01/24/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Food Lessons I Learned From A Five Year Old

First appeared on Food Riot, by Kit Steinkellner

I know there are a lot of parents of young children who write for Food Riot. I am not one of them. Most of my interactions with small ones is limited to my five-year-old niece, who lives about 5-6 hours away by car, so that limited interaction is even more, right, limited.

However, at the beginning of the year my husband and I got to spend a few days with his family and we had a morning of babysitting The Small One. And I learned so many things about five-year-old eating habits! Or it might be more accurate to say I remembered so many things I had forgot about what it's like to be five and eat food.


I was up before hubs and niece to go to a Russian gulag workout class, so I roll back to the house at 7:30 with Starbucks for all of us. Because bringing Starbucks is the modern equivalent of... I don't know, arriving at a medieval castle and demonstrating that you don't have any weapons? Anyway, I checked with sister-in-law beforehand and brought The Small One a buttered bagel and a vanilla milk, her regular order.

She pattered into the kitchen, took one look at the bagel, and told me she didn't want it.

"Will you take one bite for me just to see?" I asked, dumbfounded, because if I was allowed to eat a bagel right now, or any simple carbohydrates, there would be CRUMBS on that table and THAT'S ALL.

She took a bite and asserted that she wanted Cinnamon Toast Crunch. She insisted on me SLOWLY pouring the milk, screaming to stop when there was too much milk, which I totally got. You don't mess with a person's milk to cereal ratio at ANY age.

She liked the milk and took four and a half sips. So I guess liking a food/drink as a child means... taking MORE than ONE bite or sip? I kind of remember that.


We went to Trader Joe's because I was making dinner for the family that night. It was very important to The Small One that she be allowed to put items in the basket. She also wanted to carry the basket, but was over that once the basket had about three items inside and actually weighed something.

I told her that she could have "a treat" from the market and she initially picked out an avocado, which cracked me up. Since when is an avocado a treat? There are WAY too many carotenoid antioxidants in an avocado for it to be a treat! When she asked if she could have this cereal with a panda mascot that was mostly sugar and a little bit fiber, I gave her the thumbs up because that cereal had no antioxidants of any variety.


What do you do when a small child gets hungry an hour before her mom is supposed to come home and make lunch?

You make that child whatever they want to eat as quickly as possible so you don't feel like you're running an orphanage in a Charles Dickens novel.

Especially if what she wants to eat is "a quesadilla with avocado" and she says both "quesadilla" and "avocado" with the cutest intonation humanly possible.

You proceed to make that quesadilla exactly to her specifications, resisting the urge to fancy it up as you would if you were making food for, well, anyone else. But you can't resist plating it prettily, because you are a HOME CHEF not a CAFETERIA WORKER.


The plating is beside the point, she drops the avocado pieces on the couch and floor three times before lunch is through. You let her because the five-second rule was INVENTED for clumsy kids dropping ish.

She eats half the already-tiny quesadilla (husband eats the rest). She does ask for more than the quarter-of-avocado you gave her, so you give her another quarter, and another one, and another one... until she's eaten the entire avocado. Kids!


I told her I was making chicken for dinner and she said. "I only eat chicken from Panda Express." When I told her I wasn't making chicken from Panda Express, she said "I'll just have tortellini instead, please."

LESSONS LEARNED: My niece is as picky an eater as I was at her age (probably LESS picky, I don't think I asked for anything green until, like, high school). Of course she's picky. She's a human being, she takes comfort and receives happiness from food, and doesn't have to worry about portions or nutritional value just yet. That's a parent's job. And that's what I feel like I really came away with after spending the day with my niece observing her relationship to food. As adults, WE are the ones who have to act as both parent and child to ourselves. We have to tell ourselves to "take one more bite" (or five less, whatever). We're the ones who have to tell ourselves to "just try" something. So part of what we tell children while they're eating is training them to understand what they're going to have to tell themselves someday.

Do you have small ones in your life? What have you learned about food and eating from them?

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