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


  1. Written like someone who has been there, done that, a couple of times before.

    I gave in on the applesauce with the older girl. She eats apples–why bother. And yellow squash. I rarely serve it because I know she hates it and she will be sad that it’s part of dinner. But the younger girl is more mercurial, impossible to predict. So she goes hungry about once a week, doesn’t eat anything on her plate. Just gets down and wanders off. Then shows up at the side of my bed at 3 in the morning, hungry. That’s when it becomes my problem again. Working on that.

    Comment by Bridgett | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  2. If there are one or two specific things they truly don’t like, that’s fine. Everyone has food they don’t enjoy. Thing is, toddlers are too likely to grow from one or two items they won’t eat, to one or two items that they will eat.

    The night-time visits? When I was at my crankiest, I’d feed the child, all right. The exact same thing they’d refused hours earlier. If I was feeling REALLY cranky, I’d serve it cold. At three in the morning, I’d be really, really, REALLY cranky. Haven’t had to come up with a strategy for that one: my kids never did that to me, and the daycare tots don’t have the opportunity!

    Comment by MaryP | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  3. Reminds me of my nephew. When he was about two, he went through this will eat nothing but pudding (at least for my sister)phase.

    Long story short, I was babysitting and after a few mashed potato missiles whizzing past my head, I took him down from the highchair (to his utter chagrin – he really was expecting me to break out the pudding)and let him get hungry enough to eat the potatoes.

    Of course he eventually did and my sister acted as though I had performed some miracle. She asked how I did it and I said I just gave him two choices…and pudding wasn’t one of them.

    Incidentally, 12 years later, the kid won’t go anywhere near pudding…hehe.

    Comment by Sheri | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  4. Now pudding is where I find it tricky. No problem with the “this is what’s for dinner, if you don’t like it don’t eat it” thing, but pudding is where it gets complicated in our house.

    I don’t want to get into the “you must clear EVERYTHING on your plate before pudding” scenario – especially if they then do really well, tried something on their plate they didn’t like but left the rest.

    I also remember having REALLY strict rules when I was growing up about eating everything when I actually had quite a small appetite. The promise of pudding often proved to be too much though so I would struggle through, not stopping when I was no longer hungry. Then sobbing my heart out, because pudding wasn’t something I liked either and it was all for naught.

    They get healthy puddings anyway, mostly fruit or yoghurt… but I do wonder if I’m doing the right thing, especially if they’ve hardly touched the main. But if I say that they have to have at least made a good effort, we end up in arguments about semantics over how many damn forkfuls of each item they have to have eaten, and that’s just not fun.

    Comment by Pewari | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  5. Mary, I love your blog very educational for a pretty new parent, like me. I wish I had your talent and composure for dealing with just one moderately willful toddler.
    Do you have suggestions on how to “work” around other “no, won’t do it” issues. For example – we always wash hands when we come back home from park, store etc, that is a rule and we do it at least once a day every day and EVERY time it’s “no, I don’t want to”. My responses (depending on my level of sleep deprivation that day) range from just picking her up and taking her to the sink (she is bit heavy plus I would like her to learn to just do it)or trying to make it a game “do you want to fly like a bird, helicopter or airplane”, and sometimes I just get so frustrated, because it take 1 minutes to wash hands and 5 minutes to argue…

    Comment by nina | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  6. Bub has a very limited list of foods he will eat. Most of them are healthy: chick peas, soy wieners, whole wheat bread, most fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, cheese, milk. Meat, not so much. Anything made out of a MIXTURE of the above foods? Nuh-uh. He doesn’t actually like sweets, so the resulting diet is not terrible, though it is limited.

    When he started at day-care last fall, he went two weeks without eating any lunch. He was arriving at lunch-time (after spending the morning at nursery school) and it was making for a stressful transition, since the first thing that happened when he arrived is that he had to sit down at a table, faced with unfamiliar food. My day-care provider basically gave me notice that if things didn’t improve I was going to have to find alternate care: he was throwing tantrums, resisting everything.

    So I started bringing him home at lunch (which, fortunately, my work schedule enabled me to do) and feeding him something he would eat. Whether because of his full stomach or because of the gentler transition (he now arrived when the little ones were napping and had an hour or so to settle in and play before any organized activities occurred), his behaviour turned around completely – there aren’t any meltdowns anymore or difficulties with cooperation.

    Now, Bub may well fall into the “medically necessary” category, what with the autism diagnosis and everything. But that was my experience.

    Comment by bubandpie | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  7. So far, and I realize we’re still in the early stages, there is nothing that Jeffrey won’t eat. That child inhales all food. Frankly I am frightened of what he’ll be like as a teenager. I may have to bolt down the tablecloth.

    Realistically, I don’t offer alternatives, I try to present him with options so that he can make “choices” during meals and have some control.

    Plus, I’m just really happy that as a preemie and all the crap that comes with it, we’re not dealing with feeding issues.

    Comment by Dani | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  8. We eat one or two things that we know she has tried a few times and consistently not liked, and on those nights, we make sure to make something extra for her plate. Otherwise? We are not a short-order cooks. There will always be something there that she can eat, and she has to try the other things, and other than that, yeah, if she’s done, she’s done. I figure she can learn to self-regulate that way.

    Comment by kittenpie | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  9. I basically followed the same practices with my son, and he was very rarely a problem eater. (Once he got older, the problem was just having ENOUGH food around.) My stepson has pediatric acid-reflux disease, so he really has had medical issues related to eating, but seems to be outgrowing some of them at last.

    I would love to make my sister read this…my nephews (7 and 4) are two of the worst food tyrants I have ever met.

    Comment by Florinda | November 30, 2007 | Reply

  10. I had one of those rare toddlers who would starve himself – not because he didn’t like the food, but because he wouldn’t eat enough of it. He would eat 3 or 4 bites of whatever I served and then refuse to eat more. I did end of becoming somewhat of a short order cook (which I had previously vowed not to do) in order to try to get calories into him. After months of this, he finally ended up with an ng-tube which allowed him to eat normally (and to get the rest of his nutrition at night). Luckily he did finally get back on the charts and is not a picky eater now – but he’ll still often forget to eat.

    My older son, though, he’s a picky eater – still at 11. I will sometimes serve him the same food, with less preparation. Like veggies uncooked. And chicken not mixed in the soup (though he gets some soup too). He goes hungry at least a couple times a month. Still after all these years!

    Comment by Katherine | December 1, 2007 | Reply

  11. I have great eaters; I am very blessed. Along those lines: I want to know the recipe for that lentil pasta sauce! Or is it just one of those things you throw together? It sounds yummy — right up this vegetarian household’s alley.

    True story (reference to the food mixed comment): at Thanksgiving (U.S.), my 6-year-old nephew refused to eat his apple pie and ice cream because they were touching. His food cannot touch on the plate; forget casseroles (my nephews are bad eaters). It drives his father, my brother, up a wall. The real irony: my brother was just like him when he was little. I used to watch my brother separate his casseroles into piles before eating them (one pile at a time; no mixing). I was much more like my girls, and to this day, I will eat pretty much anything. As long as it’s not meat-based. Or lima beans.


    Comment by albamaria30 | December 4, 2007 | Reply

  12. AMEN! It drives me crazy to see parents catering to kids’ food-control! They’re just not gonna starve… Thanks for a great post.

    Comment by rosie_kate | December 5, 2007 | Reply

  13. […] exhausting. Only made worse when it’s not consistent. The thing she REFUSED last week is happily ingested this week. But next week? Or next meal? She’ll HATE it again. […]

    Pingback by I don’t YIKE dat! (Do I?) « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  14. […] speaking, though, your own cheerful enjoyment of healthy food, your firm refusal to provide alternate meals (and certainly not nutritionally inferior alternates!), your calm willingness to let your child […]

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

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