Picture this. It’s an hour after breakfast, and your toddler decides they are bored. They head to the kitchen and grab whatever food they can reach.
An hour later, they’re bored again. They grab a step stool or their kitchen tower and climb up to the fridge to get into the drawer with food they can eat. They take some cheese, wander off and eat it.
Rinse and repeat throughout the whole day.
What’s wrong with this picture, you say? It’s great, they’re independent! Isn’t that a good thing?
While I’m all for independence, in this case it can actually have a lot of unintended negative effects on your child’s eating.
It’s your job as the parent to decide when food is served
Let’s preface this whole discussion with the idea that it is your job as the parent or caregiver to decide when food is served, and what is served for that eating opportunity.
It is your child’s job to decide how much of the food to eat, and whether they’ll eat it at all.
This is known as the Division of Responsibility, and is a feeding philosophy coined by child feeding guru Ellyn Satter.
Research has shown that sticking to your respective sides of the feeding equation is the key to eliminating a lot of common battles around food and mealtimes.
What is a “Kitchen is Closed” policy?
When we talk about a “Kitchen is closed” policy, we are really talking about after an eating opportunity there is no more access to the kitchen until the next eating opportunity. An eating opportunity in this case would be a meal or a snack.
When a meal or snack is done, there is no access to the fridge or the pantry for your kids until it is time for the next meal or snack. That goes for you getting them food or them getting themselves food if they are old enough.
By having a policy like this, you can nip whining and the constant requests for snacks in the bud. “Oh, it’s not time for a snack right now, the kitchen is closed! It will be time to eat again in (1 or 2 hours, or whatever is relevant here.)”
A policy like this also allows you to easily fulfill your side of the Division of Responsibility, where you are choosing when a meal or snack is offered and what is offered for it.
Having endless access to the kitchen leads to grazing
Whether your child is asking you for food at all times throughout the day, or going in and getting it themselves, having an open kitchen inevitably leads to grazing.
Not to mention, if they are asking you for the food, it leads you to be in the kitchen constantly. That is exhausting!
The problem with allowing your child to graze
Now just why is grazing bad? Head to this article on why you need a schedule for your toddler for details.
The quick and dirty summary is that grazing doesn’t allow your child to understand the feeling of hunger and fullness. They get used to a constant steady state of being somewhat full. And at the end of the day, that often leads to things like increased pickiness, less being eaten, and lots of other common issues that parents experience around mealtimes.
It is vital that we provide our kids with structured times that food is available!
The problem with snack drawers and allowing access to the kitchen
One of the main things a kitchen is closed policy will affect is how snacking happens in your house. I see many recommendations out there to provide your child with access to a snack drawer in the fridge or in their play area where they can choose what snacks they want whenever they want them.
I understand the desire to allow your child to exercise some independence with snacks, but there are a few issues that I have with this idea.
First and foremost, again, it is your job to decide what is available to eat at an eating opportunity. As the parent or caregiver, you are the one that knows what your child needs to eat that is nutritionally sound and will meet their needs.
Your child, for many many years still, is not in a developmental state to make this choice. What is offered to eat at any eating opportunity is your job.
You can give them a choice between two things if you would like to help them exercise independence, but any more than that is not helpful for them.
By providing something like a snack drawer, you are inherently giving them more choice than they are developmentally ready for.
The one way I see around this issue is if you are grouping snacks into full balanced options and not just individual foods.
Avoid open access to snacks
So let’s say you are grouping snacks appropriately and only giving them 2 choices in their snack area. How can you make that work?
If you are keen to provide snacks for them to choose from in an open access area, I recommend only allowing access to the snacks at certain times of the day. Don’t have them openly available.
Instead, tell them when it is snack time and allow them to go to their snack area then. Don’t make it a free-for-all throughout the day.
More often than not, without a routine or schedule of when to eat snacks and meals, kids will get bored with what they're doing and look to food to stop the boredom. This is something that is often encouraged in our society, as well.
We want to stop this pattern, and remove eating for boredom’s sake from their experience. One of the best ways to do this is, you guessed it, to have a kitchen (or snack drawer!) is closed policy.
Teaching our kids to eat when they are hungry is important!
When we talk about this type of a policy, many times I hear questions about whether this is teaching our kids to eat when they are hungry or on other people’s schedules.
While this is definitely a valid question, I encourage you to look at it from a different angle. We absolutely want our kids to only eat when they are hungry.
But if we aren’t providing a routine for them, they will often lose their connection with their body that tells them when they are hungry or full. With constant access to food at this age, as well as the consistent messages they usually get from our diet culture obsessed society, they will start to override their natural intuition around eating.
Providing a schedule actually helps them to learn to eat when they are hungry. It helps them to know that there is a predictable pattern to when food is present. There is no need to constantly eat something or worry about when it will be there again.
The food is there when it always is, they can eat it or not, and there will always be a next time.
For a deep dive into this concept, and help setting up appropriate boundaries and routines around mealtimes, make sure to grab the toddler and preschooler course, Mastering Mealtimes!