Toddlers, oy!  That’s all I can think when I reflect on the events of last night’s dinner at our house.  I keep shaking my head, both in disbelief and in fits of self-doubt, as I recall exactly how things unfolded between me, P., and a perfectly good dinner gone wrong.

I’ve received many, many compliments lately about the way I feed my kids and how “great” it is that I can “get them to eat.”  I use quotes around these statements because frankly, nights like last night prove that we are all fallible, and “getting them to eat” sometimes ends up being maybe not so “great.”  I’m just like every other parent out there  in that I occasionally find myself in the position of holding that loaded spoon, staring down the barrel of an obstinate kid, and thinking “OK…now what?”

So what happened, exactly?  It’s well-documented, at least here on the blog, that P. is not much of a dinner kid.  He eats very well at breakfast and lunch, but come dinnertime, his appetite and his patience for eating tend to wane somewhat.  He’s always been that way, and since he’s growing fine and seems unperturbed by skipping dinner, we don’t make a big deal about it.  We simply bring him to the table, set some food in front of him, and generally try to make sure that at least one item on his plate is something that we’re confident he will eat if he is hungry enough.  If he doesn’t eat, we assume he’s not hungry, and when he asks to get down, he gets down.

Simple, right?  It used to be.  It used to work out fairly well, in fact…until suddenly, somewhere in the depths of his clever little toddler mind, P. realized that maybe he could leverage this system to his advantage.  He decided to try to manipulate not whether, but what he was going to eat.

Last night, we had what should have been a relatively surefire dinner — “No-Fuss Chicken,” otherwise known to L. as “Cornflake Chicken.”  This recipe is an old one, cut out from a magazine by my grandmother when I was still quite young, and while it’s not probably the most amazingly health-conscious and modern meal, it’s really quite simple, tasty, and practically kid-proof.  I’ve met no child yet who could resist it.  We make it once a month or so during the cooler seasons, because not only do the kids like it, but L. absolutely loves making it with me.  (Last night he was particularly excited, because I cut up some chicken into “fingers” and let him make his very own chicken fingers for his lunchbox.)  Alongside the chicken I did some smashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon and a cherry tomato salad — quick, easy, and healthy.

When we sat down to dinner, P. actually seemed quite interested in eating.  But he pushed the food around his plate, whined, moaned, complained, squirmed, and eventually was dispatched from the table.  Fine.  Not hungry, I guessed.  L., on the other hand, inhaled his dinner.  Since J. had just returned last night from two days out of town, and we were all in a celebratory mood with Daddy back at the table, I offered L. a small single-serving ice cream cup as a special “Welcome Home, Daddy!” treat.

Those of you who are visionaries will see immediately that this is where things went wrong.

L. ate a good dinner and was, in my view, more than deserving of a modest dessert.  But P. toddled by the table and saw L. eating ice cream.  This was the moment that reminded me why feeding two children can be far more complicated than feeding one.

When L. was small, if he didn’t eat well, we just didn’t offer him a dessert (not that he gets one every night, but you understand — IF dessert was an option that night, he wouldn’t know about it unless he’d done well at the main meal).  No fuss, no battles.  But now that L. has a little brother, P. gets clued in that there is dessert in the house, and he doesn’t want to be left out.  Unfortunately, he’s not sophisticated enough yet, at 18 months old, to understand how this situation can be motivating.  Instead, he sees it as a direct assault on his sense of fairness, and he screams.

As P. pointed and jabbered and tried to climb into L.’s lap to get the ice cream, I picked him up and said firmly, “If you want ice cream, you must eat some dinner.”  I plopped him in his chair and offered him his plate.  He fussed and reached for the ice cream.  I reiterated, “Dinner first.  Dinner, THEN ice cream.”  I was patient and reasonable.  He threw a spoon at me.

Down from the chair, for throwing a spoon at Mommy.  Moments later, climbing, pointing, jabbering, reaching.  Back into the chair.  Mommy, a model of patience and firmness, showing him his dinner.  Back arching, screaming, red-faced tantrum.  When P. gets furious, it’s nothing short of epic.

Finally he calmed down enough for me to get his attention again.  Our eyes locked.  “Dinner,” I repeated.  “If you expect to eat ice cream, you will eat some dinner.”  Realizing that P. is the type of child who benefits from a) visuals; and b) learning by experience, I went to the freezer and got an ice cream cup.  I set it on the table just beyond his reach.  “You may have ice cream,” I told him.  “AFTER you try some dinner.”

I can hear heads crashing onto keyboards all over America right now — I know you’re all thinking, “WHAT was she DOING?”  But you must understand that at this point, it was a situation in which I had to make my point clear — we’d gone too far into it.  And I was a little crazed.  I was not about to accept his belief that he should be allowed to eat whatever, whenever, so I told myself that I must get him to connect eating dinner with choosing another option.  Of course, I glossed over the fact that it was possibly also creating a relationship between the dinner and the dessert that was tantamount to rewarding him with sweets.

We ended up doing a reciprocal, bite-for-bite arrangement, with P. squawking angrily at me each time I insisted he eat the sweet potatoes or the chicken.  I did have him feed himself, I’ll say — I wasn’t going to stoop so low as to force-feed him.  (Thankfully I was clear-sighted enough to realize that this was about him making his own choice to eat or not eat, and seeing what resulted from those choices — I wasn’t SO far gone, I guess.)  When he got some dinner down, he got a little taste of the ice cream.  When he stopped eating, he stopped getting to taste the ice cream.  Eventually, he calmed down and ate enough that I felt comfortable about his attempt, and he had two more bites of ice cream, then asked to get down from the table.

In the grand scheme of things I’ve done as a parent, it wasn’t probably my best moment, and of course today I’m second-guessing myself like mad.  Did I just unwittingly teach him that he should want ice cream instead of food, as many experts would suggest?  (I don’t know…he already wanted ice cream instead of food.  What about that?)  Did I set up a “reward” system by which he will expect a bite of ice cream for a bite of dinner every single night?  (Remains to be seen…and I will have to undo that damage if it appears, I guess.)  Did I forever damage his relationship to food and his own hunger cues?  (Probably not, especially since I really think he was hungry — he just wanted to see if he could get away with choosing to eat only dessert.)  Did I scar him in the process of letting him work out his tantrums until he was ready to oblige me?  (I doubt it — he was actually happier and calmer afterward, which tells me that a little food in his stomach didn’t come amiss, even if my methods were suspect.)

I don’t know what I would do differently if the situation came up again, but I do know that I don’t have all the answers about food and kids.  Just when you think you’ve got a system that works, they’ll throw you a curveball and make you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about getting them fed.  Which brings me back to my original thesis, underscored with Mommy guilt: Toddlers.  Oy.