how we don't have picky eaters and I tell them it is because we don't allow them to be picky. If you don't eat what I serve you, you don't eat.

    • Happy Homemaker

      Also, the no snacking during meals really helps them to actually be hungry for meals.

  19. Anonymous

    Another wonderfully practical post that demystifies an aspect of child-rearing that seems so bizarre to me. (But then, I just had a conversation with my 82-year-old neighbor this morning about baby food: "What is baby food? I mean, babies are humans, right? Don't they eat what we eat? What is this invented 'baby food'?")

    I don't have children yet, so I mustn't judge what appears to be total insanity surrounding what/when/where/how the kids eat in my peers' families — I couldn't begin to handle it any better than they do. But I do plan on bookmarking this for my "Life With Kids" folder and coming back to it when the day comes, God willing, that I am a mother. Thank you!

    And, by the by, if you were to put all of these blog posts, written just as they are, into a practical, common-sense book on parenting, I'd buy it!

  20. Nanacamille

    Anita you and your nana have similar tastes in liking tomatoes, mushrooms and black olives. Another one of the reasons I love you so much….and all of your brothers and sisters.

  21. Colleen

    When my kids don't want to eat something with a little spice or (God forbid!) if they see an herb in their food, we just say "Well, you love Doritos!" and they lose that argument!

  22. Megan

    Please share how you afford clothes from places like Anthro, Coach and J. Crew with a family of 8 on one income! I have three kids and two incomes and only can dream of getting clothes from places like that!

    • Kendra

      Well, that belt is at least 10 years old. The key has been avoiding impulse buying cheap clothes I don't love from Target etc, and saving up for things I really like and will wear for a long time. I usually get a new outfit (my husband has excellent taste!) or a gift card twice a year at Christmas and my birthday and then I just try to buy things on sale at nice stores, things that will fit at least two of my usual conditions (pregnant, not pregnant, nursing), and that I really love so I'll be able to get a lot of use out of them.

      I used to spend more on junky impulse buys at Target and Old Navy than I do now on one or two things I love at Anthropologie and I do love Anthropologie. So, so much.

      • Bridget

        I’m extremely frugal about spending money on clothes so I get most of my name brand clothes at thrift stores, consignment sales and even through my neighborhood Buy Nothing Project group for free! I just bought my son a Burberry shirt, New with tags for $3! I buy quality over quantity and try to think of pieces I need for a work/church vs. everyday mom life. I only have two kids and I have a dual income household, but this is how my husband and I paid off my student loans and debt. I recently spent four hours at a charity yard sale buying my husband a spring wardrobe of J. crew, Lacoste, Vineyard Vines, Southern Marsh, Southern Tide, Bonobos and Castaway Clothing for $1.50 for shirts and $3 for pants; I waited until after the half price sale to check out so I got $200 worth of clothes for me and my husband at $100. I got several J. Crew, Anthro and Brooks Brothers skirts and an authentic Irish Aran sweater. Each season, I consign my kids’ nicer clothes and make a list about what they need or what I need in my closet and only things that are everyday wear or can be worn different ways. I always buy shoes new but on sale and consign or donate. Everything else I get used. My boys wear Boden, Hanna, Gap, J Crew Crewcuts, Vineyard Vines, Patagonia, North Face and appliqué and smoked clothes until age 4/5.

        About eating, this is how o was raised! Now tonconvince my husband who caters to food whims. At school, my boys are hungry and eat everything.

  23. Liz

    I've used this philosophy from the beginning, and I'm thinking my 3-year-old just breaks the mold on most things with his extreme stubbornness. We've always had family dinners, I've never catered to him, we do very minimal snacking (I hate the snack-toters everywhere offering snacks to my little moocher and looking at me like I'm so cruel (or disorganized and lazy) for not having a snack with me!), don't discuss what he eats or doesn't eat, don't offer dessert as a bribe, etc., etc., and he still eats pretty much nothing but dairy and bread products. We do our best to not care (luckily, he seems healthy), but I've never understood how people are able to insist on a child "trying" some of each food – in frustration, we tried a few months of timeouts for not eating, but he just took the timeout and refused to try it. The only way I can envision getting a food he doesn't want into him is to force-feed him, and I'm certainly not going to be doing that! No question here, I guess I'm just venting my frustration and doing everything "right" and seeing no results in this area. He is otherwise well-behaved, though, so at least we've got that going for us. [I guess I'm dumping all my comments on you this morning!]

    • Kendra

      It sounds to me like you're handling it right, but it must be frustrating! I'd continue to offer him various foods and model healthy eating and figure it will work out. He just might end up being a really picky adult, but it won't be because you didn't try!

    • Sherry

      I just finished reading Getting to Yum by Karen Le Billon. Kendra's post here is basically a summary of that book. However, the book also has a lot of experiments and games to help "reluctant eaters" branch out. Your 3-year-old might be too young for some of them, but as he gets older, you may be able to try some of the games and experiments in the book.

  24. Suzette

    Kendra, My oldest is three. I'm due in the next eight weeks for number three. I read so many blogs and think GAH! Will I ever ever ever figure anything out without having to be told verbatim?
    This post is a breath of air because one thing you mentioned, we do! on our own! I started telling my daughter, about six months ago, "we are Thibs and Thibs love x!" My husband commented – I love that you tell the kids that! (Just hearing him say that was so awesome!)

    Hooray! I'm doing a happy dance. Thank you. Thank you!

  25. Jennifer

    Quick question: What are your "sick day" rules for kids? would love to read a post about it.

    • Kendra

      I should do a whole post about that sometime, although sick days for homeschooled kids look different than for regular school kids. But as for food, if the kids aren't feeling well they don't have to eat what the rest of the family is eating. They usually have applesauce and toast. Of course, occasionally another little kid will see that and announce that now HIS tummy hurts and he wants applesauce for dinner. But I know better than to fall for that by now! ;D

  26. Amarilis Bustamante

    Thank you for your post! I do have a question about drinks and meals. My children are 3,2,1 (+ one on the way!). They like to have milk (about 8oz) with their breakfast. However, if I'm not monitoring them, they'll drink all of it in one gulp and then be too full for their meal. I've tried to hold their drink until they are done with their meal, but its hard to for them when the adults do have drinks. This also happens if we serve juice during a family meal. Any suggestions?

    • Kendra

      Our little kids do have milk with breakfast and dinner, and in our house it hasn't been an issue for them to manage to finish both. But we use very small glasses for small people, I just measured and the ones we for use kids up to age 5, vary from 2 to 3 oz. If we were having that trouble I would start by decreasing the portion size of everything. First the milk, but also the food, until they were regularly able to finish everything. They can always have seconds.

  27. Ania

    Hi Kendra,
    I have been reading your blog for a long time and I find it very informative. I don't have my own kids yet but I would love to have as many as God can give me. I will then take out all your posts, implement them into our daily routine, and I will be the perfect mom! 🙂 Seriously, I am going to print out the majority of your tips and read and read and read to help me prepare to be a mama. So, a book would be great and I would also buy it! 🙂
    Onto my question (which may seem strange because I don't have kids yet but … ): how would you go about your eating schedule and snacking while visiting family/friends? Both my husband and I live out of our native country right now but if we do visit, we go for about a month at a time. We have a lot of relatives back home and every visit means a lot of food. My wonderful Grandma, for example, offers me new food even before I'm done with my current plate. I try to understand her because she was born during a war and there were times when there was no food at all. How would you do your eating schedule while going somewhere new or visiting family for a longer period of time? Do your kids refuse or take snacks when offered by family/friends?

    • Kendra

      Thanks Ania!

      For us, it depends if it's a regular issue or if it's a special occasion. If it's just going to be on occasional visits, I'd just go with it. I'd teach my kids that this isn't how we usually eat, but this is how great-grandma shows her love, so we say thanks you, (but we can stop eating when we're full). My kids get to take the treats and snacks that are offered to them on special occasions.

      If it was someone who we saw on a regular basis, or if we were going to be visiting for more than a week or two, I'd try to address it with the kids. To make sure they understand that we don't want to overeat and make ourselves sick, so it's important that we pay attention to our bodies and stop eating when we are full.

      I would only address it with the family member in question as a last resort. It is really easy to cause offense in a situation like that.

  28. Capell

    Hi Kendra. Great post. I was wondering about your view on "trading food" at the table. Do you allow it? I have kids that will trade their least favorite part of the meal with each other…or just give it away. What are your thoughts?

    • Kendra

      We do allow food trading within reason. It's pretty self-regulating, because mostly no one will agree to trade away all his potatoes for a salad. I like encouraging the kids to work together, and this seems to help with that. We just keep an eye on it to make sure it's not being abused.

  29. Sarah Gardner

    So I just started trying this with my 2yr old and there are a lot of tears! I saved her dinner last night for breakfast this morning but she still refuses to eat it? I feel bad having her wait till lunch to eat again since she hasn't eaten since yesterday at lunch time, any thoughts?

    • Kendra

      I don't do the save dinner for breakfast thing, personally. I just don't make other food or give snacks. In our house, if you refuse to eat dinner, that's allowed. You just don't get any other food until the next meal. But I don't make them eat dinner for breakfast. I just give their food to another kid who is still hungry, or add it to the leftovers, or give it to the chickens.

  30. Chelsee Glass

    Would this approach work with a 20 month old? Or would you say it's too harsh/ beyond their understanding? I'm so sick of throwing away food! 🙁

    • Kendra

      Our Lulu is about this age, and we just give her really small amounts of food to start with. Then if she finished that, she gets more. If she's not hungry, she doesn't have to eat. I don't mind if she has a little snack later. But I do try to avoid giving her snacks with a couple hours of a meal. I think the key at this age is to not act like she is doing me a favor by eating. She can eat it or not, but this is what we've got. And I'm not going to beg. I do still spoon feed her sometimes, because food is better on mom's fork. 🙂

  31. Becky

    When you say your children do have to try foods, how do you actually enforce that? Do you spank? If they still won't eat after a punishment, do you physically stuff it in their mouth? We have one incredibly picky eater and two mildly picky and it's really really hard to handle. What about when they gag or vomit up the food when you try to feed them? Help!

    • Kendra

      We do hand spankings for other infractions, even some meal-related ones like a one year old throwing food or a three year old getting out of his seat. But specifically eating issues have a great natural consequence built right in, so we just let that do the work.

      Until maybe two, we don't really take a stand on things, they can eat what they prefer of what's available at that meal.

      Once they are past that ages, I serve little kids' plates with a very small amount of each food: like a tablespoon's worth. Elementary school kids get 2-3 Tbsp of each thing. Then, you have to eat that or you don't get anything else. If you don't want to, that's your call, but no dessert if we're having it, and no other food until the next meal.

      If they're hungry, they'll eat it. If they're not hungry, or if they're seriously SO obstinate that they're rather be hungry than eat, so be it. That's their temperament to live with, and they'll need to be used to handling hunger if they really are going to go through life that picky.

      My oldest son used to gag and vomit food he didn't like. Perhaps for some children, it's a medical condition worthy of sympathy and doctor's visits, you've got to trust your mama gut. But with him, it was full-blown stinkerness and sympathy made him do it every meal. So, we said if you throw up, you immediately go to your room until the next meal. Because of that rule he, and all my other kids, have been able to get control of their gag reflexes, which is an empowering skill to possess. And my oldest was a VERY physically sensitive kid, but he's got it under control now.

      The most important thing I did was to detach emotionally from mealtime drama. I'm not mad if they don't eat (although they can't be insulting) and I'm not panicked or worried or fretful. They get to choose. It has worked well for us.

      Good luck!

  32. Elizabeth

    Love this. Similar to what I've learned over the past six years of parenting. I think you're right about not letting things become emotional. This is dinner. I love you. I made this with my best ability. Please eat it or choose to be hungry until the next meal. Smile. Eat. Let them decide. Dessert.

  33. Unknown

    I am wondering whether you serve a bedtime snack for young children if they have chosen not to eat dinner? My 27 month old regularly refuses dinner and we have been serving her a slice of toast with butter and sometimes some fruit for a bedtime snack if she doesn't eat. However, her bedtime is very shortly after dinner, so I would rather she not have a snack so quickly after she has refused other food. At what age are you comfortable sending them to bed hungry?

    • Kendra

      Our youngest is 18m old, and she often doesn't feel like eating dinner, and we just put her to bed. Then she usually eats a big breakfast. But refusing to eat around here, for toddlers, usually means one of two things: too many snacks, or just off of a growth spurt. If it's too many snacks, they've had plenty of calories for the day, so I don't worry. And if they are just coming off of eating a ton and growing, it means they just honestly aren't as hungry as they were last week. And that's fine too.

      Choosing to go to bed hungry because you don't like dinner is a choice older kids are welcome to make, but for the little ones, in my experience, if they don't want to eat, it's much more likely that they really aren't hungry and don't need it.

  34. Lindsay

    I know this is a really old post but hoping you still check the comments on it! In theory, I’d be totally OK with detaching and just letting my toddler skip dinner if he refuses to eat anything… the problem is, when he doesn’t eat, he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning (2 or 3am) and won’t settle back down for loooong time. When he eats well, he sleeps through the night with no problem. So, there is a direct consequence on us, the parents, if we don’t get some food in him before bedtime. Wondering how you might handle that? My son is 27 months old. Mostly I wind up giving him things I don’t have to cook (bread, yogurt, fruit) just to fill him up if he rejects dinner, though I try to make him wait a bit before he gets these. But this doesn’t feel ideal.

    • Kendra

      Hey Lindsay, I do still check the comments! For a two year old, we don’t go in to them at night. Nursing babies, yes, but not two year olds. (Unless, of course, something is actually wrong, like a barf or a stuck arm or something. I trust my mom spidey sense to let me know if something is wrong.) Two year olds get told at bedtime to go back to sleep if they wake up in the night, and we have a fan on for white noise in their room and our room. Pretty quickly, our toddlers just start staying asleep when it becomes apparent that we won’t come hang out with them when we’re supposed to be sleeping. And that reinforces the mealtime policies, too. It works for us.


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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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