Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Veggie Delight

I don’t like vegetables. They don’t taste good to me. I eat them because I’m supposed to.

As a kid there were countless evenings when I would sit at the dinner table looking at the three spoonfuls of green peas my parents required me to eat and pretend they weren’t there. After eating everything else on my plate, making at least two trips to the bathroom, and watching my mother unhappily clean up all the dishes around me, I would finally relent and choke down those cold, slimy little balls. Usually, I gagged a bit on each mouthful.

It wasn’t until I turned sixteen that this approach to vegetables began to shift. That summer, I dated a girl two years older than me. Her family always ate a salad with their dinner. While I never touched a salad at home, I thought it would look childish of me to not eat a salad when I had dinner with them. Much like drinking beer, the first couple of times I ate their salad it did not taste very good. But, I gradually learned what to expect and got used to the taste and texture of all those leaves in my mouth. Eventually, I even came to enjoy a good salad on occasion (though I still can’t stand that iceberg lettuce you get at low end restaurants and in cheap bags of salad. Why does anyone willingly eat that stuff?)

My relationship with other vegetables followed a similar trajectory. After getting started with salad, I took on some of the other plants – broccoli, carrots, spinach, green beans, etc. I quickly learned to eat them first, the flavor of fresh, hot vegetables being much more tolerable than lukewarm, soggy ones. I even found that a few raw carrots or slices of bell pepper could be enjoyable when I am feeling adventurous. They’ll never take the place of a piece of beef or slice of cheese, but veggies have now found a regular spot in most of my dinner selections.

I bring this up because I am actively trying to keep from passing my vegetable aversions on to my children. To this end, once Pip and Polly started eating solid foods, I made a concerted effort to ply them with as many vegetables as possible. My hope was that by flooding them with spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, and the like, we could align their taste buds to favor a range of vegetables and avoid the kind of drama that I subjected my parents to.

This has not really come to pass with Pip. During the past year or so, he has been gradually dropping various vegetables from his list of acceptable foods. Avocados went first. Then zucchini. Then spinach. Then broccoli. Then carrots. We’ve been able to hold the fort with green beans, green peas, corn, and butternut squash, but I live in fear of the time when these too will drop away, leaving us completely dependent upon multi-vitamins to keep Pip functioning properly.

This past week, however, things took a turn for the better. For reasons that are not fully clear to me, Pip suddenly took an interest in trying some new (and previously dropped) foods. It could be that he is trying to keep up with Polly, who ravenously demands a piece of just about anything that shows up on our plates. It could be that he has recently seen adults besides his parents eating and enjoying these foods. It could be that he has just entered into an exploratory period, one of those developmental sweet spots when suddenly he is more willing then usual to try new and different things.

Whatever it is, this week Pip happily ate broccoli and carrots again, tried spanakopita and like it, and willingly put meat sauce on his pasta for the first time. Just like that four more foods - including three vegetables - were added to his ‘will eat’ column. I felt like celebrating.

As I heated up some more broccoli for Pip on Tuesday, three different things came to mind:

First, it’s nice to have our patience rewarded. Ava and I have worked hard to not make a big issue out of Pip’s diminishing vegetable preferences. We have tried to let him be, offering new possibilities when he shows some interest, but not pushing him or punishing him when he says he doesn’t like something. Our hope was that this would enable Pip to feel in control of his food choices and leave him more willingly to try new things on his own. It is gratifying that this strategy seems to be working.

Second, this success with Pip gives us more confidence to follow the same strategy with Polly. This confidence already is paying dividends as Polly is more willing to try things than Pip ever was at the same age. She will even demand food - like lasagna, for example – that we had never even thought to give her. So, even though she has dropped a couple of foods recently – most notably, avocados – we’re not that concerned.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and learning since posting a few thoughts about preschool a couple of weeks back. One of the comments I received on that posting included the conventional wisdom that you can’t teach your own kids as well as someone else can. I’ve been pondering this question and the theory I’ve come to is this: We teach our kids things all the time – from how to address people to how to eat with a spoon to how to use a toilet. Why would formal education be any different? I’ll grant that I can’t teach my children things the same way a school teacher would. But that has less to do with a stranger vs family dynamic and more to do with a class vs one-to-one dynamic. A school teacher can do drills or regimented lessons with a class because no one student has to be ‘on point’ the entire time. The responsibility for answering questions and producing work can get passed around. Parents and children do not have the same kind of buffers. So, a different approach is in order. As a parent, I have to be an opportunistic teacher, coming at subjects like reading, writing, geography, history, or math from an oblique angle, taking advantage of moments of curiosity in my children to introduce and tie together these things.

This is how Pip came to eat four new foods this week. Ava recognized that Pip was showing extra interest in what we had on our plates. She offered some of those new foods to Pip, and he decided to give them a try. If we had played the classroom teacher, bringing out these same foods and employing our authority to make him eat them, I suspect he would not be willingly consuming those foods again for a long time. Then we would be stuck waiting for someone else to convince him that vegetables are worth eating, just like me some seventeen years ago.


  1. Hi Jeff - My 12 year old isn't huge into veggies either. Never has been. On the other hand my 15 year old plows through her veggies. My personal experience with veggies was largely the same as yours. The old saw "the more things change the more they stay the same" so applies here. I'm surprised how much eating habits don't change over time. I’ve tended to follow Brazelton, who points out that children won’t starve themselves. Let me add, exercise habits do change - which I think is the hidden reason for weight issues today. We eat as much as ever then sit on our butts and post comments on blogs. Will those of us guilty of this please stand up -- and don't drop your laptop!!

    I think I'm the one who commented that parents can't teach their own kids as well as a professional teacher. If I may make a few comments to expand what I said. My comments cover schooling in general, and not pre-school specifically. I still think that pre-school is nice, but not necessary. I’d like to point out how easy it would be to talk/write cross purposes. The existence of homeschooling proves that parents are capable of teaching their children academic subjects. I just wonder if it is optimal. I tend to think it is better for parents to do their best to inspire their children. Then manage their education, rather then do it themselves. Math teachers are best for teaching long division, and orders of operations. I send my children to a small private school. I make very clear that they are hired guns. As long as I have faith that my children are getting the best education I can arrange I’m happy to pay the tuition and then show up at 7am on a snowy Sunday to help shovel the school out for Monday. If that changes, I’m gone. In the end I’m responsible for my children’s education, but I don’t do it myself.

    You draw a stranger/family dynamic separately from a class/one on one dynamic, which I don't think is valid. You restrict family to the nuclear family (you only mention yourself in terms of family), which I think is too narrow, and you place teachers as strangers, which is too broad a category. Children encounter teachers in a formalized specialized setting. A school. This specifically makes them neither family nor strangers. This is the first lesson of school. A whole new set of relationships: peers, authority figures, real strangers, etc. I don't think the two can really be separated.

    I'll also add, all theory aside, in my experience a good teacher succeeds in teaching many things better then I could. The often know the subjects better, and they can see my child as themselves, not through the lenses of my emotional attachments. When my kids were in pre-school the teachers provided feedback and advise that was of a huge help to me. I had to eat crow a few times, but a little crow is good for the soul.

    Thanks for your site and your posts. Parenting is a long tough job, and it is so good to see people thinking, and thinking hard, about what they are doing.

  2. Hello rtb - Thanks for coming over to take a look at what else I'm writing. I really appreciate getting the perspective of someone with older kids like yourself who has worked through many of the issues which I am encountering for the first time.

    As for the question of teaching at home vs at school, I have two follow up thoughts.

    First, there is a question of quality and efficiency at work. I feel like this is less critical at a preschool level where my kids are looking mostly to learn something interesting. An ability to tack towards whatever things happen to draw their interest at this stage feels like a benefit of homeschooling to me. As they get older, I can see how the more structured education and specialized teaching that comes with formal schooling may be more beneficial for them.

    Second, your point about the specialized setting of the school is well taken. I agree that entering school means entering a completely different world, one that defines a whole new set of relationships for both children and their parents. I plan to take another crack at the question of preschool soon, and the idea of 'school' as something larger than just the moments of formal education is something I need to integrate more fully into my thinking. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. My little one is constantly cohered into eating vegetables without the overt "just one spoonful" tactic. Veges are a constant part of our diet and I can't cook without them. Sometimes they are hidden ingredients such as in "green" beef & mushroom soup, (the trick is to add a can of 4 bean mix, a little cream, lots of green things and some beef, then blend) or sweet potato chips with chickpea (and parsley and garlic) dip.

    Sometimes it's more overt such as a huge plate of nibbly things, cut up uncooked veg, fruit and cold meats, that are eaten on the front lawn.

    I admit that being only 2 there is still a lot of aversion therapy yet to be required, but on the occasion that she simply won't try something we choose an animal that she likes and say that the animal loves that sort of food. She is adoring being a pussy cat eating her lettuce or a doggy with a cucumber. Peer pressure from people other than us, even if she's only taking our word for it.


  4. hope you don't mind a direct link from my blog?

  5. Wocket: Link all you like.

    And like you, we've had success with encouraging the kids to pretend to be animals. The playfulness of being a cat or a dog or a woodchuck makes a game out of eating veggies, brushing teeth, putting on clothes, or just staying out from under my feet while I'm cooking.