When to say no

When to say no

Posted on April 13, 2023. Last updated on April 13, 2023
Alyssa a registered dietitian
Written by Alyssa

Establishing Boundaries To Nourish Your Child

In the circle of child nutrition, we often talk about what to do when your child wants more. They finished their plate and asked for seconds. Or ate all their apple slices during snack and wanted another. 

Typically the answer is simple–give them more! But are there circumstances when we should say no? I think so. Hear me out.

What are serving sizes anyways?

When we walk down the aisles at the grocery store, we see pre-portioned meals for babies and adults alike. Where do those portion sizes come from, though? Who decided that’s how much we should be eating? 

They’re completely made up. There is little to no research behind those portion sizes, yet they’ve come to set our expectations for what is “normal”. So don’t be weary if your child eats more or less than “one serving” per the package. Every kid is different.

Kids’ Changing Appetites

We’ve gotten used to seeing what’s considered “normal”, and have now come to expect that from our children at each meal. If they eat more or less than “normal”, we’re concerned.

Children’s appetites are constantly changing because their source is fluid. Their appetite is directly tied to how much sleep they’re getting, physical activity, stress, playing, growth and even brain development. 

The goal here is to help our kids learn to eat intuitively. To trust their bodies and listen when it says how much food they need. 

To do that, sometimes we have to let them feel too full or get a little hungry.

New Expectations

Think about the last meal you ate. Did you eat a typical amount for that meal? Do you always eat the same exact amount every day at that time? Or does it fluctuate?

If you’re consistently eating the same amount, dig into the why. Are you ignoring your body’s cues and eating out of habit? If we want our children to learn how to eat intuitively, the best way to teach is to lead by example. 

If your portions fluctuate based on your needs, remember your kids do, too.

Know and expect their appetites to change from day to day, week to week, or even meal to meal!

As their bodies develop, they will require different nutritional needs. Trust them to trust their bodies.

Change your expectations to a feeling of wonder–I wonder how much they’ll eat; I wonder if they’re growing–rather than relying on your preconceived notion of how their plate should look at the end of a meal.

When To Say No

All that being said, there are times we should say no. We must teach our children to listen to their bodies, but it is acceptable to establish boundaries.

Food Allergies

If your child has food allergies, it is obvious that you wouldn’t allow them to eat something that will cause them harm. Your primary job is to keep them safe and healthy!

Outside Meal/Snack Routine

Setting a meal and snack routine is crucial to avoiding picky eating and setting expectations. If you’re new here and don’t know what I’m talking about, I break it all down here!

If you’ve taken the time to establish a solid routine, what should you do if they ask for food outside of those allowed times?

First, acknowledge that they’re hungry. Next, make a plan for when they will eat next. Lastly, redirect.

It should look a little something like this:

“Oh, you want grapes? Let’s put that on the menu for lunch! Until lunchtime, let’s go play xyz!”

Acknowledge. Plan. Redirect.

You’ve Run Out

This one seems pretty simple, right? You can’t offer something you don’t have. 

Tell your little one, “I’m so sorry we’re all out! I’ll make sure to add it to the list for next time.”

As a parent, it can be disheartening to go through food faster than you expected. Maybe you thought those grapes would last you five days and they’ve only lasted two.

Nourishing our children is definitely an investment of time, effort, and money.

Your child may be upset and you may feel guilty, but remember no matter what window of time they’re consuming the foods, they’re still getting all the nutrients!

You Need To Save Some For The Family

If your child is requesting more, but you need to save some for other members of the family, it’s okay to say no.

Be clear and honest about the needs of the rest of the family, telling them something like, “That’s all we have today, the rest is for tomorrow/daddy’s lunch/mommy.”

A tantrum may ensue, but it’s okay to set and hold boundaries when it comes to feeding the family as a whole.

Meal Time Has Gone Too Long

I usually recommend meals lasting anywhere from 15-45 minutes, depending on the needs of the family.

A great way to exhibit this is with a sand timer.

However, if your child is dragging on too long, it’s appropriate to cut them off at the end of the meal.

Let them know you will set it aside to have later, even letting them help wrap it up so they don’t feel like it’s been an abrupt end.

Food Reactions

Different from allergies, reactions are an effect of eating too much of a certain type of food.

They may get constipation or diarrhea with too much fruit or dairy.

While it’s hard to see our children feel discomfort, I’m a fan of letting them eat it. Then when the consequences come, gently point out the cause-and-effect relationship.

Young children have a harder time making that connection but are more easily able to do so as they get older.

We want them to learn how to make these decisions on their own, so while it may not always be a firm “no”, a gentle reminder may help them in their decision-making process.

Keep in mind that just because there was a reaction last time doesn’t mean there will be forever. 

Their reactions to food will ebb and flow as they continue to grow and develop. 

Need more help, check out Table Talk

Raising intuitive eaters is made so much harder with picky eating habits.

By joining Table Talk, the self-paced picky eating course that works. You’ll become your child’s own feeding expert. No more bribing, begging, or counting bites! 

When we can tackle picky eating and establish good habits, we set the stage for intuitive eating and connection through meals.

Alyssa Miller picky eating dietitian
Hi there! My name is Alyssa

I'm a registered dietitian and picky eating specialist with nearly a decade of experience, mom of three, and the founder of Nutrition for Littles. I'm dedicated to making mealtimes enjoyable and nutritious for families.

Do you need more help with your picky eater? I want to invite you to my free class to reverse picky eating!

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