This question came up in e-mails with a recent seminar participant and I decided to reprint my answer here because it is one of the most common problems parents encounter.

Let me start by saying that it’s important not to threaten, bribe or cajole your child into eating her peas. Those tactics only serve to reinforce the struggle.  Plus, there’s plenty of research that concludes these types of pressure tactics don’t work in the long run.

Instead, take a moment to understand that your child eats the way she does because she prefers the pasta. If she preferred the peas she would eat them first.  When they’re both on the plate, the pasta calls her name so loudly that she can’t help but respond. Fortunately, she can be taught to eat in a way that balances out her intake of foods. Here’s how:

First, teach your child these three lessons —

  1. It’s important to eat a little bit of everything before you eat all of anything.  This is because…
  2. Different foods have different things that are good for us.  Unfortunately…
  3. Most people want to gobble up their favorite food first but when they do they usually end up being too full to eat the other foods.

Say all three points to your child frequently because they form the backbone of almost every strategy to come.

Most young children can understand these three ideas, but even if you think you’re child doesn’t quite get it, teach them anyway because it is through the repetition of these ideas that kids learn them. Furthermore, even if your child won’t eat any vegetables at all, teach these lessons because they will lay the groundwork for vegetable consumption in the future. (And I’ll cover techniques for getting your child to eat vegetables in other posts.)

Next, teach your child a technique I call One-One.  You may remember your mother (or in my case, it was my grandmother) telling you to eat one bite of everything on your plate, before having a second bite of everything, etc.  Well, that’s the technique: one bite of this, one bite of that, going around the plate.

Tell your child about One-One when you aren’t eating.  Strike up a conversation about general eating, and then tell her you would like her to eat this way.  Give her all 3 reasons why.  Then remind her about One-One just before the next meal so it is fresh in her mind.

During the meal, give your child a gentle reminder, if necessary, and if she doesn’t do it, then don’t make an issue of it. But don’t give up. Continue to remind her at every meal that you would like her to eat One-One and remind her why.  She doesn’t have to be exact – you can tell her she can eat two-two if she wants.  OR, she can eat the vegetables first and save her favorite for last.

It is important when you teach a child to eat One-One that you put only a small amount of each food on her plate at the start of the meal.  You don’t want the challenge of eating a huge mound of peas to put her off. (And look at it from her perspective to determine how big “huge” is.) At this point, the style of eating is much more important than the amount consumed.

This kind of sequenced eating is a good habit for your child to get into from the earliest years.  In fact, often very young children will accept this style of eating without any resistance.  Older children may need some encouragement to accept One-One but it’s well worth the effort. It’s what you probably do, more-or-less, when you eat your own meal.

Now, for the question of seconds: if you’re child wants seconds and has eaten some of everything on her plate, then by all means, give her seconds of her favorite.

If your child won’t eat One-One or if for some reason you decide you don’t want to try it, then try one of these other techniques:

Put a small amount of each food on your child’s plate and when she asks for seconds say ok, but tell her you’ll get it for her after you have had a few more bites of your own food and suggest that she have a few bites of the other foods while she is waiting.  A lot of times, kids will happily eat a bite or two of vegetable when they know their request for another food is being honored.

Alternatively, have a salad or vegetable course before the main meal is served so the veggies don’t have to compete with the pasta for attention. If you choose this option, don’t try to “sell” this course to your child. Simply put it on the table and eat your own salad. If your child complains, tell her she can either eat her salad/vegetables or wait for the main course.  Over time, she’ll choose to eat.  This technique might take a month or so to catch on but in time it works very well — as long as there is no pressure to eat the salad.

If you’re child won’t eat One-One, or won’t have any bites of vegetable using the other techniques then you have a bigger issue on your hands. Evaluate what’s really going on and address that issue. But most kids respond to these techniques, so give them a shot.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.