“I Don’t Eat Vegetables”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 21, 2010

When my children were little I was greatly influenced by the writings of Ellyn Satter, a well-credentialed dietician and the author of many books on kids and food.  Satter’s basic proposition, in a nutshell, is that when it comes to food, parents and children should operate within well defined boundaries: “parents are responsible for the whatwhen and where of feeding; children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.”

In other words, it’s my job as the parent to say when we’re having dinner, where we’re eating it and what food will be placed on the table, but that’s where my responsibility ends.  It is not my job to tell the child how much to eat or, indeed, whether to eat.   According to Satter, most of the struggles between parents and kids over food arise when someone oversteps their role  – e.g., the child starts dictating the menu (Cheerios for dinner, anyone?) or the parent monitors the child’s every bite, urging him or her to have “just one more” regardless of the child’s degree of hunger or enjoyment of the food.

Satter’s philosophy resonated with me and echoed the way my own mother raised us.   She frequently reminded me and my brothers to listen to our bodies’ own hunger signals and there was never any pressure to “clean our plates” or even to try something if we didn’t want to.  Absent that pressure, I think I was actually more willing to try new foods as a child, and I’ve always credited that focus on “listening to the body” with my ability as an adult to keep my own weight in check.

All well and good.   But then one day my two year old son came home from preschool and in his little, childish voice gave me this bit of news: “I don’t eat vegetables anymore.”  I squinted at him for a minute and then laughed.  He must be parroting something he heard from some other kid, I thought.  Nothing to worry about. Then came the next meal at which vegetables were offered.  No dice.  And the next meal, and the next, and the next..

As a devoted Satter groupie, I struggled to stay silent.   Based on what I’d read in Satter’s books and elsewhere, all the elements likely to lead to eventual acceptance of vegetables were in place:  we weren’t forcing the issue, my son saw enthusiastic vegetable consumption modeled by the rest of us every night, and year after year in the school garden he carefully tended the cucumber or carrot plant (something which farm-to-table groups assure us will create a desire to eat the harvest).

But guess what, Ellyn Satter?   Are you listening out there?  My son is now eight and still doesn’t eat vegetables!   OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.  Over the last six years, a very few items have been deemed acceptable — sweet potatoes, avocado sushi (does that even count as a vegetable?) and the oily, shredded cabbage inside a deep fried Thai egg roll (you take what you can get, people).  The only bright spot on the horizon is that in the past few weeks he’s just started to take the tiniest nibbles of things like carrots and tomatoes, but only if he is reassured that he can spit them out into a napkin — which he always does.

Many readers of The Lunch Tray have asked me to address the picky eater issue, so let me know what you think.   Would we have been better served if I’d resorted to all the standard tactics — e.g., engaged in the nightly test of wills, forced one bite for every year of his age, instituted the “no thank you” bite, the no-dessert-before-veggies rule?   Or should I regard my son’s latest baby steps toward vegetables as just what Satter promised would eventually happen, though many, many years behind schedule?

What do you do with your own picky eater?

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

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony June 21, 2010 at 10:51 am

I wonder if this isn’t a forest-for-the-trees issue, in this case the overall health of the child being the big picture and the micromanagement of meal content being the details. It seems to me that as long as the vital signs are there (the child in question is happy, vibrant, appropriately active, not deficient or behind in expected growth, development, congition etc.) and nutrition-deficient illness (do American children ever get beri beri?) is absent, there is no reason to intervene. If a parent observes that there is some sign of impairment due to a nutritional deficit (either because clinical findings indicate as much or the parent has tuned in to something lab results won’t show), then it would make sense to focus more on the details.

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Karen June 21, 2010 at 1:24 pm

We have a “tasting rule,” applied randomly to foods that I think should be experienced. Isn’t there some data that shows it takes many tastes to find a new food agreeable?

So for my picky eater, starting around age 6 when her “tasting buds” were theoretically changing, I started asserting my requirement that she taste a food I had prepared myself, for the meal. For example, I put down a very small piece of chicken not in nugget form. Pot roast. Roasted potatoes.

On many occasions this involved an excruciating amount of negotiating, sobbing, gagging and tears. Eventually I added on a rule that if the tasting came with drama, the amount that was put on her plate would be increased. And later I also required that she chew and swallow the food, not take it like a pill.

It’s been two years and voila! There is progress. There is no more gagging. No tears. Much less drama. Some new foods have even gotten a thumbs up! I can make her chicken, breaded and fried in my own pan, and she will eat it.

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Mara June 23, 2010 at 8:52 pm

ok, so the question is if I’ve already completely screwed this one up, is there a path to redemption. I’m the ultimate short order cook – my two picky ones often eating something different from everyone else. It just didn’t seem like a battle worth fighting at the time, but years later, it seems like such a pain and my picky eaters aren’t getting any better. So once you have screwed this up, are there steps to move my picky eaters toward the rest of the family or am I now stuck with the monster I’ve created! (its like you are the dear abby of nutritious food)

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bettina elias siegel June 24, 2010 at 9:35 am

I’m so NOT qualified to be Dear Abby, but I’m going to still take this up in a future post (and quote a bit of your comment there)!

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skreader June 25, 2010 at 4:12 am

I was of the ” don’t force them” school, which was easy because as babies, my kids ate what I thought suitable, in suitable quantities, and with pleasing speed.

Then, at ~ 3 my eldest began to avoid vegetables. After a couple of suppers going by w/out her eating veggies, I became more adamant. I can’t remember exactly how I imposed my will, but I think it was along the lines of “No more char-siu until you eat some greenies”.

That seems to work.

I insist on the greens. The kids (now 14 and 12) are pretty unadventurous. The eat gai-laan, choi-sum, bok-choi-jai (baby bok-choi), and broccoli plainly cooked. They will eat uncooked lettuce (romaine). It is possible to get them to eat cauliflower if there is no other “green” on the table. Snow-peas and green-beans, sometimes. Under duress, stir fried cabbage.

They don’t like: spinach, dou-miu (pea sprout leaves), mung-bean sprouts, any sprout. They don’t seem to accept zuchini, jade-melon, winter melon, summer squash, or any winter squash. Basically forget the yellows and the oranges (except carrots, which they will eat raw, sometimes). No eggplant, no peppers (although I think the elder one is beginning to move forward on that).

I am frustrated because they will often skip the vegetables in their lunch (I’m not there to enforce) but hope that this summer we can work out an M.O. where they do more planning and cooking and we can increase the veggie consumption.

Peas & beans and lentils – very little. The elder will accept kidney beans in chile con carne. They younger one is quite fond of hummous.

I’ve also tried a “tasting rule” but it’s hard to enforce, especially now that they’re big. The elder won’t eat raw tomatoes, but will eat tomato sauce. The younger will only accept tomatoes as ketchup or pizza sauce.

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bettina elias siegel July 1, 2010 at 11:36 am

skreader – Meant to respond when you left this comment a while back. I have to say (and I think most Lunch Tray readers would agree), you seem to be doing very well in terms of your children’s acceptance of vegetables (at least in comparison to what goes on in my own home). Now I must ask, what is “char-siu”? Something delicious, clearly. Do tell. – Bettina

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NotCinderell August 7, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Know I’m a little late on this one, but char-siu is stir-fried pork. I’m not sure on the other stuff (I speak some Mandarin, but not Cantonese). I did used to eat dou miao (pea sprouts) at least once a week when I lived in China. Heaven on a plate! You can get them in the US, but they’re not as good. The ones in China are tender and young; the ones here are older and tougher. I still get them and think fondly of Shanghai.

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Penny June 30, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I have a confession: I’m mid-40s and I don’t like veggies. Never have, and I predict, I never will. It’s a texture issue. I’m also a “strong taster.” Your son may have one or both of these issues. A multi-vitamin works fine. Also, since for me it’s a texture issue, I have as an adult discovered that certain vegetables cooked in a certain style can be consumed. If it’s spicy and been cooked so that it’s no longer crunchy (i.e. Indian vegetarian cooking being a good example), I like it just fine. I’m happy to eat Saag Paneer — that yummy Indian spinach dish. But I would no more eat raw celery or cooked cabbage or broccoli than fly to the moon on my own power.

The unfortunate problem with this is that I’m unable to model good veggie eating. My older child does eat some veggies, interestingly salad and green beans being 2 of the veggies she’s most likely to eat. But, she’s not keen on fruit. My son will eat any fruit you put in front of him, but will not touch veggies at all. They both get a vitamin in the morning. And I figure as long as I’m *serving* fruits and veggies often, I’ve met my end of the bargain.

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bettina elias siegel June 30, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Penny:

So interesting! I’ve long wondered whether my son might just grow up to be a non-veggie eating adult and about the whole “super taster” issue. I agree that so long as vegetables are offered, and so long as sufficient fruit is eaten (along with a vitamin, perhaps), we’re doing OK. I guess it’s just that the chow hound part of me resists the idea of an entire category of food being taken off the table (literally!).

Thanks for your comment and please keep visiting The Lunch Tray and spreading the word to friends.

Bettina

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Lenee Theriault July 1, 2010 at 8:34 pm

I wonder why your son would suddenly come home one day and declare “no more veggies!” Especially if he would consume a variety before that day (I’m assuming)? Did a classmate at preschool give him a hard time about eating a carrot or celery stick at snack time? Did they call him a name or make him feel inferior/insecure in some way? Why the sudden mind change at such a young age? Did he maybe hear and misinterpret an adult say something about veggies in general? Maybe too much time has passed to ever figure out exactly what triggered his sudden commitment to avoid veggies, but it would be interesting to know the reason behind it. I love the way a child’s mind works, and kids have always fascinated me with their reasoning…..

I’ve always been one to require my kids to take one bite of everything on their plates. No drama. End of story. Either they like it or they don’t….doesn’t mean I won’t make it and offer it again, and again require the one bite….but this method has always worked for me, and we experience no drama, battle of wills, nor do we tie our food to emotional issues, other than the sheer pleasure we get from cooking and eating in general. I may prepare the ingredient differently next time. I understand the issue with super-tasters, and that’s when creativity and thinking out of the box comes into play……with a bit of effort you can almost always come up with a solution or alternative.

See if he remembers why he made the sudden switch, just for curiosity’s sake. In it may lie an answer to getting him back on board the veggie wagon!

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bettina elias siegel July 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Lenee: I really wish I could answer this question. He was so very young at the time, but it really was as I described – he just made up his little mind (or someone influenced him) and that was that for years. I never could get to the bottom of it. (And yes, as a baby I spoon-fed him lots of veggies, all of which he ate with no issues.). Although it definitely conflicts with Ellyn Satter’s philosophy (and more on this in a future post), I think if I had to do it all over again I’d probably try the “one-bite” rule from day one. The good news is, in all other respects he’s quite adventurous — if you read my About section, you know that we’re a family that likes to eat just about everything! Thanks for reading and sharing your comment on The Lunch Tray! — Bettina

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mommm!!! July 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm

I didn’t put up with any crap from my kid regarding meals. He either ate what was put in front of him or he got it what he didn’t eat for breakfast. Now, that being said…..there are a couple of veggies I don’t like….peas and brussel sprouts. Both make me gag. So I never pushed those on my child and consequently he doesn’t like them either. However, I kept a couple cans of THE nastiest canned peas I could possibly find and threatened my child with eating nothing but nasty canned peas for dinner if he gave me a hard time about whatever I had prepared. This militant pea fear mongering has worked splendidly for me and I’ve only had to use the threat a grand total of three times in 13 years.

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