One of our community members shared this photo and asked the following question:

Butter on cracker cropped

“My 3.5 year old son insists on putting this much butter on each tiny cracker I give him. When I turn away for a second, he will also try to eat spoonfuls of butter on its own. It’s organic and grass-fed (although I wish it were more orange), and I don’t believe in limiting my own self on butter by any means, but still I sometimes wonder if I should intervene because of how extreme his desired/consumed quantity is. Is he deficient in something? Is this just a normal fat craving for his age? He also wants endless amounts of cheese and yogurt. Thank you.”

Our answer would be, follow your child’s lead!

This is a guest post by Heather Dessinger of The Mommypotamus written for Nourishing Our Children. 

So, The Other Night …

My son lunged over a plate of pot roast to grab a stick of butter … for dinner. Did I snatch it away from him or run to check the CDC’s prediction regarding the likelihood he will develop heart disease? Um, no, I grabbed my camera!

You see, butter cravings are a milestone in my house.

They mark the midway point of my children’s transition from breast milk to pastured dairy products  Yep, I’m one of those. It’s more than just a difference in source, though. As all mamas know, we do not come with buttons that allow a child to select strawberry flavored milk. Though the flavor is influenced by what we eat, our bodies create without the child’s input. The same is true for babies who receive donated breast milk or homemade formula.

The thing about butter cravings – and most cravings during the toddler years – is that they are so much more than awesome slideshow opportunities. We are witnessing the awakening of our child’s internal gastronomic sage . . . their own inner wisdom about how to feed themselves for optimal nourishment. Chances are they will never wake up and say “I need 2000 IU of Vitamin D, stat!” – but they just might ask for bacon and eggs. Based on this post from Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride you might say it’s the same thing.

Unfortunately, this inner wisdom is very often derailed by well-meaning (we hope) yet inaccurate advice. Back in the 1920’s doctors “began prescribing with bank teller–like precision what and when and how much a child should eat in order to be healthy.” Their choice? Bland, sieved vegetable soup. [ source ] Later on, we were encouraged to switch to MSG-laden baby food, which by it’s very nature alters the cravings of a child. More recently, deprivation seems to be the advised path. Consider this recommendation from Babycenter:

Your 2-year-old now

Time to trim the fat! Once your child turns 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you reduce her fat intake to less than 30 percent of her daily calories. You don’t have to zealously monitor fat intake. Just switch from whole milk to 2 percent, and look for low-fat versions of cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. For the rest of her diet, provide a balanced offering of whole grains, lean meats or beans, fruits, and vegetables. Don’t cut out fats entirely; your preschooler’s growing brain and body depend on them for proper development. And many dairy products that contain fat are also terrific sources of calcium.

Yikes! Fat is still where it’s at for toddlers and preschoolers! Most of us know that, but there is another issue here worth considering. When we as parents carefully assemble our panel of nutritional experts let’s not leave the most important one out – the child!

A Bold Feeding Experiment

What would a child do if given free reign over their own diet? Back in the 1920’s, Chicago pediatrician Clara Davis decided to find out. She gathered a group of babies – mostly breastfed orphans who had recently been weaned – for a bold feeding experiment. With the help of a team of nurses, Dr. Davis provided these little subjects with a range of food from which they could eat whatever they wanted.

“The complete smorgasbord included broiled ground beef and lamb, steamed and minced haddock, chicken, sweetbreads, brains, liver and kidneys; broiled beef and veal bone marrow; bone jelly (or reduced veal stock); raw and poached eggs; steel-cut oats, ground whole wheat, cornmeal, and whole barley (all boiled); raw oats and wheat; rye crackers; raw apples, bananas, oranges, pineapple and peaches; steamed apples; baked bananas; raw tomatoes, lettuce carrots, cabbage and peas; steamed beets, carrots, peas, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage and spinach; and baked potatoes. The babies could drink water, whole milk, cultured milk, and sometimes fresh orange juice. Each baby got his own dish of sea salt.”¹

“Each meal included grains, a couple of meats, and fruits and vegetables. Every dish was unseasoned and unmixed; that is, there were no recipes. Instead of meatloaf, babies got beef in one bowl and carrots in another, the better to measure consumption.” Over the course of the experiment (which lasted several months), the children were given no encouragement or discouragement regarding particular foods. They ate apart from the other babies to prevent copycat behavior, with only a nurse present that would refill dishes if asked.”²

[Sandrine’s note – I found it interesting that the smorgasbord included many of the foods that are in our very own nutrient dense food pyramid!]

So what happened? “At a given meal, choices could be extreme. One baby ate mostly bone marrow; another regularly drank a quart of milk with lunch. One baby ate seven eggs in one day and another, four bananas, while one occasionally took handfuls of salt … But over time, all the babies ate a varied diet, including much more meat than doctors recommended.”

“Most revealing,” she continues, “all the children thrived … A nine-month-old boy with rickets drank cod liver oil until his rickets was cured, then ignored it.”³

What I love about Clara Davis’ experiment is how it demonstrates that different children are, well … different. Their little gastronomic sage is unlike anyone else’s, and by listening to it and helping them learn to listen to it we position them for a lifetime of healthy choices.

So What Does This Look Like In Real Life?

Well, I for one am not serving thirty items at every meal! However, there are several practical takeaways that I’ve implemented with my kids:

  • Only provide nutrient dense foods. That is the “trick” to Clara’s experiment – it was fail safe! She selected the foods and the child selected the portions. In my home the same is basically true, but as a realist I do limit some things. Most of us cannot say no to too much sugar … even the natural stuff like fruit and honey. In the past nature helped us with this by making these items scarce. These days we can fly things in from all over the world so we have to choose to limit our consumption and help our kids do the same. Also, items like bread are always served with a generous helping of butter.
  • Indulge healthy cravings. There have been times when my kids could eat their weight in smoked salmon, goat cheese and scallops. There have been brief obsessions with tangerines and mayonnaise. I try to supply as much of these items as my budget will allow, knowing that when their bodies have received the nourishment they need the cravings will subside.
  • Encourage adventurous eating. When I make something new my kids don’t have to eat it all, but they DO have to try it! The babies in Clara’s experiment had no notion of food . . . they gnawed on the trays that the food was brought on and the dishes, too! As we get older we tend to cling to the familiar and may need a little help getting outside of our comfort zone. So while I admire that her little charges were neither encouraged nor discouraged toward a particular food, I’m perfectly fine with giving my children a little nudge (especially toward liver).
  • Make sure they have good gut flora. Without it pathogenic microbes tend to take over the digestive tract and alter our cravings in destructive ways. [source] When this happens trusting our cravings is like trusting a faulty compass. Though gut flora is established at birth and can be affected by antibiotics, stress, and diet, it can also be positively influenced by probiotic supplements and yummy fermented foods like water kefir, probiotic-infused lemonade jello, yogurt and ketchup
  • Be okay if they say no. Part of learning to honor our internal wisdom is to know which foods are compatible with us and which are not. Children may refuse a food because it is something they don’t like or it doesn’t serve a need, but issues like food sensitivities may also be a factor. In general if my kids refuse a particular food consistently while eating well overall I rotate it out and try again later.

¹ ² ³ Source: Real Food For Mother And Baby, p. 186-188

About Our Guest Author

Heather Dessinger, aka The Mommypotamus, is a wife, blogger and mom to two amazing kiddos, both waterborn at home. She loves all things fermenty, talks to sock puppets, and dreams of owning her very own flock of backyard chickens. She is the author of two ebooks. Nourished Baby is a simple guide to introducing real food to little ones, and DIY Organic Beauty Recipes is a collection of 50+ beauty and personal care product recipes that really work.