It’s Not All Mary Poppins

I don’t YIKE dat! (Do I?)

In another of her so-interesting, well-written and thought-provoking posts, Carol asks: Was your baby a “good eater” who turned out picky?

I am about to make a sweeping generalization. I acknowledge up front that there are exceptions to every rule (and I’m sure you’ll think of one when you read what follows), but it is reasonably safe to say that:

ALL babies are good eaters, and they ALL turn picky at or about two years old.

Babies are great. They open their little birdie mouths, they swallow what you put in there. Yes, I’ve had a mouthful of strained whatever sprayed all over me when Little Birdie Mouth suddenly decided she really didn’t like that stuff, after all. (Mind you, when a baby does that, it’s more often because they’re simply not hungry. It’s their so-subtle way of saying, “I’m full now!” Stop offering the spoon when that happens.)

Babies are social. Whatever you’re eating, they’re game to try. They’ll bounce and wave their arms appealingly, and the doting momma or poppa will pop a morsel in there. What parent hasn’t enjoyed that game? Pop in the bite, then watch the expressions flow over their face: surprise, wonderment, delight… and sometimes disgust or dismay. But they’re always open to trying the NEXT bite!!!

That’s the thing about babies, I think, the critical thing. They’re always open to new foods. They don’t view new food with suspicion. They are “good eaters” not because they like everything — who likes everything??? — but because they’ll try everything once. They WANT to try it. They’re even excited to try it. Their working assumption is that food is a good thing, and that, until proven otherwise, they’re going to like it, and thus they like most things. That is a good eater. (Someone who eats as much as they can, at every opportunity, indiscriminately? That’s not a ‘good eater’. That’s a glutton.)

And then they turn two.

And then food is not about the social any more. Food, like everything else in their world, is about the primary pressing psychological need of the two-year-old: establishing their autonomy. They are their own person, DIFFERENT from mummy and daddy. They are also unsophisticated little people. The best way to establish themselves as an autonomous, independent, separate person in their own right is to SAY NO TO EVERYTHING MUMMY AND DADDY SAY. (Because it’s best to keep these things simple, no?)

This is where it gets confusing, because everyone has food likes and dislikes. I loathe, loathe, loathe liver and lima beans. If I can possibly avoid eating them, I do. If I’m served them in public (though, really, who serves that stuff to guests?), I’ll do all the masking tricks — cut it into teeny bits and hide it in the mashed potatoes so I don’t feel/taste it going down, feed it to the family dog, slip a piece to my husband, rearrange it on my plate in hopes of convincing someone I ate more than I did… Because those things? I gag at the very smell of liver. It’s just so gross. (You can love it if you like. I’m only talking about me, here. Though my poor husband has to order it in restaurants if he’s ever to eat it at all.)

If it’s like that, you don’t want to force your poor kid to eat something that truly makes them feel ill.


But more often with a two-year-old, it’s not a genuine food dislike. It’s the autonomy thing. “I am NOT you, mummy, so I DON’T like potatoes! I am NOT you, daddy, so I HATE green beans!” And at every. single. meal, there is some damned thing that he/she WILL NOT EAT. Every.Single.Meal.

Gets 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. Gah.

But if it makes them gag? That’s your cue, right! If it makes them gag, it’s a true dislike.

Nope. Not necessarily. Sometimes they’ll be so determined NOT to eat That Loathsome Thing that they will, in fact, gag on it, maybe even upchuck a small amount… and then eat it happily next week.


It helps to remember a few things:

1. This is not primarily about liking or disliking food. This is about independence and autonomy.
2. A normal, healthy child will NOT starve themselves.
3. A normal, healthy child MAY choose not to eat.
4. If a normal, healthy child chooses not to eat, this is your child’s choice. YOU ARE NOT STARVING YOUR CHILD.

This is where it all either falls apart, or comes together, with that realization. As Carol said, quoting a nutritionist who was almost certainly quoting Ellyn Satter, “The parent is responsible for choosing what, when, and where the child eats. The child is responsible for choosing how much, and even whether, to eat.”

Once you have that straight in your mind, everything else becomes clear. You provide healthy food at sensible intervals. That’s it, that’s all.

Once you understand that all you have to do is make the food available, once you understand that it’s not up to you to see that it gets ingested, then you can just relax and eat your meal. You won’t spend any time coaxing, teasing, begging, pleading. You won’t get anxious. You won’t make alternate meals. You’ll never fall into the fatal trap of feeding them meal after meal after meal of plain pasta (something! ANYthing!) nary a protein or a vegetable in sight, declaring “it’s better than nothing!”

Because you know what? It’s not. It’s not better than nothing. “Nothing” is better than “something!-anything!”. Yes, a child who is allowed to choose not to eat may choose to go hungry now and then. It won’t kill them. (It won’t kill you, either.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in order for a child to develop healthy eating patterns, it’s not only inevitable, it’s pretty much essential that they experience hunger now and then. So they know what it is.

Letting your child choose not to eat is mutually respectful. Where is the dignity in begging, pleading, threatening, and grovelling, trying to get your oh-so-stubborn toddler to open his mouth? (And then, even harder, to swallow!) It’s demeaning for both of you. (But mostly you.)

And all that begging and coaxing? That’s just feeding the beast. You — not your toddler, but YOU — have just turned the drive for autonomy into a bona fide power struggle. Your toddler is now in control and she knows it. And you’ve made that happen by buying into the myth that it’s up to you to see that the child eat. See what trouble that silly notion gets us into???

Imagine, rather, that you say, “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to, but this is what we’re having.” You say it nicely (but firmly), and you follow through. If she doesn’t want to eat it, she can either stay at the table and keep you company nicely, or she can get down and do something else. Until the next meal. And you get to eat your meal in peace.

Nice, huh?

(If he can’t do it nicely, if he expects something else to eat and is outraged that you won’t provide it, he can stay in his time-out spot until you’ve finished your meal.)

Once this becomes the normal pattern, the outrage will cease. It may take a while, particularly if you’ve trained him/her to expect alternate meals. But hold fast and they will learn! The child will learn that it really is her choice, that you really will respect her right to eat or not, but won’t be pandering to whims… then the genuine likes and dislikes will have a chance to emerge over time. You won’t pander to them, but you can take them into account.

And eventually, your child will out-grown and out-learn the knee-jerk “I don’t YIKE dat!” It won’t be necessary.

And when that happens, when you step out of the dinner-time push-pull and they learn they do have autonomy, they’ll probably discover that in fact they do yike most of it, after all.



August 1, 2011 - Posted by | food | , , , , ,


  1. What a wonderful assessment of 2 year olds! I agree, I think they all turn “picky”. We have a one bit rule at our house. You must have one bite of each food on your plate and then you can decide what and how much of it you eat. Both of my kids have been the ones that require trying something 10 or so times before they decided they like it. With the one bite rule, it helps that along. I’ve also never gotten into the “short order cook” style of meal preparation. I make one meal, if you like it, great! If not, we’ll eat again soon enough. I do always try to have one thing on the plate that each person likes, but, like you said, sometimes the thing you KNEW they’d eat, they now won’t. Now, if I could get my husband to try new foods…that would be a miracle!

    “If not, we’ll eat again soon enough.” Exactly. Starvation is just not something we need to worry about in this country.

    My first husband wasn’t picky, exactly, but he was leery of new things. (How he ever learned to eat the decent range of foods he did eat is beyond me. They were all new once!) I recall once putting a meal in front of him and having him ask, “What is it?” in tones of darkest suspicion. Fed up with this response to my culinary efforts, I snapped out “Pigeon droppings. Eat it.”

    Mwah-ha. I wasn’t very often feisty in my first marriage (that would be one of the ways I contributed to its downfall), but that’s a very happy memory for me. 😀

    Comment by Patti | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  2. Thanks for validating my viewpoint! I didn’t think I could be the only person with a “good eater” out there, and I didn’t see how, if some babies are just picky from the start, I of all people could have ended up with a non-picky eater. It seems like too much of a coincidence that I’m using a weaning method which advertises itself as good for creating enthusiastic eaters… and everyone tells me my kid is an unusually enthusiastic eater!

    You’re welcome! Isn’t it gratifying to see positive results for your efforts? It’s a good thing your boy likes his food: given how active he is, he needs the fuel!

    Comment by IfByYes | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  3. We have the one-bite rule, too. You *must* try everything once. If you then say you don’t like it, OK – no one likes everything. But I will not force you to eat.

    My pet peeve is the dawdling eater. Takes one bite, chews 7000 times, stares out the window, sings a song, spills the milk, then takes one more bite. Dinner could stretch on forever, thus interrupting bath/story/bed routine. So our current power struggle is about not shoveling the food down without tasting but actually focusing on the act of eating so that we aren’t all still at the table come midnight.

    And yes, both of my kids were “great” eaters as babies and younger kids. My three year old now has some weird food preferences & dislikes, whereas my six year old is back to eating just about everything. It comes and goes.

    With my own children, until they were four or so, I had a “one bite per year”. So if you were two, you had two bites, three-year-olds ate three bites, etc. With the daycare, I usually stop at one bite as well. “You don’t know whether or not you like it until you taste it.” Echoes of my own mother… 😀

    Next time, they have to taste it again, because “tastes change”. I cite myself as an example: never used to like Brussels sprouts, but, because my kids do, I tried them again as an adult, and guess what? I yike dem!!!

    About the dawdler: How about a rule that mealtime is over in half an hour, and then everyone leaves the table, finished or not? Maybe we’re just a bunch of fiendishly fast eaters, but my family rarely takes more than 10 or 15 minutes to finish eating. We may sit around the table longer, talking, but the actual ingesting is often a matter of ten minutes. So if you allow 30, or even 20, you’re giving the dawdler plenty of time without making everyone else crazy. And maybe, when he/she realizes an hour later they’re hungry but must wait till breakfast… Worth a shot, maybe?

    Comment by hodgepodge | August 1, 2011 | Reply

    • My son is definitely a dawdler. If allowed, he could stretch mealtimes into HOURS. We solved the problem by telling him that he has a half hour to eat and then we set a timer for it. He knows when the timer goes off that the food goes away. If you were hungry you would have eaten it by now. It started with lots of whining and “but I was still eating/hungry/whatever” but now I only have to suggest the timer and he digs in.

      Comment by Dani | August 2, 2011 | Reply

      • I like these suggestions, and will definitely try them. The rest of us are fast eaters – 10 or 15 minutes, usually – so watching the painfully slow process of the three year old is like some weird torture. I’ll let you know how it works!

        Comment by hodgepodge | August 2, 2011

  4. It sounds so sensible when you say it. I’m not really sure what happened in our case. My oldest was a good eater, pretty much always. She has her quirks (doesn’t like whole-wheat bread, for instance) but loves fruit, most vegetables, etc. She’s 14 now. Then along came my 2 boys. Middle one had huge temper issues (he was the one who could throw hour-long tantrums). I don’t really recall anymore if his pickiness started about the same time as those tantrums (which started when I was pregnant with number 3 and got worse after he was born so I didn’t have a lot of energy/reserve/patience). So anyway, I caved, or at least, just kept serving him things I knew he’d eat. Also, we were out and about a lot at that time (parks, playdates, etc) and if he didn’t eat a good lunch he’d fill up on crackers. And in retrospect, of course I shouldn’t have had boxes of crackers along all the time as the default snack, but it’s so easy to get into that rut (what do you do about snacks when you are on outings with your crew?). Finally, my youngest… I was already used to caving for #2, and then on top of that my youngest had something.. I think it was foot -and-mouth… right about the time he was starting solids, and anything acidic hurt his mouth and after that he wouldn’t ever eat fruit. Even now (he’s almost 7) there are only a couple of types of fruit he likes and will usually choose vegetables over fruit if that’s an option.

    Long story, sorry! But I would like to hear what you do about snacks when you are out. I fell into the ‘crackers are healthy… they’re not chips and they’re low in fat’ trap that a whole lot of us fell for 10 years ago.

    I’d say a child who chooses vegetables over fruit is making healthy choices. He could be choosing crackers over fruit AND vegetables, after all! So that doesn’t sound too bad to me. 🙂

    What do I do for snacks on outings? Well, I carry enough water for all. Occasionally babies will get milk in a bottle, but only if I’m sure they’ll have a chance to finish it before it goes sour. (It’s been very hot around here the past month!)

    As for food…
    Almost always fruit, chopped up. (Or whole bananas, which are so easy to pull apart with your fingers.) After fruit, various things. Let’s see…
    Cucumber slices.
    Any cold cooked vegetable: cauliflower, broccoli, carrot sticks…
    Cheese slices. (NOT the plastic-wrapped plastic cheese, and NOT cheese strings. REAL cheese, sliced up.)
    Hard-boiled eggs, cut into halves.
    Bagels, cut into eighths. (Plain, usually, no spread or filling, just bits of fresh bagel. Which is sort of like serving them large puffy crackers, isn’t it??)
    Tortillas spread with peanut butter, rolled up, and cut in slices.
    That’s all I can think of off the top of my head. Sometimes dinner leftovers are suitably finger-friendly, and I’ll take some along.

    I don’t often carry crackers because I get stupid with carbs sometimes, and in a fit of MUST EAT STARCH!!! I’ve been known to devour an entire sleeve of the damned things. Ugh. It’s best I just don’t give myself the opportunity… 😛

    Comment by Anita | August 1, 2011 | Reply

    • If I were doing it over I’d definitely do it like you do. I do remember now the other confounding factor at the time… my babies were horrible sleepers and I was desperate to try to get them to eat enough so they wouldn’t wake up to nurse 3x a night. So I’d give them what they’d eat. It sounds easy in retrospect to hold out longer (to solve the long-term problem of picky eating over the medium -term problem of not sleeping well), but at the time I would do anything for better sleep.

      It’s only 20-20 hindsight that tells you that the medium-term problem was sleep. At the time, you had no way of knowing which was the long-term problem. It could just as easily have ended up being sleep. How could you know (particularly in your sleep-deprived state) which it would be? If I only had the resources to deal with one problem at a time, I’d have chosen sleep over food, too. Sleep deprivation was THE single hardest thing of early parenting, for me. Nothing else came close.

      Comment by Anita | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  5. My sister had a hiatal hernia and took FOREVER to eat because if she didn’t take her time, she would get a wicked stomachache. It was vital for her to eat slowly, but for the rest of us, it was sheer torture. I used to beg my mom to take me to the mall when we went out to eat because we could have left for more than an hour and she’d still be finishing up when we returned (never happened, btw). It took her 45 minutes to eat one. slice. of. pizza. It got to the point that we pretty much left her eating by herself at the table, since we were all done in 25 minutes or so and nobody could sit for that long. But we felt bad for her all by herself, since every so often we’d hear the plaintive cry from the table, “I’m loooooooonely!” My mom would go and sit with her for a bit just to keep her company, before getting up and doing one of the mom things she had to do. Thankfully, she mostly grew out of it and now eats within a relatively normal period of time.

    Poor kid. I can just picture her nibbling away sloooooowly, all alone! I’m glad to hear that it’s not such an issue now, and a bit surprised, because I didn’t know you could outgrow one of those things. I thought that, unless it was severe enough to warrant surgery (and I gather most aren’t), you were stuck with it for life. But from your comment I gather she still has the condition, but the symptoms have abated somewhat as her body got bigger. That’s interesting!

    Comment by kiki | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  6. I took some advice from John Rosemond when my kids were small, similar to the one-bite rule: I put a very small amount of each food on their plates (about a tablespoon), and they had to finish it all before they could have seconds of anything. Also, they had to have a second helping of SOMETHING before they had dessert.

    That kept me from having to count bites or negotiate; I could focus on my own dinner and then serve seconds of whatever they wanted when their plates were clean.

    True. We also often overestimate how much a small child needs to eat. When they’re little, a tablespoon of each thing — protein, vegetable or two, starch — can be a full meal. It’s certainly sufficient to get them to the next meal!

    I do the same as you with the older toddlers: they have to finish a certain minimum of everything on their plates before they get seconds of anything, but then they get to pick which thing they get seconds of. I don’t use dessert as leverage because I so rarely serve it. (Even my own family. Dessert happens at Christmas, Thanksgiving, on birthdays, and when we have company, and that’s pretty much it. In my head, dessert isn’t for everyday. We’ll call it a quirk. 🙂 )

    Comment by Leigh | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  7. Oh, Mary, how about a piece on what to do with ADULTS who just won’t believe this approach?

    Gah, adults. Good luck with that.

    I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve had who are astonished at what their “picky” child will eat when with me, and eat cheerfully. When I tell them how I’ve accomplished this, and encourage them to do likewise, most often they simply state that that would never work for them. They don’t consider trying it out, they don’t imagine how it might work in their home, they just dismiss it on the spot. And that’s with the evidence — their own child, happily eating green pepper! — right in front of them.

    What do you do with that??? (Given that smacking them is not an option, and probably wouldn’t work, anyway…)

    Comment by Judy | August 1, 2011 | Reply

  8. You gave this advice a few years ago and I took it to heart and to the table!

    My now four and a half year old son eats whatever we eat for dinner. We tone down the chilli and spices at times, but I don’t make separate meals. If he says I don’t like that, then I ask what the rules are, and he’ll recite….”you just have to try it, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it” and then take a bite, and a real bite, not one of those stick your tongue out and barely touch the food bites.

    He has developed some actual dislikes…raw tomato for example, but otherwise he just eats what he is served. And when he says he’s done….he’s done, no arguments, no food substitutes and like you, we don’t do dessert so no bribing with dessert to eat more.

    This approach has saved us from the food power struggle so many of my friends participate in, one mum telling me how she has stuffed food in her daughters mouth and then held her hand over it til she swallowed???

    Oh, it’s so nice to hear from someone who’s tried this approach and had just as much success! It’s not magic, but it does take a decision and consistency (and not physical force, eesh) … and then, when you have a four and a half year old who eats most everything without a fuss, everyone else thinks it’s magical. 🙂 Good for you! I’m so happy to know it’s working so well!

    Comment by Tammy | August 1, 2011 | Reply

    • You’re welcome and you’re right, its not magic it just looks like that to everyone else. The everyone else’s, who are suprised that he’d rather eat baked fish or risotto or calamari at a restaurant rather than pizza or nuggets.

      Big thanks to you for letting me know its not my job to MAKE him eat, that choice, is all his.

      Comment by Tammy | August 2, 2011 | Reply

  9. Mary, I swear, you should write a book. I would read it, I would tell all my friends to read it! As it is, I don’t have kids but I mentally file away the posts you write like this, and I think to myself, “You have to remember what Mary wrote about this for someday if you DO have a two-year old…”

    Your approach to parenting and child-care is just so sensible, respectful (to both adults and children) and SMART.

    Thank you! What a lovely thing to say. A book isn’t impossible, I suppose, but what a daunting task! Then again, I guess I have a lot of my source material right here, don’t I??

    Comment by Stacey | August 2, 2011 | Reply

  10. I’m so glad we fell into this school of thought because most nights I’m just happy if we’re all together and eating food cooked ourselves. I do try and make sure we have something everyone likes. Our biggest struggle is portions with our daughter. My son eats EVERYTHING and is as skinny as a rail (ah, the metabolism of the young). He routinely eats more than I do and as long as it’s healthy food I allow it. My daughter on the other hand, picks and barely takes bites of things. It’s taken us a long time to adjust to the idea that she will never eat like he does and that it’s okay.

    Comment by Dani | August 2, 2011 | Reply

  11. […] alternate meals (and certainly not nutritionally inferior alternates!), your calm willingness to let your child choose not to eat, and your ongoing providing of healthy food will produce children who enjoy their […]

    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 )

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: