Monday, September 13, 2010

the fantasy vs reality of the "two-bite club"

I saw the book Ellyn is referring to recently. It is a gorgeous book, lovely drawings, a well-intended sentiment, but ultimately not helpful, and crosses into pressure. Read on for Ellyn's astute retelling of this story. (Reprinted with permission, and a little gratitude that I don't need to write a full post on a day when our water AND gas are being shut-off for construction. I am at the coffee shop hoping they don't blow up my house before a 9:30 appointment.)

September 2010 • Family Meals Focus #49 Review, The Two Bite Club

It is gratifying when nutrition professionals take the big step to writing educational materials from the point of view of feeding dynamics. However, there is such a big contradiction between the feeding dynamics model and the conventional approach, it isn’t surprising when errors creep in. Even seasoned professionals trip themselves up with messages that cross the lines of the division of responsibility in feeding. With that in mind, let’s take a friendly but realistic look at a recent and free (and therefore widely distributed) publication of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service: The Two Bite Club.

Older brother Will is the protagonist of the piece. “My teacher said that if we eat two bites from each food group we can be members of the Two Bite Club!” Will’s teacher is to be forgiven for this - most teachers don’t know about the division of responsibility in feeding. Teachers interested in nutrition can sometimes be a bit zealous - and controlling - about it.

Little sister Anna can smell pressure a mile away. “OK, but I might not like it,” she replies cautiously. Mother says, “Anna, I know you can be a big girl and try two little bites of each food, then you will be in the Two Bite Club!” Sure enough, Anna’s caution is well-founded. There are not just one but two cleverly disguised pieces of pressure in one sentence: 1) If you force yourself to eat you will be a big girl and 2) It is only two little bites. Anna is only a preschooler, and she isn’t able to deconstruct that sentence. However, like most children, she knows what she knows - she is being railroaded! So far, the Two Bite Club is faithful to the reality of feeding children.

First, they play a little game. They find a food that fits in the grain group of MyPyramid for Preschoolers. Well, all right, that’s kind of like a treasure hunt. Anna likes treasure hunts. Will finds some whole-wheat crackers. “Let’s try these!” he says. “Oh, no,” says Anna, “I don’t think I’ll like them.” Anna can smell pressure, even when it is coming from Will! Anna might be one of those slow-to-warm-up types, but more likely she is just a typically canny preschooler. Here is where our book takes leave of reality. “But she [Anna] tried two little bites. ‘I like them!’” she exclaimed.

Oh, come on. How realistic is that? Every child I have seen coerced this way makes a sour face and says “Eew! I don’t like it!” The research says the same. When you coerce children to eat, they like foods less well, not better. Even when you don’t coerce them, it takes a lot of exposures - 5 or 10 or 47 - for a child to learn to like a new food. The slow-to-warm-up types take longer. Anna might be a slow-to-warm-up type, or she might just be made to appear that way by the hard sell for this strange club.

So on they go. Like the bread group, the perfectly acceptable treasure hunt for vegetables contains a zinger: Anna has to take two bites of broccoli. So what if they are only little tiny microscopic bites? What if Anna only has to lick it? Do you know how gross it is to be strong-armed into making close contact with something - strange? Here is a more likely scenario: Anna took a bite of broccoli. “Eew! I don’t like it!” she gagged, spitting it on the floor. (We could have her spitting on her plate or in her napkin but Anna, Will, and Mother are all standing up for the Club meeting.)

Then they hunt for fruit. By now, you would expect Anna to slope off to watch Dora the Explorer rather than play this game, but our story has her coming back for more. This time, Anna gets to choose, and she finds a yellow apple in the fruit bowl. The optimistic folks who hope that letting Anna pick the food will get her to eat it are heartened. Ever vigilant, Anna recognizes the pressure. “I don’t think I like yellow apples; I only like red apples,” she says.

So let’s give Anna a break and write a new ending to our story. “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to,” says mother, learning from her mistakes. “Yes,” says Will. “Let’s forget about the bites. I don’t have to belong to any dumb club in order to enjoy my food.”

So Mother got Will and Anna’s lunch ready. She put on the whole grain crackers and broccoli and stirred some Ranch Dressing mix into the yogurt to make dip. She put on some cheese and some milk and they all agreed those foods were from the milk group. She peeled the apple and cut it up. Anna could see that on the inside a yellow apple was just the same as a red one. Mother let Anna and Will pick and choose what to eat from what was on the table. Anna ate a whole apple and some cheese and drank some milk and dipped a cracker in the dip and ate a little corner of it. She ignored the broccoli - she’d had enough of that for one day.

And they all ate happily ever after.

Copyright © 2010 by Ellyn Satter. Published at


  1. I am personally sooo sick of hearing about "just try it" and "two bite" rules. Especially the accompanying insistance that their application will turn my son from a neophobic eater into an adventuresome eater. I can only assume that this technique works for some kids because it sure is popular.

    We only had to try it a few times to realize that it didn't work for our son. The instant that he is told he has to try something he immediately assigns it to the "I don't like it" category. And foods are seldom removed from this category once they are placed in them... Also, to actually get him to try something he doesn't want to requires an EXTREME amount of pressure, so extreme that I know it has to be wrong.

  2. Thanks Jennifer for the dose of reality. Kids are so different. I often have clients that have three kids, and two are pretty laid-back, eager to please temperaments, and adventurous eaters. The third will be more cautious, independent, sensitive to pressure etc. Parents can't handle when the "two bite rule" "works" for one kid and not another. (Remember also, it might "work" in the short-term to get a few bites in but slows down the process of learning to like new foods and halts it completely for many...) I think I'll pick up on this thread for a later post. I'm sick of it too, and it's everywhere!!!

  3. Yes, I think defining whether something "works" is a pretty complex task. For a lot of parents working simply means food goes in the child's mouth and there is no immediately obvious negative effects.

    I read one of Ellyn Satter's earlier books first (How to Get Your Child to Eat...) and this topic seems to be one of the few things that has changed in her approach over time. (Am I right about this?) If I remember correctly, she didn't reccomend against it per say, just that it might not work for every child. I wonder if this change in her approach speaks to the fact that the "one bite" rule seems to be relatively harmless for some families. I do suspect there are a lot of robust eaters out there who are not at all fazed by a "try one bite" rule. (Though, they certainly don't live at my house. ;) )

  4. I can't speak for Ellyn, and I know it's an older book, but some easy-going, adventurous kids can do fine with it, but then, do they NEED it? Might it slow things down? If a family challenges me at a workshop, usually with, "This works really well for us" it is a nice opportunity to talk about temperament, cautious vs adventurious eaters etc. Usually parents relate and get that it doesn't cause conflict for one child, but ruins it for another...