Did the kids eat this morning? I didn't see it with my own two eyes, but what have we here? A hodgepodge of mugs filled with varying amounts of milk or water or.... something... on the dining table. And here, a couple strawberry hulls on the tile floor. And here, a mostly empty bowl of oatmeal by the sink.
Either the kids ate breakfast or we have the most capable rats this side of NIMH living in our house.
I don't need a mountain of evidence (or a secret society of super rats) to know the story. Since they were very young, we have given the children wide latitude in the kitchen. Kids being kids, I can usually tell what they're eating and how much -- with little effort.
Free Range Children
The idea that even young kids can feed themselves can strike people as odd. Isn't setting food out in front of the child two or three times a day one of our most basic duties as a parent?
Certainly, we must ensure our children are eating well, but allowing children some control over their diets doesn't shirk this duty. In fact, it can actually support another critical duty - teaching children independence and self-control.
Choice Leads to Good Choices
Giving kids some control over their diets doesn't mean a free for all. If you want your kids to make good choices, you need to make sure they have access to good things. That takes adult planning and preparation -- keeping the pantry and fridge stocked with easy to access choices like mason jars with precut veggies or a big pot of cooked oatmeal.
But the payoff is worth it. I find that children will ingest more healthy foods and a wider variety of healthy foods when they have control over what they are eating.
Want to give it a try? Here are some tips for encouraging your children to serve themselves.
1. Stock your fridge and pantry with healthy foods.
It seems like all of us have different opinions on what is "healthy," so do your own research here and run with it. I think we can all agree that getting kids to eat veggies is a good thing, so make sure to stock up on lots of those!
I strongly recommend keeping the junk food completely out of sight or better yet... don't buy it at all. Kids can't make good decisions about cookies. Sugar is just too tempting! We keep a limited amount of chips, cereal, candy, and snack foods in a high cabinet far out of reach.
2. Prepare your veggies ahead of time.
After grocery shopping, I try to give myself about 30 minutes to do some food preparation. I chop the celery and carrots into sticks. I cube the beets. Wash and spin the lettuce. Separate the broccoli florets. Slice the bell peppers and squash. Not only does this make fresh, raw food accessible to my kids, it makes cooking meals MUCH faster!
3. Store your food in child-accessible containers.
In my fridge, I use more than one type of food container. Mason jars have the added bonus of being see through. Plastic tops seem to be easier for my kids to open than screw tops. Plastic baggies work great for some things. Recently, I've been really into these plastic freezable containers, but large yogurt containers and the like are great options for food storage, too.
4. Make sure the kid dishes and utensils are reachable.
You can provide a stool so they can reach the family cabinet, you can choose a kids cabinet at eye level, or you can keep their dishes on a shelf. Our kid dishes are on a shelf very close to the kitchen table where they eat.
5. Designate a place for the dirty dishes.
In my house, the children put their dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and wash them. When they were younger, we kept a plastic tub on a low table near the sink that they could easily reach. They didn't have to wash their dishes themselves, but they were strongly encouraged to put them somewhere ready for washing.
And One More Thing... Be Ready for Weird
Once given free reign, your newly independent kids may choose to eat things that would not occur to you... like a tub of shredded parmesan cheese or a clove of raw garlic or the entire 2 pound container of strawberries.
Be cool with it.
They're experimenting and exploring their senses.
If they are eating something inappropriate, you can troubleshoot this a couple of ways. You can say, "Hey, kids, I'm saving the parmesan for the lasagna, so if you want some of that, tell me first, ok?" Or you can put the parmesan in the back of the freezer out of sight. Or you can put a Post-It note on the parmesan that says "MOM OR DAD ONLY."
Over time, they will figure out what foods you allow and what foods you want them to ask about. In our house, all of the condiments are "ask an adult first" foods.
So give it a shot. If your fridge is full of all kinds of good food, they will thank you for it, and more importantly, they will learn competence and confidence in the kitchen.