A Successful Vegetable Experiment

Our youngest daughter, who is eight, until recently lived on a very limited number of foods. I would joke that she was an experiment to see if human beings could survive on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples.

I did some homework. I discovered that peanut butter is a primary ingredient in products being used to treat malnutrition worldwide. This was reassuring. I also read studies showing that children left to decide whether to eat or not will not starve themselves. They will eat enough to sustain themselves—but often at irregular intervals, sometimes over days rather then hours, and rarely in the form of “meals.” These facts gave me some perspective on my fears about my daughter’s lack of balance in her diet. But I also decided that there was reason to start thinking about getting more green stuff into it. So when we next had a vegetable for dinner, I said, “I want to talk to you about the relationship between what we like to eat and what our bodies need to stay healthy. Can we talk about that?” She agreed to.

I explained that when we’re younger, we can eat pretty much1 anything we want and be okay, but that as we get older, our bodies need other things to continue to stay healthy and strong. I told her that different foods have different nutrients—different things our bodies need—and that eventually we have to have those things or we can become unhealthy. I said that some of them come from plants, which I’d noticed she didn’t eat. Then I asked her if she wanted to make a project out of adding vegetables to her diet. 

She took this in and asked what making it a project would mean. I said that it would mean working on eating vegetables—not just trying them, or seeing if she liked them, but eating them. I said it was possible to decide to do things—like eat vegetables—because they made sense but that we had to work at it. I proposed we try it.

She protested. I met each protest by playfully insisting what a great idea it was. We sat at the dinner table having this funny argument, both laughing a lot, about the merits of such a “project.” She argued that she didn’t want to eat vegetables, that she didn’t like them, and I enthusiastically repeated that it wasn’t about liking, it was about eating!

I had in my mind that this might be a long-term thing, one that could take many efforts over an extended period of time. I knew that it would go best if I didn’t focus on actually resolving anything but instead think of it as a chance to be together in a way that she could feel my mind pushing to partner with hers. I also wanted it to be her decision, and a chance to consider what it means to take on2 something challenging, even if she never ate a vegetable in her life. I figured my “job” was to stay light, be unconcerned with progress, and watch that I didn’t say the same thing too often. 

We had cauliflower that night and played at “eating” it for forty-five minutes, with a lot of laughter. At some point I had the thought that we could make a movie about our “project.” She liked that, so we used my phone to start recording our efforts. She would talk into the camera about what she was doing and then watch what she’d recorded while we laughed some more.

At some point she decided to try eating the cauliflower. My partner suggested that she try it with different “sauces” (catsup, vinegar, fish sauce). She discovered that she liked it with fish sauce and ate a bowl of it, all the while narrating her efforts to the camera, including exhorting that cauliflower was good with fish sauce.

The experiment repeated itself each night at dinner for the next week. I spent somewhere between forty and sixty minutes each night hanging out3 with her as she worked on “eating” a different vegetable, using my attention and recording her efforts on my phone’s camera. 

After five or six nights, we’d run though most of the vegetables we regularly cook— she’d eaten them all—at which point the project died out, because I’d sit down to dinner and she’d already be eating whatever vegetable was there, without anything more being said. Her attention had gone on to other things.

This project was a reminder of what a difference attention can make in what someone can consider and try. Also, thinking of it as a project about decision and challenges, instead of food and survival, made a difference in how relaxed and attentive I could be.

"Mr. Peanut Butter"


1"Pretty much" means almost.
2"Take on" means undertake.
3"Hanging out" means spending relaxed, unstructured time.


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00