It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Devious? Changed my mind

I once wrote a post on getting your child to eat their greens “The Devious Way“. In fact, few of the ideas in the post were truly devious. Mostly they were simply indirect: rather than making an issue of it, you assume that vegetables will be eaten. After all, you eat them. Why? Because they’re good!

Your child may not believe that yet. Some veggies are definitely an acquired taste. Moreover, if you’re dealing with a power-struggling two-year-old, they’ll say ‘no’ just because they can. Their refusal has far less to do with actual likes and dislikes than it has to do with Control. I’ve seen tots at this stage refuse cookies. (My lovely eldest was one!) However, they very quickly learn that you don’t care if they refuse a cookie, but you reeeeally care if they refuse their cauliflower. Wahoo! Cauliflower it is! Or … isn’t.

With persistence on your part, they will come to enjoy their food, all of it. Well, with the occasional exception. No one likes everything. Most people, however, like almost everything.

So I titled that post, “The Devious Way”, and now I wish I hadn’t, because it gives the wrong impression. You don’t need to sneak veggies into your child. In fact, you shouldn’t. It’s a short-term gain, but fails for the long term. If your child remains blithely unaware that he has been eating broccoli for years, then, as far as he is concerned, he doesn’t like broccoli. You may be getting the nutrition into him now, but you are not teaching him lifetime habits by which he’ll keep himself healthy. When there is no one around to sneak the greens into him, he likely won’t be eating them.

Provide vegetables as you do all food types — with the assumption that they taste good and that everyone wants to eat them. Consider this: Odds are good you don’t go all angsty when your child, in a fit of contrariness, refuses pasta. No, you shrug and say “whatever”. You don’t beg and plead, you don’t hide or camouflage it. You don’t fall over yourself coming up with alternatives. You just figure, “Eh, she’ll eat it tomorrow.” And she likely will.

The same holds true with vegetables — well, with all the food groups. Toddlers are faddish eaters. What they loved one day, they will refuse the next. If you’re concerned about your child’s intake, keep track over a week. You will probably find that over the course of a week, he does indeed get a balanced diet. It’s quite likely that, though it appears he’s refusing an entire category of food, that was only on Tuesday and Friday, but the rest of the week, he made up for that lack just fine. You remember Tuesday and Friday because he kicked up such an almighty fuss, or because you stressed out so much over it. The days he ate everything without complaint, you don’t notice so much.

So, most of the time, your teaching is indirect. You model good eating habits. You provide healthy food at sensible intervals. You make sure any snacks are healthy. You allow the occasional treat, but you make sure they’re occasional and portions are modest. Desserts are usually fresh fruit, only rarely gooey, cups-of-sugar extravaganzas. You are just as likely — more likely! — to rave about how delicious strawberries are, or those fresh-off-the-vine peas, as you are to rave about the hot fudge brownie sundae.

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.

Generally 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 choose not to eat, and your ongoing providing of healthy food will produce children who enjoy their food.

All of it.

And mealtimes will be happy, social, friendly, conflict-free events.

June 5, 2012 - Posted by | food, health and safety, power struggle | , , ,


  1. Any suggestions for the child who then wakes up several times in the night because they’re hungry (having refused their perfectly nutritious dinner) and THEN gets up at 5.30 am rather than 7.30 am, demanding an earlier breakfast?! I’m really struggling with the whole notion of letting my two year old choose not to eat dinner because it seems that I pay for it in broken sleep. (And I caught him on one memorable occasion downstairs after midnight with his face in my butter dish, having decided to help himself to a snack once his parents were sleeping. !!!)

    Comment by Tam | June 5, 2012 | Reply

  2. I’m sure I’ve told you before, but I first read your post on kids and eating when my son was two, now at five and a half he eats whatever I serve for dinner, with only the rare complaint. He will taste anything I offer, sure in the knowledge that if he doesn’t like it he doesn’t have to eat it. Even foods he has previously tried and decided he didn’t like. It’s his dinner and he eats however much or little as he likes. And because of this approach he usually eats everything on his plate, he’s even brave enough to try those sautéed mushrooms I love that he isn’t all that keen on. And because there is no dessert in our house, if you say you’ve had enough then I know you really have, rather than just choosing sweets over vegetables.
    All thanks to you! And to me for following through 🙂

    Comment by Tammy | June 6, 2012 | Reply

  3. my friends and I who have young children do ‘baby led weaning’ breast milk till 6 months and then when they are at the age where they put every thing in their mouths, you put softish, cooked if needed vegetables, fruit, pasta etc on high chair tray and let them nom to their hearts content, no purees or spoons, I wish I had known to feed babies like that when Jude was young, so food phobic now 😦

    You’re off to a terrific start, but (brace yourself for bad news) you might not be out of the woods just yet. Most babies start off loving food, all of it, and then suddenly, right about the age of two, they start getting finicky. Things they loved a month ago — things they loved yesterday! — they will not eat. It’s very frustrating, and, as I’ve said often, has nothing at all to do with whether they actually dislike the food in question, and everything to do with their emerging autonomy. The motto of a two-year-old: I Say No Because I Can.

    Now, this is all for standard-issue children. (I think the politically correct term these days is ‘neurotypical’) Jack is not neurotypical, and I honestly don’t know how that will affect his attitude to food. I wonder if he’ll be quite different, and easier, as most Downs Syndrome people I know (I once worked in a group home) loooove their food. Mind you, they were all adults; I confess to having next to no experience with Downs’ toddlers. You’ll have to teach me!

    Comment by Jenny UK | June 11, 2012 | Reply

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