“I Don’t Eat Vegetables” Part 2 — Ellyn Satter Responds!

by Bettina Elias Siegel on August 4, 2010

Lunch Tray readers may remember my post back in June in which I confessed that one of my children hates vegetables and (with a very few exceptions) will not try them no matter how many times or in what forms they’re presented.   I believe in the principle articulated by Ellyn Satter, a well respected author on kids and food, that parents are in charge of what is served and when and where it is served, but only children are in charge of whether and how much to eat.  But, as I wrote in my original post, not pressuring my child to try more vegetables has proven harder in practice than in theory.

Satter was kind enough to respond via email to my post back in June but due to copyright issues I’ve had to wait until now to share her response.  Here’s what she said:

Some kids avoid entire food groups until they get in their teens. Then they push themselves along to learn to eat them. They do, that is, provided parents haven’t made an issue of it all along. And have been successful at avoiding pressure. The fact that you say you son “refuses” makes me wonder what he has to refuse. Refusing is a two way street–the encourager, the refuser. . . . If your conscience is clear, forget about the vegetables. Let him eat fruit, drink milk, eat bread, eat meat, etc. etc.  He will do fine.

Satter then referred me to a post she’s written called “Avoid Pressure” which is from her own web site.  I’m quoting in part here (and it’s © 2010 Ellyn Satter, by the way):

Avoid Pressure

Pressure on children’s eating always backfires. Trying to get a child to eat more than she wants makes her eat less. Trying to get her to eat less than she wants makes her eat more. Trying to get her to eat certain foods makes her avoid them. Trying to get her to be neat and tidy makes her messy. Putting up with negative behavior in hopes she will eat makes her behave badly but not eat..

  • Pressure can seem positive: Praising, reminding, bribing, rewarding, applauding, playing games, talking about nutrition, giving stickers, going on and on about how great the food is.
  • Pressure can be negative: Restricting amounts or types of food, punishing, begging, withholding dessert, treats, or fun activities, physically forcing, threatening.
  • Pressure can seem like good parenting: Reminding her to eat or to taste, making her eat her vegetables, warning her that she will be hungry, keeping after her to use her silverware or napkin, making special food, hiding vegetables in other foods, letting her eat whenever she wants to between meals.
  • Pressure can be hard to detect: Ask yourself why you are doing something with feeding. Is it to get your child to eat more, less or different food than he does on his own? If so, it is pressure.

If I use Satter’s definition of pressure, I’m absolutely guilty of pressuring my children on a nightly basis.  I do talk about nutrition (not often, but sometimes);  I do occasionally talk pointedly (and immodestly) about how great the food is to encourage experimentation;  I do sometimes remind my kids to taste;  and I most definitely keep after my kids about manners (not sure why that last one’ a bad thing, though – that’s a follow-up question for Satter).

So, what do you think?  Is Satter’s definition of pressure is too broad?  Just right?  Are you guilty of applying pressure on your children under this definition?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

[Ed. Update:  This post from Ellyn Satter led to two more posts (here and here) including one in which, miracle of miracles, some big changes take place in my house!]

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna August 4, 2010 at 8:12 am

So, when I think back to my childhood, I HATED beans, green beans, tomatoes, tomato sauce, among other things. (I even quit girl scout camp after they mixed the spaghetti and sauce together.) My husband’s parents picked up Happy Meals for the kids to eat at ethnic restaurants so they didn’t have to try anything new. Today, we’re both game for just about anything and crave the things we couldn’t make ourselves swallow as a kids.
I do pressure my kids in under the guise of encouragement: why don’t you just try the green beans/tomatoes/asparagus again? I don’t ever make my kids finish their plate. The times I insist on them eating more or differently are if an empty, sugary dessert is waiting at the end of the meal or with my daughter who could live off of chips, french fries and pasta with butter.
I’ve always thought of our family as pretty high on the healthy scale, we make 95% of meals from scratch, lots of fruits and veggies, but do allow candy & other sugar-y treats, chips, white pasta, white flour for baking . . . etc and I’m completely ok with cupcakes at school for celebrations. That said, we (well, my kids) rarely finish their desserts, can walk away from candy when offered and have been known to devour large quantities of broccoli, kale, raw fish, brussels sprouts, etc. They are often allowed a soda at a restaurant or if we happen to have some in the house, but again rarely finish. With the variety of food choices available and adults around choosing from them, I trust my kids will grow into their palates as my husband and I did, enjoy a varied and balanced diet and have the freedom to enjoy even the most sinful treats without guilt.

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Jamie August 4, 2010 at 9:33 am

I run into this as a potty trainer. Parents don’t even realize the pressure they put on kids to achieve a certain behavior. When I do an in-home training, I can train a kid in hours…because I have no emotional attachment. It won’t affect me if your kid is in diapers till college. That sort of detachment is really hard to achieve with your own though!
I’m reminded of a time I was eating a bowl of kale. My son came over and asked if he could have it (I really wanted it, by the way) I gave a big sigh (that wasn’t manufactured, cause I really wanted it) and let him have it, thinking, “whatever…eat my lunch again”…then I realized: Holy Crap! My kid’s eating a whole bowl of kale. Just on the verge of super praise and acknowledgment, I suddenly pulled back. Now I don’t achieve this state of Food Zen regularly but I realized it was the Nothing From Mom that led him to eat the whole bowl. I think Ellyn is absolutely right…it’s just harder in practice.

BTW: totally off topic but I thought this dialogue exchange would be appreciated here on TLT: In the market:
Me: We’re not buying that kind of yogurt. It has junk in it (high fructose corn syrup).
Pascal: I have bad news Mom. Diego had a junky yogurt in his lunch today. It had high corn in it (he’s four and I’m not looking to open a semantics scuffle here).
Me: How did you know it had high corn in it?
Pascal: Cause it looked good.

Yeah.

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bettina elias siegel August 4, 2010 at 10:17 am

Oh, Jamie. That HFCS made me laugh! And you make a really good point about detachment and pressure. Kids are keen observers of their parents and even when you think you’ve managed to squelch any sign that you really, really want them to do X or Y, they’re usually onto you in a flash. We’re mercifully done with potty training but maybe I could hire you to come to my house to for kale-training?

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Mendy Heaps August 4, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I would like you to kale-train my husband…LOL

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NotCinderell August 7, 2010 at 8:31 pm

How to kale-train a husband:

Take 1 chicken, 3 carrots, 2 stalks of celery, 1 onion, 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/2 cup of dry red beans (like kidney beans) and 1/2 cup of dry white beans (like cannellini or navy beans), and about 4 cups of water. Put in pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer cook about 2 hours until beans are almost soft. Remove chicken from pot. Allow to cool for a little while, and then bone chicken completely, returning meat to pot. Discard bones. Wash a bunch of kale and remove tough stems. Cut into 2-3 inch wid pieces and put in pot. Take 1 cup of small pasta shapes like elbow macaroni (Those Barilla Piccolini shapes work really well. I like the mini farfalle) Cook for about 10-15 minutes until minutes until kale is wilted and pasta is tender. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with crusty bread with olive oil, and something red, like an antipasto platter involving tomato and/or roasted red peppers.

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Em August 4, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Couldn’t agree more with the avoid pressure advice! Never understood that, and if you bribe kids with dessert, it also winds up sending the message that no one likes vegetables and the only way to get through them is by having a reward.

Bettina, if it makes you feel better, I was also a very picky eater as a kid. My mom refers to my years as a “food bigot.” There were about 3 vegetables I would eat (weirdly, one was broccoli), among other things. According to the food psychologists I’ve read, if you provide kids with a healthful array of things, they will generally select a diet that meets their needs, even though it may not look that way to their parents.

And, as Ms. Slater says, I became a very adventurous eater in my teens– when I stopped eating meat, though I don’t think as a direct result of that.

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Em August 4, 2010 at 12:54 pm

(On further reflection, though, I do really like Anna’s “why don’t you just taste it again?” approach, and I think the “WOW, this cabbage soup is DELICIOUS!” is completely understandable, though I remember feeling extra rebellious when the grownups around me did that.)

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June E. August 4, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Hopefully for my sake, she is only saying that pressure has a negative effect in regards to eating. Because without some kind of pressure (which seems to include reminding, rewarding and praising according to your post) my kids would not be doing homework, cleaning up, their chores, practice their instruments, read etc. And then I think, if some kind of pressure (as defined above) is needed to “train” kids to do the things they need to do and to establish the habit of doing them so they will keep doing them as older children/adults, then why should that be different for food?
My kids don’t have food issues, but we have talked a lot about nutrition (I think I told you my son read Chew On This – the kids’ version of Fast Food Nation), and this has actually affected what my kids choose to eat.

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Jamie August 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm

June, you bring up an interesting point. A friend of mine runs a holistic health business and she’s recently addressed “bribing”. I defended my bribes because they are largely not-eating-treats. Eat your dinner; we can go for a bike ride…and the like. She’s pretty staunch and it’s gotten me thinking about pressure in terms of specifically bribes (or rewards)…and thinking about natural consequences. The natural consequence of not eating dinner is to be hungry. I went toe to toe with this friend; thinking ahead to teenage years, something along the lines of “do your homework or you don’t get the car”. She countered with “Don’t do your homework and get in trouble at school.” My son is only 4, so we’re not nearly there (although I have tried the dinner routine to great effect). I’m not debating, just wondering your thoughts.

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June August 5, 2010 at 9:46 am

Jamie,

I think the problem is that sometimes the kids don’t yet care about the consequences or are not able to understand them. For example with homework – my kid is in middle school and the consequence of not doing homework is getting a bad grade, which means not getting into a decent high school. The threat of not getting into a decent high school in a couple of years is a little abstract for a 12-year old, but the threat of losing privileges now is more immediate.

And as for cleaning and chores – well, the consequences of that is a messy house, which they could care less about!

With food, now that they are older, I let them choose some of the consequences. For example, if they choose not to eat before we go out, then they will be hungry. However, I wouldn’t let them choose to eat unhealthy food all day everyday – and I think that because I was pretty strict and clear about all that when they were little, food is not now an issue. They are both into good nutrition and as far as I can tell, don’t feel deprived. (Of course, telling them that fast food hamburgers had poop in them, sort of turned them off fast food for life.)

But I guess, I think it’s mostly about trying to build good habits so that it all comes kinda naturally when they are older.

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Jamie August 5, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Thanks June: good point with the homework. Again, no being there yet age-wise it’s a wise thing to remember. Personally, I think life is made up of bribes and praises (to this day, you wouldn’t believe what I’d do for a gold star…just one).

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NotCinderell August 7, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Call me old school. I’m a big fan of the no-thank you bite. I wont pressure my kids to eat really bitter things like rapini or collard greens, because their palates will mature someday and they’ll learn to appreciate those foods (hopefully). But my formerly adventurous almost-4-year-old is going through a picky phase, and I’m adopting the no-thank you bite as gospel. A few weeks ago, I made hamburgers with sauteed onion and mushrooms, homemade cole slaw, and doctored baked beans (take a can of Bush’s vegetarian beans, chop an onion, add a little ketchup and molasses, and bake in the oven until onion is tender, about 1 hour). My son declared that he wanted a hamburger with no onion or mushroom, and he didn’t intend to even try the beans or cole slaw. I literally removed the burger from his plate and placed a no-thank you portion of cole slaw and beans on his plate. I informed him that until he tried both, he wasn’t getting his burger back. He tried both, said he liked both, ate a small helping of cole slaw and two helpings of beans, as well as most of his burger.

The next morning, he asked for more beans for breakfast.

Sometimes it is a power struggle, or just simple neophobia. They see something unfamiliar and it looks unappetizing. You break down that wall, and half the time they discover that it’s not as gross as they’d made it out to be in their minds.

And if it is that gross, well, then you back off and offer it to them again next year.

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