So… My Toddler’s Eating in the Closet

Boy Peaking over top of a ladder

Last week I had an experience that caught me completely off guard and shook me to my core.

While scurrying around getting ready to leave the house, The Little Helping asked me for some pretzels.  I told him, “not now,” and explained that it was not snack time. I also reminded him of his most recent meal and assured him that we could have pretzels later.

In my mind the issue was closed so I went off in search of my keys. Moments later I heard a rustling sound coming from the hall closet. I opened the door and found The Little Helping tucked into a dark corner with the bag of pretzels in his lap.

It was one of those moments when a dozen things happen in less than a second. All at once my breath caught in my throat, my stomach lurched, and I felt a cold rush of blood through my body. I was looking down at my son but in my mind I had become the child crouched in the closet sneaking food. I glimpsed a future of fighting over what to eat and when. In that split second my child had become a closet eater and I was helpless to save him.

In a blink it all passed and I stopped just short of collapsing on the floor in a hysterical heap. I sincerely hope none of the agony I experienced in that instant was broadcast on my face.

The pretzel bag was returned to the cupboard while I repeated my reminder that we would eat a snack later. Then I hurried us both out the front door.

Child watching father use a drill

The fact is our Little Helping is growing up – fast. He won’t be three until December but is already the size of many four year olds. Keeping up with him is often exhausting but I know it is all part of the process. The hardest part is letting him begin to make food choices for himself.

Boy sitting in lawn chair eating a pear

When he asks for yogurt, a banana, graham crackers, chocolate chips, and grapes, all in between meals I really struggle with when to say yes and when to say no. I also struggle with the language to use when he helps himself to any of these things.  Could scolding him for grabbing healthy food without permission send the wrong message? For connivence sake I would love to put a latch on the refrigerator door but then I wonder if that makes the food inside all the more tempting.

child chewing on a chive stalk

My answer, for better or worse, is to just keep talking. Our conversations are simple after all he is only two. I might ask him to pick a protein to go with his chosen lunch of fruit and crackers and then offer him two appropriate options. When he asks for a snack right after a meal I talk about giving our bodies a chance to use the energy we put into them before adding more.

Throughout the summer he has been included in my vegetable gardening adventures helping to pick peas and tomatoes and pull up root veggies. Before getting into the car we frequently check on our squash vines. So far, he is even more likely to eat a vegetable after we tell him it came from the garden – I’m trying not to abuse that trick.

Child crouched infront of vegetable garden

He is becoming more interested in my kitchen activities. As his attention span and coordination increases he has begun to “help” me cook. He lends a hand with a butter knife and something soft to chop on his own cutting board. Most recently he has started asking really thoughtful questions about the cooking process for various foods. It is a joy to watch him begin to connect the dots.

Child Helping to Cut Fruit

For my own sanity I hang on tight to those joy filled teaching moments. For now, the ‘pretzels in the closet’ incident has much more to do with me than him.

I will continue to heal.

He will continue to grow.

More bumps will happen.

The best is yet to come.

“It’s not only children who grow.  Parents do too.  As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours.  I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun.  All I can do is reach for it, myself.”  ~Joyce Maynard.
“In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything.  You just need a lot of love and luck – and, of course, courage.”  ~Bill Cosby, Fatherhood, 1986

This can be a touchy subject. If you have some kind thoughts please share them.


  1. Rose, just imagine all the creative thinking and problem-solving that went into his closet pretzel eating heist! I can just see his surprised face when you opened the door.

  2. What I love about this post is your insight about how you knew right away that it was your own fears of over eating, your honesty about trying to balance those fears with teaching your son healthy habits and your efforts to not let him be affected by your own struggles. I love that he is helping you in the kitchen, that is awesome. Thank you for sharing this story, your self awareness and conscious parenting is inspiring!

  3. As someone who is overweight and struggles with an eating disorder i can tell you that i have been to MANY different disordered eating groups the common theme is always how their parents restricted/regulated food when they were young. Of course you are worried about your son being overweight and want what’s best for him but at that age especially, he is already able to self-regulate. He may eat what seems like an enormous amount of food one day and then balance it out by eating not as much the next or be going through a growth spurt!

    • I am a tiny bit concerned that I didn’t drive my point home with this story. Yes I am concerned that my son may be overweight but it has everything to do with me. My body may be 145 pounds lighter but I am continuing to find my way to a fully normal and healthy thought process. My emotional response to this particular incident really threw me for a loop. It was my reaction that moved me to share the story.

      I do wonder, as I mentioned, what “enough” food for his body looks like. I also worry about finding the balance between discipline and independence. I would like him to ask for a snack rather than help himself. When he helps himself it involves moving furniture, climbing onto the counters, and getting into potentially unsafe situations. Along the way he will learn that no may be answer, if say dinner is going to be served shortly. I also hope that he will learn that hunger is a regular part of the human existence. Feeling hungry is not an immediate emergency and learning to rest in that feeling just as we do in so many others is a very good lesson for anyone to learn.

      Also, just to be completely clear, there is no lock on the refrigerator or any cupboard in our home that has food in it. My motivation to install a latch on the refrigerator would be preventing having to clean up the mess of a gallon of milk spilling on the floor and not to better regulate his consumption of milk (or any other food item).

      I hope this clarifies things a little bit.

  4. I know! I am really torn between the desire to tell my kids what they can eat and when and the desire to see them self-moderate (my kids are a little older, though). I agree that paying attention and talking about it are key to developing healthy habits.

  5. Rose, in my opinion, the most important thing with feeding a toddler IS allowing him to self regulate, and looking at his nutrition on a weekly basis. For example: he may have a day where he wants to eat nothing but blueberries. Relax, and let him have them. In a few days, he’ll want nothing but string cheese. Look back on the past few days and think “did he eat a vegetable this week? a fruit? some good protein?”

    The way to help him is to allow him to recognize what his body is craving, and to feed that when he is actually hungry, not on a preset schedule. If you always put healthful, wholesome foods in front of him, then you can be assured that no matter what he puts in his mouth from his plate or lunch box, or when, it will be something good for him.

    Good luck.

    • Thank you Andrea those are all excellent reminders. I completely agree with you that toddler nutrition should be measured on a bigger picture scale. It is also true that the food he has access to is generally wholesome. Kids can’t live on french fries and “fruit” juice when those things aren’t in the house.

  6. Loved your post, Rose. So honest & thoughtful. Loved the quotes at the end, too. It’s so funny how we think we’re the ones teaching kids things, when we really are learning side-by-side as we go.

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