Some days, my daughter eats a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast.

It all began with these amazing cookies that my husband started to make.  If he had offered me one on our first date, our courtship would have been much shorter.

Recently, said cookies have become an object of contention in my house.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, then clearly you are not living with a two-year old.  You would be forgiven for not understanding that something made of chocolate chips, butter, and walnuts could become a battle ground of sorts.

“Mommy, can I have a cookie?” is often the first question of the day.  Clearly, she has inherited my love of chocolate chips ensconced in dough.  When she first started to ask this question, I wasn’t sure quite how to respond.  Of course, I regularly talk with my psychotherapy clients about listening to their bodies; I encourage them to avoid deprivation and to honor their hunger. But facing this issue with my own daughter, at such an early hour of the morning, was harder than I imagined.  “Can I have some coffee before I answer, sweetie?”

Experts generally agree that food should not be used in battle, as doing so serves to disconnect children from their hunger, and promotes the idea that food can be used for interpersonal leverage.   Not eating dinner, for example, becomes about getting attention from mom or dad, expressing emotion or securing power.

Kids need parents to provide them with structure and guidance, but they also need space to listen to their own bodies, to their internal cues about being hungry or full.  Parents are like fenceswe provide a safe area of containment within which kids get to bounce around and learn about cause and effect. Eventually, they internalize the fences and regulate their own behavior, so that they don’t need us to do it for them.  At least as often.

This means providing some guidelines around eating—“No, you can’t have 10 cookies for dinner followed by a banana split for dessert”—while not insisting that they join the Clean Plate Club or eat when they are not hungry.

As parents, we can positively wield our influence by eating a wide variety of healthy foods and demonstrating a willingness to try new things.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, we can verbalize our own thought process regarding whether to eat more or stop.

For example, you might allow your children to hear you say, “No, I think I’ll pass on dessert tonight, as my tummy is pretty full already.”  Or, “I am enjoying this ice cream so much that I think I’ll have another bite.”  You’ll be sending the message that it’s most important to attend to internal cues, rather than to anything in the environment.

After talking it over with my husband, the obvious answer to my daughter’s cookie question was “Yes.”  Here is how the plan currently works: she gets 1 cookie (or half, if they are the size of Alaska) per day.  She can choose when to eat it, meaning that if she eats it first thing in the morning, sayonara cookie; no more until tomorrow.  Because the cookie doesn’t truly fill her up, she will have other, more breakfast-y foods after she finishes it.  So in truth she doesn’t have a cookie for breakfast, but rather before breakfast.  (I’m not sure if that makes it sound more or less crazy.)

The point is to empower my daughter to make choices:  “Should I have the cookie before breakfast, or after dinner?”  “Should I attack it like a vulture, eating it in one fell swoop, or save some for later?”

Surprisingly, she sometimes does choose to save part for later.  I have no idea where she gets this.  I’d like to think that some of it might relate to the fact that we don’t consider food to be “good” or “bad”; she has not learned that she should binge on chocolate cake now because she won’t get it again until her next birthday.  But it might be her natural temperament, too, and have nothing to do with our stellar parenting skills.

I am SURE she tells her preschool teacher that she’s had a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast, and I imagine that other parents hear it, while removing coats and stashing lunches in cubbies.  To them this might sound ridiculous or even irresponsible.  But it’s all part of the Grand Plan to raise daughters who listen to their bodies and trust themselves.

Even if we allowed this unusual eating behavior out of sheer laziness, we could almost be forgiven.  Unless you’ve had these cookies, you shouldn’t judge.  (And no, they’re not for sale yet, but that’s another part of the Grand Plan that’s still in the works.  Stay tuned.)