It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Eating Green, the Direct Way (Updated)

(This is the second installment in a two-part series. The first installment, Eating Green, the Devious Way, was published in January.)

Food and your toddler. It starts out as normal toddler negativity: “Just Say No” is the toddler motto for life, after all. It doesn’t take them long to realize that this one is a real hot button for mom and dad. He gets the best reactions, such a lovely lot of intense attention, when he refuses to eat something; she discovers that if she holds out long enough and loud enough, she will never have to eat anything but lovely pasta and raisins! Today. Tomorrow it will be Only Foods that are White.

But, short of holding their nose and popping something in when they gasp for air, what can you do? Not that this technique can prevent them from spitting it out, anyway.

In fact, I am often astonished at how much difficulty parents have with this one, because in the end, it’s one you are bound to win. Really.

The first thing to establish is whether there’s a genuine problem. Toddlers are faddish eaters; one day they only want white stuff, another day they only want beans. Track your child’s food intake over a week. If their diet is balanced over the course of the week, there’s no problem. Their daily intake may not make the grade, but if their weekly intake is balanced and healthy, you needn’t worry.

Secondly, it’s normal for the intake to decrease a bit in the second year of life, because, though they are still growing steadily, they are not growing at the incredible rate of their first year. So, if his intake has dropped, but it’s still balanced – protein, fruit, vegetables, grain, dairy – there is no problem.

But what if they are really, truly refusing to eat a necessary part of their diet? Not refusing one particular item, but refusing an entire class of food? I’ve focussed on vegetables, because this is very commonly the issue, but the technique I’m about to reveal works for any food.

Before we start, are YOU ready? Look deep into your souls, mom and dad: are you ready to make a stand on this? Are you capable of being MORE stubborn than your toddler? Are you willing to let your child suffer the consequences of her own decisions? Said consequences will almost certainly be some mondo tantrums. (For assistance in dealing with trantrums, check out this, this, and this.) It takes some parental spine, but, if you’ve got that, the vegetable issue can very rapidly become a non-issue. Really.

So you’ve decided you can do this. Good. So here’s the plan. It’s very simple.

You prepare a meal. You dish it out to everyone except the picky child. The picky child gets ONLY the vegetable portion of the meal. A very small portion. In the case of phenomenally stubborn children, a single green bean on the plate. At this point, it’s the principle of the thing.

So there you sit, you with your plate full of goodies, and your tot with his beans. Tot will look at your plates and say “What’s with the bean? I want the good stuff!” And you will say, “As soon as you eat your bean(s) you may have the rest of your meal.”

You state it clearly, firmly, non-apologetically. You do not coax, you do not wheedle. “As soon as you eat your bean, you may have the rest of your meal.”

He will argue, he will roar, he will rail against the machine. You will repeat. “First your bean, then you other food.”

But what happens if she entirely refuses? What happens if she WILL NOT eat that bean? Well, she’ll get hungry.

ARGH! My baby will BE HUNGRY!!! What kind of a parent am I??

You’re the kind of parent who knows that, given time and opportunity, your child will make good decisions for himself. You trust your child.

Your child will not starve himself. Unless he/she has some serious mental disorder, a healthy child will eat. Eventually.

So, there you sit at the table, you with your plateful of yummynutrtitious food, your toddler with their single bean. You are maintaining outward calm. Though you may be sweating a bit, you will not reveal this to your child. Your toddler is probably not quiet, at all. You toddler is probably ranting and roaring, livid with fury that YOU would do this to HER.

But remember, mommies and daddies: YOU aren’t doing this to her. SHE is.

Give her long enough to know you’re serious. Make it at least 90 seconds. But really, there is no reason you should have to put up with being screamed at during your meal, so at the end of 90 seconds to three minutes, you ask him, in a light and cheerful voice,

“So. You ready to eat that bean yet?”

The answer will almost certainly be an unqualified ‘No!’.” So then you say, again, in your oh, so light and up-beat voice,

“Well, then, I guess you’re not hungry. Away you go and play.” And you lift him down. If he stays to scream at your elbow, you gently but firmly take him somewhere else. If you don’t have a time-out spot, his crib works fine. (You may ignore the screaming. The issue is the food.) “When you’re ready to play quietly, you can come out.” And you leave, back to your meal. When they calm down, you get them out. And not before.

What if the child is not ranting and roaring, but merely sits in sullen silence and refuses the single bean? You ignore her. Once in a while, no more often than every two minutes, you may ask/offer the reminder, “You ready to eat that bean yet? When you eat that bean, you may have the rest of your meal.” If she refuses, you go back to your dinner conversation. You do not bathe her in attention. You do not look worried, you do not coax. It is the child’s choice, and you are respecting it.

When you are finished your meal, you ask one more time, and then, if the answer is still no, you do as above: “I guess you’re not hungry. You may get down now.”

Now what? You’ve eaten, but your child, you know it, is still hungry. You can’t let your child go hungry!!! And once again, I remind you: YOU aren’t letting your child go hungry, YOUR CHILD IS. In an hour, you ask if he’s hungry. If he is, you smile warmly (but don’t go wild with delight) you bring him to the table, and you present him with — That. Damned. Bean. Again. (If he’s gone all contrary and says he’s not hungry, Do Not Argue. “Oh, all right then,” you will say, and move on to the next thing. We are removing the emotional charge to this subject, so it will be less attractive to the child as a button to push.) Lather, rinse, repeat, hourly or half-hourly.

The child will be offered nothing but the offending food until the next meal, when she gets a fresh start. With a different vegetable. (BWAH-hahaha…) But remember: nothing but this till the next meal.

Even if the next meal is breakfast.

You can do it.

How long will this take? It varies wildly from child to child. Some will cave during the very first meal. Others will persist, but I promise you: if you do this with 100% consistency, it WILL work, usually within five days.*

While you are sweating through the tantrums and trauma (and trust me, the trauma is far more yours than your child’s!), bear the goal in mind. At the end of this, you will have a child who will sit down and eat what is on their plate, with no fuss. You do not quit with this program until this has happened. At the very worst, a stern look should be all that’s required. At the VERY worst. Ninety percent of the time, it will be a non-issue. Focus on that goal in these difficult days: food will be a non-issue. It is not a pipe dream.

After this, you needn’t worry about taking the child other places to eat. After this, you can kindly avoid serving the one or two items your child hates, because you know they’re genuine dislikes and not knee-jerk negativity. After this, you will never again – never again! – have to wheedle and coax. After this, you can just cook a meal without breaking into a cold sweat. After this, mealtimes will be happy times once more.

You can do it!

*(Updated bit: When I say “within five days”, I do not mean the child will eat nothing for five days! I mean the child will stop fussing about eating what they’re given within five days. They may stare glumly and sigh, but they have accepted the inevitable: no more screaming and fighting.)

© 2006, Mary P

March 11, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Wonderful post. So practical and so TRUE. I hope other readers will take this to heart. It can save you so much aggrivation.

    Comment by BeeBee | March 11, 2006 | Reply

  2. Mary, I give testimony: the method that you described works and works well. Our worst times to cave-in were only two to three hours.

    Comment by jw | March 11, 2006 | Reply

  3. Mine has always been similar but I like yours better. None of the girls were fussy toddlers – it came later.

    Mine was (and still is) eat or don’t eat. It’s a long way until breakfast. Once they were older I added, this is not Burger King and I’m not running a cafeteria.

    I do agree on pet hates and I won’t force them. I still can’t look at cooked spinach (by itself)and I was an adult before I learned to tolerate liver.

    Comment by Granny | March 11, 2006 | Reply

  4. Bee-bee: Hello, and welcome! Thank you for the supportive words. I’ve seen this work, time and time and time again, but it’s always nice to have others confirm that it’s not a fluke!

    JW: Do it once, do it thoroughly, and don’t fight the same battle over and over again. It’s well worth the short-term hassle!

    Granny: Eat or don’t, it’s your choice. A book I read on the subject said essentially, “The adult chooses what, where, and when the child eats; the child chooses whether, and how much.” If you keep that clear, it simplifies things tremendously.

    I allow a couple of pet hates only after the children have learned that they are expected to eat what they’re given. After, because otherwise you can never be sure if it’s a genuine dislike, or just more power-tripping.

    My pet hates are liver and lima beans. I figure if I’ve structured my life so that I never have to eat the things, I should allow my children the same right. If, however, I found myself presented with liver one evening at a friend’s home, I would of course choke it down graciously. My children, also, in the same circumstance.

    Manners truly do start at home.

    Comment by Mary P. | March 11, 2006 | Reply

  5. I remember a few nights sitting up with a plate of cold food til bedtime… Of course, pet hates were not really indulged in my family, you had to eat at least half of EVERYTHING, so I have learned to choke down just about anything. In fact, swallowing medication when it stopped coming in liquid form wasn’t much of a problem, as I had already learned to swallow raisins whole to avoid really dealing with them. I think I might be slightly more relaxed, but so far I haven’t had much in the way of food issues. Of course 2 is fast approaching, so…

    Comment by kittenpie | March 11, 2006 | Reply

  6. Thank god my 4 year old loves his veggies. I have never had to power struggle over that. I have had my problems with him. But you know you have it good when he considers a snack to be a can of cold green beans and will take the salad off my plate instead of the pizza on the table.

    Comment by Tanya | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  7. Well I have a draft of one of my Bad Parenting Confessionals and it does involve the vegetable shortage in the diet of our girl. Oh yeah and red meat and legumes.

    Carrots made some headway this week and now the challenge seemed to get p-man to believe. Believe in the vegetables. I was just thinking of having 3 meals as a family of nothing but braccias in cheese sauce, cauliflower and broccoli always seems a seller.. but I think your method sounds better. I’ll give it a try and maybe I can nuke my draft! Fingers crossed.

    Comment by mo-wo | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  8. I have also always followed the “eat or don’t eat” principle. They get a plate full of food served up, and if they don’t eat it (or only pick out the pasta), they will go hungry. No alternatives are ever offered, and although they have occasionally dropped a food or a food group for short periods, they have always started eating them again after a while.

    Of course there is no dessert if they don’t finish the whole plate full!

    The thing that always woried me about forcing them to eat a specific food group is that you are basically reinforcing that vegetables taste bad, but have to be eaten to make you healthy.

    This is the biggest problem with people today – everything good for me tastes/feels so bad, and everything bad for me feels/tastes so good! With that attitude you will never be fully healthy, so I want my kids to grow up believing that they are choosing veg’s because they like them & they make them feel good, not because I forced them to.

    does that make sense? Am I being totally paranoid about how they will interpret what I do? My mother succeeded in giving all 4 of her daughters serious eating disorders & food issues, and I really don’t want to pass that on to my kids.

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  9. This is basically what we did with Sophie (who actually had food issues from the get-go; nursing was a chore for her), only we used the “try-me plate”. Everything we had was put on the plate, in tiny portions. In order to get the food she wanted (generally a pbj sandwich), she had to eat everything on the try-me plate. Everything.

    It worked and she now has quite the repertoire, including Indian food and salads of all kinds.

    Comment by Candace | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  10. Kittenpie: Swallowed your raisins whole! LOL Most little kids love them, but not all, as you know.

    Only one of my three children was picky at all, and a week or two of this program was all it took. So, two weeks out of 20 years – nothing to complain about!

    MrsA: Because I truly love vegetables, I work on the assumption that of course they’re yummy. And, as I said, it doesn’t have to be vegetables: some children hate fruit, or refuse meat. They all do seem to love their starches, though…

    I also promote the willingness to try new things as a sign of maturity. “I know,” I will say oh, so supportively, “little kids are sometimes afraid to eat different foods, but the bigger you get, the more you learn to enjoy trying things.”

    That often inspires them to be big and brave. 🙂

    Candace: The “try-me plate”. What a nice idea! So she did eventually make the transition, and stopped asking for the back-up meal. That would be my concern with this scenario – that the child would keep holding out for the other meal indefinitely. How long did you use this strategy before she was eating what everyone else was eating?

    Comment by Mary P. | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  11. Oops! I missed a couple!!

    Tanya: My youngest loved chick peas. Would eat them out of the can for snack. Isn’t it great when they love the healthy stuff?

    mo-wo: Go for it! You have to be STUBBORN, though. Does p-man have it in him?? 😉

    (Or does he just not like his veggies, either?)

    Comment by Mary P. | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  12. Yay Mary! These are exactly the tactics I use at my house. My Boy is allowed to have a few reasonable dislikes (I don’t make him eat asparagus very often anymore), but he does eat almost anything put in front of him–eventually. If he won’t eat his veggies or whatever, they go back into the fridge until he asks for an evening snack. Then those veggies come back out!

    Comment by Cheryl | March 12, 2006 | Reply

  13. LOL!!! “Just Say No” is the toddler motto for life…
    It’s some adults’ motto too.

    Comment by Queen Bee | March 13, 2006 | Reply

  14. Cheryl: And eventually, eating those things just becomes a normal, everyday, unexceptional event. (He can send his asparagus my way: I think it’s my all-time favourite vegetable!)

    QueenBee: Too true. Some never outgrow the inclination!

    Comment by Mary P. | March 13, 2006 | Reply

  15. Ah, I just discovered your sight, and although I know many of the techniques you’ve described, it always is good to hear them reinforced. My (currently) only child is 18 months, has discovered “no.” and is unpredictable in his food choices. We have been using a variation of this technique for just about everything!! 😉

    Comment by Redhead Mommy | March 13, 2006 | Reply

  16. Mary, I wanted to comment a few days ago and haven’t had a chance. I loved this post and your ideas. I am trying to convince John that we ARE going to do this. Our kids are both ridiculously picky, and we know we’ve allowed this to happen after baby/toddlerhoods with some extenuating circumstances (but those are over now, obviously, and here we sit with the remaining food problems, argh!).

    Comment by Kristen | March 14, 2006 | Reply

  17. Breaking children requires patience and the abillity to seperate yourself emotionally from your childs cries for help when there is no real threat. Luckily supper is not much of a problem at our house.

    I would love to get your ideas on bedtime. I find it takes three days.

    Comment by Peter | March 15, 2006 | Reply

  18. Mary, you rock. (I just wanted to tell you that.)

    Comment by the weirdgirl | March 15, 2006 | Reply

  19. i am new to blogging and was really happy to see your post my son is 3 year old and i really spend an hour to get him to swallow at least half the food .i am feeling energised and planning to try out this new formula…. your blog is wonderful and i am planning to spend an hour to go through all of it

    Comment by shilpan | March 30, 2006 | Reply

  20. […] If the food culture in your home is “healthy is normal, healthy is DELICIOUS!”, your child will absorb this in time. Now, our culture does not support parents in their efforts. It is possible that you may have to change your own eating habits because you want to do better for your child than was done for you. It is possible that you have allowed poor eating patterns to develop, and now have the daunting task of retraining both your child and yourself. Thus, it is possible that once in a while you will have to play hardball. […]

    Pingback by Devious? Changed my mind « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | June 5, 2012 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: