The more I want my daughter to eat something, the less likely she’ll eat it.

In fact, even casting a mere glance in the direction of her pint-sized plate (just to silently see what’s up) can trigger an eating protest that’ll last at least as long as the meal. Her ability to tune into my eating anxiety is slightly amazing but not surprising because she’s two and no matter how subtle…

Toddlers can smell weakness

If Isla gets even a whiff of my wanting (say, that she’d eat at least half of what’s on her plate in under an hour), hopefulness (say, that she’ll just this once eat a piece of meat without asking for ketchup), or desperation (such as my silent pleading that that she please, please stop pushing everything green off the plate), then she’ll use it to her advantage by abruptly changing her mind about whether or not she’s going to eat.

Interestingly, the idea that Isla has an uncanny ability to tap into a my mealtime vulnerability isn’t just parental paranoia…

It’s science.

Well, not hard science. More like social science—but still totally scientific, nonetheless!

Research backing my theory shows that the more a caregiver acts like they really do give a horse’s precious patootie whether or not a kid eats—as well as how much or little they eat—the more likely said kid’s current and future eating habits will become…. well, totally screwed up a little wonky.

toddler wearing crown at dinner table

Mom, please let this crown remind you who’s in charge here!

Difficult as it may be, I’ve taken this research to heart and have learned to stop caring about what Isla eats.

(Or, at least, letting on that I care. The truth is I’m still in the the ‘fake it ’til ya make it stage of this learning process but, hey, this is a two-year-old. So far, the vegetables and proteins are going down, so she seems to be buying into the idea that I really don’t give a you-know-what whether she digs in or not.)

Here, five pieces of research that convinced me to keep servin’ up good stuff (including a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, high-quality/low-fat proteins—including plant-based—and dairy) at regular two to three hour intervals, while also doing my best to act totally indifferent to whatever happens after they hit the plate. I’ve learned to stop caring about what Isla’s eating because….

1. Biting My Tongue Means More in the Mouth

In a lab study, preschoolers who were pressured to eat more ended up downing less food and making five times more negative remarks about food compared to those who weren’t. Plus, kids who were pressured were less likely to eat unfamiliar foods, while those who weren’t were more likely to try something new. And, by ‘pressured’ I’m not talking hardcore squeeze talk like “eat this or else!” Researchers simply asked, “Finish your soup, please” once a minute for several minutes. This might sound intense but think about it next time you’re asking the little ones to get busy getting done with dinner. (I’m pretty sure my own prompting would be clocked at a similarly fast-paced rate when I’m well-past ready to wrap things up at the table and Isla hasn’t touched more than a bite.)

2. Isla’s More Evolved than Me

In a sort of reversed evolutionary irony, the younger children are, the smarter they are about eating. Specifically, infants and toddlers are very adept at rather unconsciously turning off (and on) their hunger based on how many (or few) calories they need to eat in order to meet their energy needs for the day. When researchers gave young kids a bowl of ice cream for a midmorning snack, they automatically ate fewer calories two hours later at lunch. It’s actually a physiological ability we all have but tend to lose touch with as we age and become more connected to the world around us (i.e. as we become more influenced by the many eating messages we get from our own parents, food advertisements, and other social cues, like the fact that it’s lunchtime so we ‘need’ to eat).

So, when Isla’s telling me she’s full by not eating everything on her plate and I tell her to ‘have one more bite’ or that we’re not moving on to play time until she ‘finishes up,’ I’m actually telling her override her own inner appetite genius and eat beyond what she actually needs to feel full. (Same thing when I tell her to eat because ‘it’s good for you’ because ‘you’ve ‘hardly eaten anything all day,’ or because ‘I put a lot of time into making this for you!’)

3. Pushing ‘healthy’ foods turns kids off of them for life!

Children who were pressured to eat specific foods were found to avoid those same foods as adults. What’s worse? The foods kids are most often pressured to eat—vegetables, red meat, and seafood—are some of the most nutrient-dense, so avoiding them could put a dent in your child’s vitamin, mineral, and fiber intake throughout adulthood.

4. Controlling ups the odds of eating disorders!

Simply put, research shows girls as young as five who were pressured by parents to eat were more likely to show restrictive eating (as in dieting), while those whose parents restricted their daughter’s eating were more likely to show dis-inhibited eating (gorging) when presented with high-fat, high calorie foods—in other words, the very same kinds of foods parents were likely trying to prevent their daughters from eating. In a second study, young girls who faced restrictive eating from their parents were more likely to eat without being hungry—a phenomena that, not surprisingly, put them at five times the risk of being overweight. Worse? The same girls were plagued with negative feeling about eating, too. Bottom line: The more you pressure your lil’ ones to eat past the point that they’re full, the more they’ll avoid eating in the future. And, the more often you tell a child, “you’ve had enough,” the more likely they’ll go totally overboard when given the chance.

5. Banning Backfires!

Let me be blunt: I hate juice. I don’t hate the taste—a couple splashes in my cocktail, delish’! What I hate is about juice is that I see people offering it up  to kids as often (maybe more often!) than water. Perhaps it’s all the reading I’ve done about links between sweetened beverages and childhood obesity, perhaps its because I know that it’s loaded with tons of unnecessary sugar (even ‘natural’ sugar is unnecessary), or perhaps it’s because I know it’s so amazingly adept at filling Isla’s belly up with empty calories, crowding out room and an appetite for the more nutritious foods I’d prefer she eat.

Whatever! The fact is I hate juice, I don’t keep it in the house, and I jokingly refer to it as ‘liquid kid crack’ to my closest friends. Thus, Isla LOVES LOVES LOVES juice. And, as you can probably guess, my disdain for it is the exact genesis of her fascination since the more highly restricted a particular food, the higher amounts a child eats when presented with that food, as reported in several studies. So, while I still can’t bring myself to buy it, I DID successfully restrain myself from leaping across a dining room table to grab a box of Apple & Eve Very Berry punch out of Isla’s hand at a recent birthday party.

A No-Fail Feeding M.O.

While there’s major benefits to easing up on how much you care about the amount your kids eat of any given ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food, I don’t want you to give up all control of mealtimes all together.

The key is TRUSTING that your child is the best person to determine how much to eat—and even whether to eat anything at all—while still making sure you’re still in ruling the feeding roost with regard to what foods are offered, when they’re offered, and where they’re offered.

This mealtime method isn’t my brilliance, it’s feeding genius Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. In a nutshell, Satter says caregivers have three responsibilities at mealtimes: 1) to offer up a balanced mix of nutritious, healthy food options, 2) to offer these at regular two to three hour intervals, and 3) to offer them up in a safe, distraction free place. The rest is up to kids, which means you should leave it to them to decide 1) whether or not they’re hungry (for little ones, offer food instead of merely asking as the word ‘no’ will be heard regardless of their appetite) and 2) how much or little they need to eat.

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Preschool portion sizes @ Your Kids Table.