As toddlers get older, they begin to figure out their environment and gain in independence. When it comes to food and drink, they know that the milk lives in the fridge, the cereal lives in the cupboard and guaranteed, they will know where the biscuits are kept. Sometimes, they may start to help themselves to food or drink. Is this okay? What if your child is a very picky eater? Is letting them help themselves a good way of getting them to ingest more nutrients?
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it"
I like to adopt an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to parenting. Maybe your child enjoys a varied diet, eats well at main meals AND they sometimes help themselves to food. If this is okay with you, I’m not about to tell you you’re wrong. Your house, your rules! Many parents I know have a ‘help yourself anytime’ fruit-bowl, for example. This isn’t something I have in my house, but that comes down to personal choice.
However, if you are concerned about your child’s eating, my advice is that you don’t allow them to help themselves from the cupboards or fridge. I can see why it might feel like a good idea; perhaps it feels like a way of helping them eat more. Perhaps it gives them a sense of control that you hope may lower any anxiety they feel in relation to food.
But letting children help themselves is the enemy of a solid meal and snack structure. And a solid meal and snack structure is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to supporting picky eaters. This is because allowing children to help themselves to food facilitates a grazing approach to eating, making it tricky for children to self-regulate (eat in response to their internal cues).
Children need to feel appropriately hungry before each meal and snack and to feel satisfied afterwards. If they eat lots of little snacks throughout the day, this rhythm can become distorted and even lost. Equally, to support a positive meal and snack structure, it is important that eating opportunities happen at the same time each day, within reason. When children help themselves to food, this is hard to achieve.
Finally, sometimes you may be happy to let your child help themselves, sometimes you may not. This could be because of what they are helping themselves to, or when you are planning to serve the next meal. It could be about how resilient you feel - I know that I let things slide much more with my kids when I am stressed or tired.
This inconsistency will give rise to arguments because if a child knows that last week, it was fine for them to pour themselves a glass of milk, they will push for it this week - they feel they are in with a chance. Consistently making sure that your child knows they are not allowed to get themselves food, however, makes these battles much less likely.
The only thing I advise making an exception for, is water. It’s very important - especially if you live in a hot climate - that children have access to water (in an age appropriate form) at all times.
How can you prevent your child from helping themselves?
If you make the decision not to let your child help themselves to food, how can you actually implement this? I suppose I would argue that you already know how. You make sure they don’t play with things which would cause an almighty mess, like a bottle of olive oil. You keep them safe from food items which would be a health hazard, like dried pulses, for example (err… just thinking back to my brother’s trip to hospital after I convinced him to eat a raw kidney bean as a toddler).
You will have ways and means of maintaining appropriate boundaries and no one knows better than you what the best approach for your household, will be. I think what is harder, is making the decision that this is a boundary you want to impose; when your child is a very picky eater, it’s incredibly difficult to move from the mindset that any eating is a win.
Last week, I wrote an article about giving children control over food in a psychologically healthy way - by letting them choose whether or not to eat the food you serve - and the same concept applies here. It might feel like you are disempowering your child by ensuring that they don’t help themselves to food, but you can give them loads of positive control by letting them make their own eating decisions from within the context you set.