I’ve previously written about why I think it’s important to let kids be in control of what they put in their mouths. Part of this means, letting them choose if they want to take a bite of a new food or not.
My thinking is that forcing a child to eat something they don’t want may increase their fear of new foods, as well as lead to a general distrust of the eating experience.

While I believe that children should have the ultimate right to not try a new food, that doesn’t mean that they (or you) get an easy out. I believe that children need enthusiastic encouragement to try a new food, knowledge on the proper way to say “no thank you” to a second bite, as well as good vocabulary to describe what they like or don’t like about a new food. In my opinion, giving children control over their eating situation will make them much more likely to try new foods in the long run, even if you strike-out on one…or two…or seventeen meals.

When I’ve shared my opinion on this in the past, I struck a nerve with many of you. Some people expressed total, utter relief about it, telling me things like “it’s taken such a weight off my shoulders to know that I’m doing all I can to offer my children healthy foods without making dinnertime a battle.” While others disagreed with the “no force” approach, telling me things like “healthy eating is worth battling for” and “if I spend an hour making a dish, my kids are going to try at least one bite.”

Certainly, every child and situation is unique, and only you can decide what’s the best approach for your family. But here’s what some experts say about it, on both sides of the debate.

Against the “One Bite” Rule
Ellyn Satter, child feeding expert (and my idol!), is not a fan of forcing a bite. In her book, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, she eloquently says:

If we make it our business to get our child to try a food — even just one bite — she gets the message the we don’t trust her to learn and grow, and the lack of trust takes the joy of accomplishment away from her. If a food is presented over and over in a neutral fashion, sooner or later a child will taste it, and in most cases after she tastes it lots of times, she will like it. if you try to speed up the process, you will in fact slow it down. In a child’s mind, the response is something like this: “If the they have to make me eat that, then it must not be so good.”

In Favor of the “One Bite” Rule
The founder of Purple Asparagus (I highly respect her work) has successfully incorporated the “one bite” rule into the not-for-profit’s efforts to introduce children to new and healthy foods. In a comment on a previous blog post of mine, she said:

I know that the conventional wisdom is to not force children to eat what’s on their plate and I would certainly not advocate a return to that approach. However, I do think it’s very important to strongly encourage kids to try new things. I think that is where many new parents, including myself, fail – we don’t want to fight at the dinner table, but it’s a battle worth winning. In our classes and at my own dinner table, we strongly request that kids take a “polite bite.” They don’t have to like what they’re trying, but they should at least give it a go.

The Customized Approach to the “One Bite” Rule
On her blog, Raise Healthy Eaters, Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen talks about how a child’s “food personality” is a key factor in how the “one bite” rule will play out.

The temperament of your child makes a big difference. Is the child stubborn, easy going or something in between? In other words, some children will view a one-bite rule as the push they need to try new things while others will be totally put off by it. And as I pointed out in a previous post, every child has a different food personality

An Alternate Approach to the “One Bite” Rule
Sociologist and child feeding expert, Dina Rose, of It’s Not About Nutrition offers an alternative approach to the “one bite” rule, in an effort to help engage your kids in positive discussions about food.

Don’t teach your child that the only way to refuse food is to say she doesn’t like it. “Just try it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” can be rephrased, “Try it and tell me what you think.” Actively encourage your child to tell you if she doesn’t feel like eating something, if she would prefer something else, or if she is worried something will be awful. (Of course, if she would prefer something else, you shouldn’t hop up and make it; rather you should reply that she can have that alternative at the next meal. Then follow through.) Give your child alternative words and he’ll use them. (excerpted from “What ‘I Don’t Like It Really Means“)

So there you have it. Four different, well articulated opinions about the “one bite” rule. What has worked best for your family?

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  • Our family has had success with the alternative to the one bite rule from Blogger Dina Rose of “It’s Not about Nutrition.” Actively encouraging our child to develop language and good manners around food takes work, and reading Rose’s suggests have helped bring my husband and I onto the same page at dinner time.

    We have become more adventuresome eaters also, making a point of tasting foods we do not prefer in front of our son and modeling good behavior around those situations. It has pushed us expand the texture, temperature, color and combination of foods at the table – and actively use that language with our child. Hard work, imperfect.. but better than when were just putting food on the table, praying for a good outcome, and then waiting for … erm, something positive?

    Now we have specific objectives, and we don’t freak out if our kid tastes a food and does not love it. (Or, spits it out and offers it back to us.) It is not a regular thing, and we lavish praise for trying something new.. rather than freaking out about manners – the goal is to encourage our son to taste taste taste, and talk talk talk.

    Happy dinner, happy tummies… and a kiddo that is starting to put more “strange” things in his mouth at meal times.

    I would love to know other mommies experiences… particularly with kiddos with texture concerns.

    • Laura Chalela Hoover, MPH, RD

      Hi Linn – Thanks for your comment. So glad to hear that you’ve had success with Dina Rose’s approach to healthy eating behaviors. I think her advice is pretty darn great, too.

      You make a really good point about how much WORK it takes to raise a healthy eater. People often tell me that I’m “lucky” that my kids are good eaters. Trust me, we have our days, but for the most part, it’s something my husband and I work really, really, really hard at. I’m glad you can relate and that you’ve made it a priority to put in the work with your child.

      The texture concerns can be really tough to deal with. I don’t have much first-hand experience with it, but I’m looking for someone with expertise in that arena who can do a guest post for our site. Your comment is good motivation for me to expedite my search!

  • Thank you Laura, for bringing together 4 respected experts on this topic! I know and admire the work of all of these people, and it is interesting to hear the subtle differences in their approach to this issue. I don’t think there is a right or wrong here – parents need to do what works for them.

    In the workshops I conduct with children we explore a whole rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables. I challenge the children to taste a whole rainbow, but no child is ever forced to try any food if they don’t want to. We focus on using the senses and descriptive words to explore the qualities of unfamiliar foods. I’ve had so much feedback from teachers and parents who report that their children often tried new foods in this context because it was so much fun. I encourage parents to do the same thing at home.

    • Laura Chalela Hoover, MPH, RD

      Hi Janet — Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that parents need to do what works for them. Personally, what works for me some days, doesn’t work on others. My kids’ moods (and mine!) definitely impact how receptive they are to trying something on any given day.

      I very much appreciate your approach to focusing on the senses and giving children the vocabulary to describe what they’re experiencing. It’s so important to building healthy eating habits, but it’s something that most parents don’t think to do. I’m glad to hear you’ve had such positive feedback on this approach in your workshops. If you ever want to write a guest post about the approach you use for your workshops, we’d love to have your contribution.

      • Thanks Laura! I completely agree that even if we decide on one particular approach, we all need to be flexible. We often have to change things up in order to respond to the reality of different children and the real life demands that change from day to day.

        I’d love to write a post for you, to share what I do in my workshops. Why not drop me an email and we can chat further?

  • What a great resource you put together! I am against enforcing the one bite rule too although there was a time in my career when I was all for it. Keeping this in mind, I really appreciated Ms. Rose’s stance: “Try it and tell me what you think.” In the end, isn’t that what we really want? We want them to taste and appreciate so they can learn about themselves and their own preferences. I hope with that “Try it and tell me what you think” a child still can say “No thank you” and not pushed further. I see this as helpful dialogue letting your child know they are still in control and their opinion matters. I wonder what Ellyn Satter would say?

    • Laura Chalela Hoover, MPH, RD

      Hi Julie. Thanks for your comment. As a parent, it can be sooooo frustrating when your child won’t eat something, but I definitely agree that it’s important to give them control of their bodies and actions. It’s interesting to hear how your stance on the topic has shifted over the years. Before I had kids, I too was more in favor of the one-bite rule, especially given what we know about “needing to take a bite” for it to truly count as “exposure.” But with time (and now that I have kids of my own), I’m more about the ultimate goal, which you so eloquently stated in your comment.

      Wouldn’t it be great to be able to sit down and talk to Ellyn Satter about all of it? Maybe we can interview her for a future post! 🙂

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