What do you when a child only wants to eat their "love it" food?

This Mom Asks:

My husband and I are struggling with our 4.5 year old at the moment. I love the concept of Division of Responsibility. I just finished reading It's Not About the Broccoli, and I've read lots of info on your site. The question that I can't seem to find the answer to (and maybe you've answered this before) is what do you do when a child only wants to eat their "love it" food and not the other foods served at the meal and then wants more of the "love it" food? Like if I served chicken (like it), pasta (love it), strawberries (like it), broccoli (learning it) and she only ate pasta and then wanted more, do we allow that? I'm assuming yes because the whole idea is to ease the pressure, but it goes against my inner mommy nutrition police!! Would love your take!

This is hands down the most popular question I get regarding my Love it, Like it, Learning it framework. Unfortunately until now, I haven’t had my answer in an easy place for parents to find.

That’s why I wanted to dedicate this week’s post to share my take. I will walk parents through how to think beyond the obvious answer to this question including some implications from each potential food parenting approach. Then, I will share what my recommended approach is with some practical tactics families can try. This will help parents maintain their job in the Division of Responsibility in feeding...and our kids don’t end up exclusively eating Goldfish crackers at every meal.

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Since I have gotten a question similar to the one above literally hundreds of times, I would say that in short, my answer is: YES. You allow them to choose if/whether they eat from all the foods offered and how much of each of those foods to consume (from what’s available). In order to stay consistent with the Division of Responsibility in feeding and “ease the pressure” (as this mom said so well), that’s the most basic answer.

I recognize how counter intuitive this seems to majority of parents though.

That’s because if we want our child to eat more of the other options that are offered (like the broccoli, strawberries, and chicken in the example above) and our aim is to promote a balanced diet for them, then wouldn’t it make more sense to limit “excessive” amounts of the preferred and often less nutrient-rich food option (like pasta in this example) and promote more of the healthier options offered?

Most parents, including many of my clients, would irrefutably say: yes, this makes perfect sense (which is why that’s exactly how parents tend to handle this scenario).

So let’s dissect this.

I have had to go against my own inner mommy nutrition police on this more than a time or two as well, and I want to share some important, evidenced-based insights to consider before we automatically default to acting on what feels intuitive here.

What do you do when a child only wants to eat their "love it" food and (and then wants more of it)?

Think beyond the obvious answer to this question

As a parent, it is so easy to react without ever stopping to think about why we do what we do or if it is even effective (let alone, evidenced-based). We often parent out of fear rather than from a place of trust and confidence in our children’s growing ability to make their own decisions, including around food and self-feeding.

What happens when we restrict

The question I usually ask clients when they want to restrict seconds or more “love it foods,” is this:

Can you withhold seconds (or thirds…) from your child WITHOUT practicing these behaviors in the process?

Rarely ever do a see a family that can.

That’s because when we restrict our children from deciding how much they want to eat (from what’s available), we often have to do so using behaviors that research again and again advises to avoid.

How do we learn to trust our children (in trusting themselves and their own appetites) when we override their requests for more or their decision that they’re done eating? More importantly, how do we equip our children to “listen to their bodies,” when we are the ones limiting their ability to have additional helpings or forcing them to eat more of foods they’ve already chosen not to eat? We don’t.

Instead, we begin to slowly override the mechanism for the internal regulation that they’re born with, deeming it “ineffective.”

Most kids are born to be good self-regulators. When offered enough nourishment, as infants, toddlers, and throughout their childhood, children know how much to consume for their unique body to grow and develop properly. In infancy, our babies were able to increase or decrease their intake of breastmilk or formula to adjust for their ever-changing needs and growth-spurts. Sometime after our children become toddlers though, we begin to assume that how much they eat is up to us...or surely, it should be because otherwise, they would fill up only on those less-nourishing love it foods that we as parents just don’t like.

The conflict is, the decision on if/whether and how much to eat is still up to them.

Sometimes, they may “fail.” They may over-indulge in a food we would have limited them from eating so much of. Even more challenging, they might do this again and again in a way that seems so far from nutritionally sound. But the goal here isn’t just on what they eat. It is just as much on how they learn to eat from what’s offered, which we do a disservice to when we restrict what they eat.

What happens when we restrict certain foods…

Instead of empowering our child to follow their intrinsic cues for hunger and fullness around all foods, a trap many families fall into is selectively choosing which foods are “okay” to have enough of and which ones aren’t. This negates the neutrality we need to approach foods with and assigns food with labels like “good” and “bad.”

We would never limit our child of broccoli, would we? But change that food item to pasta and parents change their approach to the idea of seconds or if their child really “needs” more of it.

The bottom line is, how we approach the concept of more should not shift based on the food item. Research shows how assigning certain foods as “good (for you)” and others as “bad (for you),” only makes children less inclined to eat the “good” food and more inclined to prefer, or elevate, the “bad” food.

What happens when we don’t restrict any foods…

When it comes to the Division of Responsibility in feeding, there is often the point made that once you have given your child their plate, your job is done.

That doesn’t mean you can’t help serve your child from a family style meal, discuss with them how meals are different than they once were, or help them learn to like new foods (next week’s blog post).

What it does imply though is that your job as the parent of deciding what foods will be offered, where to offer these foods, and when such eating opportunities occur has already been done. You have satisfied your job responsibilities for that meal or snack, so you can sit back, enjoy your own meal, and embrace that the hand off to your child has already been made.

When we approach meals like this, it literally transforms meal time dynamics. There is no power struggle over how many bites one must take, if seconds are allowed of one food but not another, or the constant strain on conversation because parents are so fixated on if/whether and how much their child eats.

What there is, is a pleasant family meal. Milk may spill and noodle night will forever make me wish we had a dog. But what happens when we don’t restrict any foods is…

We all get to eat. We get to enjoy the foods we know we love, learn to like those we don’t, and instead of being focused on if/whether and how much our kids are eating, we get to share in that time and focus on togetherness, training our kids in table manners, and teaching them how to become a competent eater without using restriction to do so.

It isn’t passive parenting not to pressure your children to eat one food or preventing them to eat more of another. It is preparing them for their future, when no one tells them if/whether and how much to eat as adults. That’s on them. If we have done our job properly in these early years, we can have confidence that there’s a pretty good chance our kids will be good at it as they grow and mature.

A quote I recently heard from Lisa DuBreuil, on the Comfort Food podcast, seems particularly fitting here - especially as it relates to raising children to be intuitive eaters of their own.

“Abundance + Permission = Discernment”

So then what? We just accept our kids only eat bread and butter every night?

Surely you know that is not what the dietitian in me is endorsing.

What I am encouraging us all to work towards though is raising children with intrinsic motivations and cues for healthy habits.

So how do we do this?

My Recommended Approach to “More”

Let me share my advice in the context of a mom’s recent question:

My LO had grilled cheese, butternut squash, & french green beans on her plate. Dad had the same thing except oranges instead of the squash. She finished her squash then saw the oranges on dad’s plate and asked for an orange. I peeled her a cutie and said "after this then you need to eat what’s on your plate for lunch." Well then, of course, she wanted another. I said "if you finish all of your plate and you’re still hungry, then you can have another orange." She would take a bite, then ask for the orange. This went back and forth for awhile then I finally just said no more oranges right now. So I am not sure how I could’ve handled that better. Any suggestions?

I understand the dynamics that make this confusing for this mom. She decided what to offer and then a new food came into the situation from dad’s lunch. This isn’t ideal but it happens all the time, so let me walk through how I would recommend approaching this situation.

First, take ownership.

Many of our food battles begin because we are indecisive going into them. The back in forth of this situation is ever so common between parents and children at the table because kids want to test boundaries that parents often haven’t even established yet. To prevent this mom (or dad) from getting into a battle of wills over if their daughter can have any or more oranges, they need to make up their mind on what’s being offered and what’s available.

Is an orange part of what is being offered in this child’s lunch?

  • If yes, then say something along the lines of, “Oh, you’re right. We forgot to include a fruit today. Great idea, Daddy. Let’s get one for you too!” Then provide her an orange of her own.

  • If no, then say something like, “We aren’t having oranges today because we need to save them for lunches the rest of the week. Maybe Daddy would share some of his with you?” Then only enjoy one as a family.

Second, decide how many helpings are available.

If you have decided that the given food is in fact a part of the meal, there may still be instances where seconds are not available. You may only have a certain amount of a given food and need to make it stretch further than one given meal. This may be based on a food budget or if a particular item is expensive and you only have so much of them (like a pint of raspberries when out of season). Or, it might be because you need some of it for another family member or meal during the week. In either case, there are times when we cannot offer all-you-can-eat of something. When this happens, take a proactive to approach the situation so that it doesn’t confuse your child and come across as food restriction.

Are more oranges available? This is asking not just if more are physically available (as in there are more in the house), but is it okay if your child eats as many as they want from those physically available.

  • If yes, then allow your child to ask for seconds, thirds, etc. Encourage them to chew their food, take time to listen to their body between helpings, and make sure they want more before you go peel another one for them. But don’t restrict them just for the sake of assuming they have had enough nor pressure them to eat another food first.

  • If no, matter of factly share with your child why you need to save what extras there are. Clearly share, “we need to leave some oranges for us to take to preschool on Thursday” or “to eat the rest of the week as I won’t be going to the store again,” etc. Use this as a chance to remind them when they will be able to enjoy this food again. This is also a chance to remind them about the abundance of other options still available. Saying something like, “If you still feel hungry though after you eat your orange, you’re welcome to eat the other foods offered until your tummy feels satisfied.”

Third, adjust as needed.

Say this child ends up putting down three cuties at lunch. That’s okay! By the mom deciding what was being offered at that meal, her child then was able to decide how much of it to eat. So parents role in this scenario is just to adjust, as needed. Maybe skip offering fruit at the next eating opportunity since this child just had extras earlier. Over the course of a day, week and month, it will all balance out.

The key is that we are allowing our child to practice self-regulation from what’s offered. In doing so, we remove any scarcity effect and give our children permission to decide if/whether and how much to eat from the abundance available. Then, if/when they eat more than we think they “need,” we can adjust future meals and snacks accordingly by not offering that particular food again that day or maybe even in the day(s) after as well. This promotes variety in their overall diet without feeling the need to restrict at a given eating opportunity.

Some Tactics to Try

Another question on this topic often goes like this:

First, I want to thank you for your educational blog posts. The division of responsibilities and love it like learning it concepts are absolutely amazing. I have loved learning about these concepts and then implementing them with my son. They make so much sense!!! That said, I have a question I’m hoping you might have a chance to answer :)

If my son only eats one food in a given meal and keeps asking for more of only that food, do you keep going and going or eventually cut it off?

This parent has a general understanding of the Division of Responsibility in feeding and Love it, Like it, Learning it framework, and yet the question about how to handle more is still one that generates a lot of confusion.

Here are some tactics to try (based on my advice above):

  1. Make your decision in advance: Make/put out enough for one or two servings of a given food per person, so they don’t eat say five dinner rolls and call it a day. This gives them the freedom to eat more of preferred foods, but also helps them to learn that to feel more satisfied it will take eating from the variety of what’s offered. If they still want more after having seconds say, “I am glad you enjoyed the [love if food]! That is all I made of it tonight though. We can have it again another night, but right now, you can eat from what else is offered if you are still hungry.” Do not get up and make more of that given food though, if there is still food available to eat (if they are still truly hungry).

  2. If there is more available: Allow them to eat this preferred “love it” food freely. If they ask for seconds and more are available, let them have more. But first, teach them to make sure everyone has gotten some so they don’t eat the portion that’s intended for the rest of the family/group. If there is no more available (including for the reasons discussed above), then you may “cut them off.”

  3. If you know it’s a night when your child didn’t eat much, adjust accordingly. Remember that YOU can decide on what and when a bedtime snack. No one wants to wake up with a hangry kid in the middle of the night, so adjust as needed. Instead of making them something different at the given (majority) non-preferred meal, pre-set in your mind when and what will be a bedtime snack to help cover the gap. Don’t say, “we’re having this snack tonight because you didn’t eat your dinner,” (even if you usually don’t do bedtime snacks). Instead, confidently work this into your bedtime routine that night (the what and when of your role).

A Practical Example for “Forbidden Foods”

It is one thing when our kids fill up on the “love it” food of fruit at a meal. The concept of more can be conflicting though when it comes to foods like Goldfish crackers, cookies, or other perceived “forbidden foods” that kids love and parent usually feel unclear how to offer. To help bring the above advice to life in a practical example. This will help us to evaluate how to include these foods so that they are not forbidden, but rather incorporated into meals without your child existing on a diet of say, Goldfish or cookies alone.

In one example, you can offer Goldfish everyday for an afternoon snack. Served with nothing else, your child will likely want a fair share of these crunchy crackers to have their fill between meals. They also may be more likely to be seen as “snackers,” or kids who prefer snacks to meals. Do you know why? Because at snacks, they get their preferred or “love it foods,” but at snacks, it is made up of less-preferred “like it” and “learning it” food combinations like chicken, pasta, broccoli, and strawberries.

So what should you do?

Sticking with the example of Goldfish crackers (although it could be any “love it” food here), parents could be more mindful about their role in the feeding relationship while also allowing their child to become a more mindful eater as well.

You can offer Goldfish crackers a few times a week. Instead of offering them everyday, maybe send them in their lunchbox to school one day of the week, offer them alongside something that has fat, fiber, or protein at snack another day of the week (like cheese and carrots), and then give them the choice of those or another love it food for a snack to take along to a play date to share with friends. You child still got the desired exposure to this food so it doesn’t become elevated as a “forbidden” food you either never allow nor never allow them to have more of. But there are natural boundaries in place:

  • At school, they are offered as a competitive food that our children can get excited about eating around their classmates (who likely have them too). Put a portion into your child’s bento or reusable snack bag for them to enjoy. Since offered at school, there aren’t seconds available. But this allows you to offer this love it food in a way where we aren’t inclined to restrict the amount or pressure their intake of another food first.

  • At snack time, offering it alongside other foods helps offer a more well-rounded snack. Our children of course may still only eat the Goldfish and leave the other foods though. If they ask for seconds, let them have it. I know this sets off the siren for each of our nutrition police, but it is healthy for children, on occasion, to be exposed to an abundance of such preferred “love it” foods so that they can begin to exercise their own discernment over “how much” to eat (when they have the permission to eat intuitively). By not offering this food in this way everyday, it isn’t going to derail them nutritionally if on occasion, they eat “only Goldfish” (or a like less-nutritious option) for snack.

  • At a play date, let them choose between two preferred foods so they see both are an option without being something your family eats everyday. For whichever snack your child chooses, consider bringing individual bags (i.e. of Goldfish) so each child gets one. Or, bring a bag for all to share. Either way, this offers it to your child but also guides them in how much is theirs or needing to be shared among the group.

The goal here isn’t to use restrictive food parenting practices in hopes of getting our child to eat less of the preferred food that seems problematic. This almost always backfires and creates an increased interest in food for children, particularly the one that is being restricted. Instead, try to offer such “love it” foods as regular, routine parts of your child’s diet. Rotate through different options to keep a variety of preferred foods available (i.e. not “off limits”) and as an option as part of a healthy diet. Then, focus on your job of WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE those foods are offered to balance out how often they are being offered. When they are offered though, help your child to feel freedom towards such foods, rather than restricting them of seconds.

Final Remarks

Hopefully, it goes without saying that I value a balanced and nutritionally dense diet. But the variety that diet is made up of for your family is on you. If you are offering healthy variety and consistent eating opportunities to your child, they won’t go their whole lives eating exclusively Goldfish. Instead, they will learn, adapt, and become more competent eaters in the process. The more opportunities we give them to practice this, the sharper their abilities will become!