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 what, when 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?