17 May 2006

How many more bites?

Here's how Duane answers the question, "How many more bites?"

Somewhere along the line my wife or I made the mistake of telling our three year old, "Just 2 more bites."  Now, with every single meal, all we ever hear is, "You tell me how more bites, Daddy?  3 or 4 or 5?  And then I'll be done."  When there's still plenty of food left on the plate you can't really say "Thirty" or something like that because she can't really comprehend what that means like she can comprehend a 5 or a 6.

Today at lunch, over raisins, I tried a new trick.  I put one raisin down, and then a pile of 2, a pile of 3, 4... and so on, up to 6.  Katherine watched me do it as  counted them out.  Then I pointed to the piles and said "I want you to eat 1 2 3 4 5 6 raisins and then you'll be done."  Thrilled at this idea, she gobbled them down, stopping in the middle to announce "I'm on 4, Daddy.  Then I'll just have 5 and 6 and I'll be all done."  So instead of 6 raisins I got 21 into her. 

Over dinner it worked again.  Having cut up a hamburger into pieces and gotten the same "How many bites?" question I made up piles of 1, 2, 3 and 4 and told her she had to eat 4 bites.  Presto, 10 pieces of hamburger down the hatch.

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What about teaching them to follow their own hunger cues? Teaching them to stop eating when they feel full?

And, along with momma2mingbu's advice, giving them a reasonable amount of food on their plate (which I'm sure you do) and telling them that they can have any dessert/snack/treat/etc. after their plate is clean (especially for those times when "I'm full" means "forget the green beans, I want cake!").

Personally I'm not sure that a three year old can accurately understand hunger cues, especially when something is on the plate that might not be her favorite. "I'm full" ends up meaning the same thing as "I don't want what you've put in front of me."

Don't get me wrong -- when we're having pork chops she'll keep asking for more until she's full, and at restaurants she's asked for the children's steak tips. So she does eat a healthy meal when she wants to.

A trick like this is reserved more for those times when playtime has paused for mealtime and as far as she's concerned she just wants to get down as soon as possible and would happily eat nothing (hungry or not) if it means getting to go do something else. She does not groan and force herself to choke down the piles I've made. On the contrary she goes at it happily, like it's a game.

I strongly believe children can follow their own hunger cues, but stop doing so around age 3 when they learn the social pressures and rewards we associate with foods. The piles aren't a bad hack/strategy, but maybe you can ease away from them entirely. On the other hand, I'm guilty too-- my just-turned-five year-old has just had the ante upped to five bites of each food/category of food at dinner. His brother would eat the whole kitchen, at age 2, and will probably not ever need these artifical aids to eat.

Forget about good eating habits -- I love the math skills this teaches! This is one kid that will have *no* problem with greater and less than in school. It's like a number line -- but in food. How clever is that?

I think a 3-year-old CAN accurately understand hunger cues.

Our philosophy is that everybody has to eat one bite of everything, "bite" being defined as "enough to fill your fork/spoon." Once you've eaten that, you're free to skip the rest of dinner, with the understanding that there will be no more food for the rest of the night.

We've put our kids to bed a few times complaining that they are still hungry, and while it takes every ounce of willpower to calmly say, "I'm sorry, but mealtime was over when we got up from the table, and if you didn't get enough to eat, you should have had more dinner" and walk away, it's worth it. Our kids know they aren't getting a special snack or a special meal. It's what's on the table or nothing. Sometimes they genuinely aren't hungry so they choose to only eat a bite of everything. That's fine with me. I'd rather scrape most of a plate of food (and we give them very small portions to start with, because asking for seconds and even thirds is okay) than have my kids grow up to be obese because they were taught to be members of the "Clean Plate Club."

I LOVE this advice. I am going to have to remember it!! Thanks!

Of course a 3 yr old can understand hunger cues. Children are born understanding hunger cues--that's why feeding a newborn on demand works. What they're learning at 3 is how to balance hunger with the much more interesting demands on their time. I don't see the harm in an unfinished meal here and there as they figure this out for themselves. And I guess I don't see how I can decide that 10, or 3, or 20 raisins are exactly what my daughter needs at any given time.

Thanks, Duane. We'll have to try this. Clearly some of these other folks don't have the poor eaters that we have. It's not a matter of cleaning their plate, it's a matter of getting at least a little bit of food in there. My 2.75 yr old has always been this way. Sure she gets a vitamin but a little lunch or dinner would be nice too.

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