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Temperament clues: Why the ‘no thank you bite’ works for some and not others

Posted by on Jan 8, 2013 in Blog Posts | 17 comments

SledOver the winter break, I went sledding with my family. I watched an exasperated father waiting while his young son tried to climb up the slippery steps, sliding down repeatedly. Every time the dad tried to lend a hand, or a suggestion, the boy shrieked, “I do it!!!!!!!” while  swatting the father away. While folks waited somewhat patiently behind him, we watched this happen over and over; both boy and father becoming increasingly upset until the dad finally picked him up and trotted up the hill. At the top, it took some time for them both to calm down. Meanwhile just behind us, a boy of about the same age held his mother’s hand with a big smile as she helped him up the steps. Her suggestion that he hold on to the railing was met with instant compliance as he grabbed on, more secure in his footing.

You can imagine how this relates to feeding children. Those temperament traits that delight and frustrate don’t simply disappear when children sit down at the family table. In fact, family meals, with the expectation of some sitting and cooperating and not spoiling the meal for others, often amplifies behavioral struggles. Add on the pressure many parents feel to get protein, rainbows, and fruits and veggies into kids while keeping out high-fructose corn-syrup, food dyes, fat, salt, sugar, and processed foods, and it’s a recipe for turmoil.

So when you read a book that recommends a “no-thank-you bite” or some mommy blogger swears her kids love kale chips because she makes them try a little of everything, remember that temperament plays a huge role. While one child may happily comply with the no-thank-you bite and may even say, “Wow, you’re right, I do like Kohlrabi!” that same ‘one bite’ may result in a 90 minute stand-off for another child. So if dinner feels like “hostage negotiating” (as one workshop attendee said) most nights, take heart. It doesn’t have to be so hard. I have many clients with three kids, two eat just fine, and the third for whatever reason just doesn’t like food, won’t eat, never seems hungry, is ready to fight to not have to taste that piece of whatever that he may have eaten happily last week…

The Division of Responsibility takes the temperament piece off the table. You don’t have to fight or force. In fact, the less you do, the better your child will eat. You can feed all your kids the same way— your adventurous or cautious eater, your stocky or lean child, your adopted and biological children…

I thank my lucky stars on a regular basis that I don’t get into food fights with my kiddo: the girl who would throw markers if I tried to help her draw something (even if she asked for my help) or pushed me away when I tried to help her on her ice-skates that first time, or who bristles at any suggestion when she is putting together a puzzle or some other craft.

What do you think? Do you notice certain traits that carry over into feeding?


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  1. Rachel Young

    My guidelines for interacting with my son at the dinner table is “Would I do this to another adult?” If the answer is no, then I don’t do it, because in my view, I would be being too pushy.

    If I might tell another adult, “Wow, the potatoes turned out really well tonight,” but I wouldn’t count bites or try to cajole them into eating. I hope that being hand-off will make my son more adventurous in the long run, but even if it doesn’t, I want him to learn that family dinners are fun and relaxing.

    And sometimes he surprises us by asking to try something we never would have thought he’d try. Last night he wanted to try steamed mussels, which floored me. The verdict: not a fan.

    • katja

      Great rule! I always am amazed as well at what wait staff will say to kids about eating, even with the parent sitting right there! When I show a video clip of two loving parents trying to get the child to eat some noodles, (Feeding With Love and Good Sense II DVD from Satter) and I count how many times they remind, push, mention it, it’s about 15 times. I can’t imagine having any appetite if someone kept harping on me to eat… Developing empathy for how the child feels is critical. And some kids don’t mind a suggestion, while it makes others crazy! Thanks for the comment!

  2. ruthbernstein

    Hi Katja, you have heard from me before but today I have a victory to report. I have been practicing the division of responsibility with my kids for a few years, and today they both had friends over when it was time for lunch. We served pizza, Israeli salad (which is tiny diced cucumbers and tomatoes with a lemon dressing) and strawberries. Everyone ate happily, and my son’s friend, who has been eating at our house for years and classifies himself as a picky eater, and whom I have watched over the years eat one ketchup sandwich after another, said, “Hey Mrs. Bernstein, you really know how to please a picky eater.” Ironic!

    • katja

      YAY!!! I remember you well. Hope all is going well. LOVE the belated victories. Love this story. May I take your name out and share on FB?? I often get a real joy out of serving meals with friends of my kids. They know the rule that they don’t have to eat anything they don’t want to. M reminds them often! Love it.

  3. Rachel

    *suspicion of

  4. Rachel

    I have never told my daughter to eat, therefore I have never implemented a “one bite rule.” She wouldn’t eat eggs for about a year, and one day she did. Same with pasta. I feel that she will try things when she is ready and I honestly think that telling a child to do something automatically triggers a suspicion in the merits of what you are telling them to do (regardless of their disposition). I provide her food that she can chose to eat or not eat.

    I have to say that Jen’s comments really bother me because I see people do this “battle” all the time. Even it is relatively mild-mannered on your part, if your child is being dramatic and getting extra attention that is directly related to food it is a recipe for disaster! Add to that the “food or consequence” and you are adding fuel to the fire so to speak.

    I do believe in Ellyn Satter’s approach and have been trying to implement that model for almost 2 years with my daughter but I can never be sure if I am doing it successfully. At home I generally feel comfortable most of the time. But outside of our home is a different story. My daughter still would much rather hang by the snack table and munch than go run and play with other kids when we are out at parties, playdates, etc. She is usually the last kid still sitting at the table when the pizza is served. All the other kids get up to go play. I am starting to wonder if there is more to it than just my inadequacy in feeding her competently.

    • katja

      Rachel, my kiddo (very adventurous) has been the same way with eggs, and lettuce! When she was 2, I made Kohlrabi 6 weeks in a row (once a week it came in our CSA share) and I never once said anything. I was about to on the 6th time, bc I thought she would like it, but I held my tongue. At the end of the meal, she slid a piece on her plate, tried it and said, “I love kohlrabi!” I am convinced had I pushed her to try it, she may have complied, but wouldn’t necessarily have the space to think about the flavor etc. If it seems like a child has to lose face to take that bite, it can become about winning and losing. I didn’t try my mom’s red cabbage until well into my 20s bc it’s one of the only foods I was pressured to eat. I love it!
      As for wondering about the DOR, sometimes there are things that are missing, or situations where it might not be clear. I’m happy to do phone consults to check in or problem solve if you are concerned you might not be doing the DOR “all the way” (I see this commonly where a few minor tweaks gets folks past the barrier.) Also, in my book, I go into lots of detail in chapter 5 on a heightened interest in food, lots of common obstacles, how we talk about food, etc (chapters 6 and 8.) It might be interesting for you to read. Love Me, Feed Me (on Amazon) and though it is “for” adoptive families, it is essentially the same support I provide all my clients.
      Good luck!

  5. Alicia Sokol @ Weekly Greens

    I am the mommy blogger who insists her children love kale chips (they do!), but it’s not because I force them to taste everything (I mentioned this very thing in my post yesterday:, which was all about the adaptability of my own tastebuds!). We do try to encourage “just a taste” but don’t push the issue if met with opposition. I am not interested in a dinner table battle.

    I’m lucky to have two healthy, normal weight kids. They aren’t going to starve. As for the kale chips, I think the key to our success in getting kids to come around on some of these traditionally-rejected-by-kids foods is repeated exposure. Even if they don’t taste the food the first or second (or even third or fourth) time, I think it’s meaningful that they see it served – and their parents enjoying it – again and again. You never know when they just might try that one bite. I also try to cook foods in different ways. This is not a joke, but laugh at me if you must – last night my 4 year old asked for a second serving of broccoli, which had been roasted on high heat. It was crispy and brown on the edges, which reminded him of something he likes. He said, “It tastes like kale. I’ll have more of that.”

    • katja

      I’ll check out your blog. I wasn’t actually referring to anyone in particular, but a theme I am seeing is kale and other veggie chips, so I just went with it. I see lots of bloggers and comments that talk about just making kids try something, that’s what they do, and it works great… (Kale is just my favorite “should” veggie that I hear about over and over.) Sounds like you are having a grand time at the table. I agree, repeated exposure, without pressure, in the context of family meals is key. Also agree with cooking foods different ways. I use the example of blueberries in my book. Frozen, fresh, in smoothies, oatmeal, muffins… Variety is the spice of life. I don’t laugh at all! And I don’t doubt that kids can and do love and ask for seconds on yummy foods, veggies included. I recently snapped a pic of my daughter’s self-served plate, which had loads of broccolini, 3 or 4 sweet potato fries, caramelized onions with mushrooms and a little steak. No laughing here, and sorry if it felt like I was singling you out, I promise it was not intentional!

      • Alicia Sokol @ Weekly Greens

        No, I didn’t feel singled out. And I know you were making a generalization, not speaking about anyone in particular.

        I’m happy to have found your site! This is great stuff and I’ll be back soon for sure.

        Sounds like your daughter has a very well-adapted palate. I love it.

  6. Jen

    My own kid is a marvel of nature in that she seems to hardly eat a thing (hasn’t broken 30 lbs yet at 4 years old), but has boundless energy. She loves a bite of a cookie or candy, but rarely finishes a treat.

    We do insist on one bite. She resists, though not for 90 minutes! Usually, after a few minutes, she takes the placating bite and then moves on to something else. We see it both with healthy foods and junk foods. We feel frustrated and helpless, but we try to remember that she’s otherwise healthy (enough), happy child and we need to let it go. I try not to think about what kind of nutrition she actually consumes.

    • katja

      Jen, they are amazing, aren’t they? Small and steady growth sure can be healthy, and she seems to be thriving! I wonder though, if she “resists” does she seem upset by it? Is there negotiating? What might happen if you didn’t insist on that one bite? Based on what my clients tell me, initially they don’t try the more challenging foods, but soon they do, and of their own accord, and there is a lot less tension and negotiating. If you feel frustrated and helpless, is it about the weight gain, or selective eating? Conflict and stress decreases appetite, so if you are worried about weight, it might be worth a shot? I go into lots of this in chapter 4 in my book, and info throughout on how to fed when you worry your child is too small, or if you’re tired of the resisting 🙂 Thanks for writing in (love me, feed me is on, though it’s written with adoptive parents in mind, it is essentially the same support I provide all my families…)

      • Jen

        Sometimes, her resistance is really emotional. She hates french toast (which is sort of baffling for her father and I because WE LOVE french toast). At least once a month, we ask her to try it. Every time, she wails about not wanting to eat it.

        If it’s a food that we know she’s had in other contexts – daycare, on a playdate – then we are firm in our insistence and set the consequence bar higher. Usually the consequence is food- or privilege-related, such as no television between bath and bedtime or no dessert. I’d say she takes the consequence (with more or less good grace) about half the time.

  7. Natalia Stasenko

    Great post! I always recommend to back off completely when starting with division of responsibility and to remain very sensitive to the child’s behavior. Some children may be able to tolerate and respond well to a little prompting eventually, while with others it immediately backfires. Katja is right, the personality is always reflected in eating behavior.

  8. Sally Kuzemchak

    Totally agree with this! “Just try a bite” works very well with our older son, who actually takes a few bites of most things before he passes judgement. For my more strong-willed younger son, this request quickly turns dinnertime into a battle. So I stopped doing it a long time ago. Instead, he takes a bite on his own if he wants–or he occasionally likes to play a game where he says, “hell me not to eat this!” and we do–and then he gobbles it up. He thinks that game is hilarious–and it puts a lot of laughter into dinnertime.

  9. Marilyn

    So do you think it’s HARMFUL to have them try a bite, if it’s not a battle and they are okay with it? I love the division of responsibility and I understand the benefits, but I also have seen my own (compliant) kids respond well to, “well, just try a bite and see if you like it, and if not you don’t have to eat any more.” Am I messing up their eating competence somehow by doing this?

    • katja

      Nope, don’t think it’s harmful if all is well, kids are easy-going, and you take ‘no’ for an answer 🙂 I do this on occasion too. When M was smaller, sometimes I would put a small piece of food on the side of her plate and tell her she could try it if she wanted to, but she had never been pressured. I couldn’t care less if she touched it or not, and she never seemed to mind. About half the time she would eat it and enjoy more, but I proceeded with caution, and think it’s easy to cross into pressure especially if the child is cautious, selective or has been pressured. I trust that you will know if it’s not helping 🙂 Also, if you have other kids who aren’t so easy going it can be tricky, but sounds like you are doing great and having a nice time at the table!


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