It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Food fight?

“What are we having for lunch, Mary?”


Not too surprising, that. We have it a couple of times most weeks. Today’s pasta is rotini, with a tomato-lentil sauce studded with small chopped vegetables. I don’t explain all that. “Pasta” will suffice. He likes pasta.

“I don’t like pasta.”

Huh. Shows you what I know. In fact, I do: The little wretch ate three bowls of the stuff the last time I served it. Late last week. But I know better than to argue food declarations.

“That’s okay. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it.” And he doesn’t. I follow the guidelines of Ellyn Satter: the adult decides what, when, and where the child eats; the child decides how much and whether he eats. Which sure simplifies matters.

“What will I have for lunch, then?”

I’m sure my face goes a bit blank in puzzlement. Why is he asking this? He’s been with me for two years. He knows the drill.

“We are having pasta for lunch, Nigel.”

“Yes, but I don’t like pasta.”

“So you said, but that’s what’s for lunch. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want, but that’s what we’re having.”

He blinks at me a few times, then wanders off, morose.

The food issue is simply not one an adult has to lose. Except in very rare (but medically valid) cases, a child will not allow themselves to starve. They might, however, choose to go hungry. And you, as their loving parent, will allow it.

You will allow it unless you truly desire a life of culinary servitude to a two-foot tyrant. A life of creating multiple entrees for each meal. A lifetime of begging, pleading, coaxing and raging against the implacable will of a child who knows that, eventually, you’ll cave. Or just a child who enjoys the power of being able to make you beg, plead, coax, and rage. A life fighting a three-times-a-day Power Struggle. And losing. Every time.

If you want calm and companionable meals, you’ll let your toddler choose to go hungry. That is natural consequences, yes, but it’s also more than that. Giving someone the right to choices, and allowing them to experiences the consequences of the choices in order to learn something is not humiliating or demeaning. It does not have to be punitive. It is simply respect.

Nigel understands his choices. He can eat lunch, and be full. He can not eat lunch and be hungry. It’s that simple. I will let him make whichever decision he prefers. But there are no other options. This is non-negotiable. Because I am not responsible for his hunger, I feel no guilt whatsoever when he experiences it. I think he knows that, too.

A few minutes later, I bring the tray with the brightly-coloured bowls to the table. I set them out.


“YAAAYYY!” Five sets of feet pound toward the table. Five children clamber onto the benches. Five spoons plunge into the pasta, and the children devour every last noodle in their bowls. Even Nigel.

When they know what their choices really, really are? They usually make good ones.

November 30, 2007 Posted by | food, Nigel, parenting, power struggle | 14 Comments