The Dinnertime Dance (and Some News For Satter Fans)
You helped get my daughter’s nap schedule back on track earlier this year, thank you so much! She’s now almost 15 months old and overall sleeps spectacularly. Now that we’ve entered toddlerhood, we’ve started having a whole new issue: eating!
I’ve been reading your posts for years and am familiar with the general idea of the Satter method. We’ve been doing our best to follow it since she started baby-led weaning; she eats what we eat, she sits at the table with us, we don’t really offer alternatives other than leaving something off of her plate if we’re pretty sure she just doesn’t like it, such as raw tomatoes.
It’s all been going great until fairly recently. She’s started finding it veeeeeery fun to throw her food (she gets zero reaction from me other than the occasional muttering of “really?” under my breath, I just leave it on the floor until we’re all done eating and I let the dogs in), or she’ll sign “all done” after taking maybe 3 bites, even of things that I know she LOVES. But, she’s not all done, because 2 minutes later she crawls back up to me and signs “eat, please” and whines until I put her back in her chair (I give her back her unfinished plate from before). But then she takes a bite or two, signs “all done”, and the process repeats over and over. I’ve tried just leaving her in her seat, figuring she may just want a quick break from eating before she starts up again, but she either swipes all of her food off of the table in a fit of rage (normally I pull her plate out of reach before she’s got a chance, but not always) or starts pitching a little fit while frantically signing “all done”. She doesn’t even really go play when I get her out of her chair, she just crawls away from the table, looks around for a minute, then crawls right back to ask for more.
A thing that’s really important to me is eating AT the table, rather than toddling around the house with food. I hate the crumbs and mess everywhere and we’ve had a wicked sugar ant problem this summer. My husband is totally content to put her plate on the coffee table and let her graze and make a big mess throughout the day, but I get pretty pissy when I have to get out the vacuum or steam mop 5 times a day to clean the floor, and the grazing just kind of drives me nuts, so I don’t let her eat anywhere but at the table.
I’d shrug all of this off, but she’s not sleeping as well as she used to, I think because she’s waking up hungry from eating such a small dinner. She normally sleeps from about 7:30/8-8:30/9, but the past few days she’s been waking up between 7-7:30am and she’s a frightening, hangry beast. She eats a decent sized breakfast (a packet of instant oatmeal or a piece of toast, fruit, and either a scrambled egg or some yogurt), but she still wants down-up-down-up several times.
So, my question: is 15 months too early for the “eat it or don’t, I don’t care” approach, and how is the best way to handle the constant wanting in and out of her chair under the guise of being “all done”, when really she’s not all done and she’s just a very cute (and hungry) liar?
So there’s actually a bit more to the Satter Method than simply, “eat this or starve, whatever,” and all of it really and truly is applicable to every age and stage. I think parents would hugely benefit from reading her book (How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much) before starting any solid foods at all, because the whole approach is designed to both avoid feeding issues before they start AND reduce your (natural) parental anxiety level around the entire topic. The first couple chapters lay out a solid, common-sense foundation on the Division of Responsibility and then you can (and will) return to the book time and time again for detailed strategies and trouble-shooting tips as your child grows — the next chapters cover specific age ranges, from baby to toddler to preschooler to big kid to teen. It also covers special needs and medical cases, and what to do when there actually is a feeding problem beyond your typical picky-eater shenanigans. It’s seriously as essential as any general pregnancy and babycare book and every new parent should get a copy.
And now that I’ve once again praised the book to the skies, I have some bad news:
How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much appears to be out of print.
(GASPS. FAINTS. WAKES UP TO SCREAM AND RUN AROUND IN A PANIC.)
I learned this recently when I discovered that my own copy — which I kept to reference for both my own kids and the many, many children I’ve tried to help through this column — had gone missing. I recently overhauled and reorganized my home office and…I don’t know what happened to it. But no matter, I’ll just order up another copy from Amazon and…oh. CRAP.
I worried this would eventually happen (it was originally published in 1987), but I always hoped to see a re-release with some less-dated cover art and illustrations. Alas!
HOWEVER It’s still available in e-book form for the Kindle (and used through third-party sellers), so I implore everyone to BUY A COPY NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN. I bought the Kindle version so I can continue to shamelessly crib from Satter’s wisdom here for as many years as you’ll listen to me, but seriously: My Advice On The Satter Method Is That You Should Buy The Damn Satter Method Book.
Satter has two other books that are still available: Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. I’m sure they’re great! And I believe Child of Mine covers similar territory to How to Get Your Kid to Eat. But damn it, I just really really like How to Get Your Kid to Eat.
Anyway! Back to your specific question. I’m not going to plagiarize from my Kindle app except to say that literally everything you describe here — the throwing of food, the all-done highchair dance, the grazing vs. eating at a proper table question, the hungry/hangry sleep issue — is covered in the book. So no, it is NOT too early to immerse yourself in Satter’s philosophy and try out some of her advice. Which, obviously, isn’t going to fix things overnight but I promise you’ll feel better knowing what to enforce and what to let go and how to not let it all drive you up the freaking. Wall. Every. Single. Meal. Oh. My. God.
I’ve also personally dealt with everything you describe here — three times! with three very different kids! who all played the same game! And I’m actually totally with you on the “meals must happen at the table” approach for the reasons you mentioned. (I think Satter is a bit less stringent on this issue but stresses that consistency and routine are important.) Plus there’s an increased risk of choking when young babies and toddlers are allowed to walk around with food — and an increased risk that you might not even realize they’re choking if you’re somewhere else (i.e. seated at the dinner table in the next room over). Choking is actually silent! There’s not always audible gagging or coughing! It’s scary as hell! (SOURCE: MY OWN SELF WHO GAVE AN EATING-WHILE-WANDERING 3-YEAR-OLD THE HEIMLICH.) So you have my blessing to be a hard-ass about it, but you’ll need to order your husband to support the rule and keep things consistent. If she’s sometimes allowed to graze at mealtimes, she’s naturally going to expect to always graze at mealtimes, and the all-done highchair dance will absolutely 100% continue.
Take her plate away when she signs “all done” and set it out of throwing reach, but keep her in the chair. “You don’t have to eat, but stay and keep Mommy company while I eat.” Then keep things pleasant for her. Play peek-a-boo or play a signing song and game, give her a book or toy. (If she throws it, Do Not Retrieve.) Anything to keep her seated for 20-30 minutes, with lots of opportunities for her to sign “more” and eat a little more before dinnertime is actually for-real over. Don’t offer it, don’t refuse it. The food is there if she wants to eat it (but not there for her to throw it). It’s her job to eat it.
If she will have absolutely NONE of that and dinner continues to be angsty and unpleasant, consider moving her to a booster seat on a regular chair. It’s even okay if she gets down from the table a dozen times during dinner — just make sure she needs to climb back onto the chair when she does (inevitably) realize she’s still hungry and wants another bite. Set it up so she can do this HERSELF, however — rather than you having to interrupt your meal over and over again with the in/out bib on/off plate away/back game. Praise her to the dang skies every time she’s sitting nicely, even for 30 seconds. Give her zero attention when she’s up and away from the table. (I mean, keep an eye on her for safety reasons; just keep all conversation and positive attention focused at the dinner table.) When she IS seated, don’t nag her to eat or push her take “one more bite” or finish everything on her plate. The food is there and accessible. It’s her job to eat it.
If she continues to eat tiny little bird meals at dinnertime, that’s fine! Add a nice healthy snack to her schedule, sometime after dinner and before bedtime. Far enough out from dinner that it’s a fully separate “thing,” and hearty enough to keep her from waking up super early from hunger.
But mostly, you know, just buy the book. Your supper and your sanity will thank you.
More on mealtime battles from Alpha Mom:
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