How to get your child to eat without a fight

Some current information adapted from a leading child nutritionist, Ellyn Satter*, can give you new information to help you decide what is right for your family.

  1. There is a division of responsibility in feeding infants and children:
    • The parent is responsible for what the child eats, when the child eats, and where the child eats.
    • The child is responsible for how much they eat or whether they eat.
  2. Children have a built in barometer related to hunger and feeling full.
    • Hunger can set them up to be excited to eat at meal times because the body craves energy. However, not getting enough food can make hunger an unbearable burden.
    • Satiety can make the body feel calm and relaxed because enough food has been consumed to meet the body’s needs. Yet, eating past the point of satiety can be uncomfortable.
  3. The family table is meant to be a group of people sharing a common meal.
    • Infants can join the family table between 8-12 months and eat foods being served to the family. Creating special meals for infants and toddlers that are distinct from the food the family shares can be stressful. Instead, adapt what is being served to the needs of the child (mash up the veggies with a fork, cut the meat into small pieces, etc.).
  4. Children can learn to behave at the table from a very young age, around 24 months. Families do not have to put up with a child who is whining, crying, being sullen, or acting out physically.
    • To stop the behavior, speak clearly and sternly saying, “you are whining – stop it now,” then ignore the child. This is usually enough to get the child to stop the behavior. If the child does not stop in 5-10 seconds, excuse the child from the table and don’t allow the child to return to the table.
    • Additionally, do not let the child to take food from the table.  This is not a cruel behavior; it is meant to teach the child that he or she is important and that his or her behavior affects everyone at the table. Talking with your child later about what happened, in age appropriate words, is important. Continue to enforce the rule and the child will conform and be able to join in a pleasant family table.
  5. Structured meals and snacks are important for children to learn a healthy relationship with food.
    • Having a routine that the child can depend on makes them confident about how much they choose to eat because they know when the next meal/snack is coming.
  6. Eating with the child is exceptionally important.
    • Children learn social skills while interacting with parents. Since eating is a social activity, children need to learn how to behavior around food, how to interact with others while sharing food, and practice these skills with feedback from parents.

Based on this current understanding of child feeding patterns, the take away information to help you limit food struggles with your child include:

  • Parents make decisions for their child about what is best for them.  This includes what types of foods are served, when meals and snacks are served, and where food is served.  Your child, being the owner of his or her own body, will choose how much of the food to eat or whether to eat at all.

Important to this balance of power is that if the child chooses not to eat, there cannot be a cookie handout between this meal or snack and the next scheduled meal or snack.

  • Allow the child enough time to eat (i.e. 20 minutes) and then remove any uneaten food. This will allow the child to become hungry so they can enjoy the next experience with food.
  • No fighting is necessary. All you have to say when your child asks for food is, “I know you are hungry. This happened because you didn’t eat your snack. We will be having lunch after your nap.” The child will learn to eat enough food to keep him or herself full until the next meal or snack.
  • Forcing children to eat when they are not hungry or not permitting children to eat until satisfied at a meal will be counterproductive to helping the child learn to have a healthy relationship with food.   The parent controls what, when and where.  Remember, the child has control over how much, if any.
    • Forcing a thinner children to eat more when they do not have an appetite will only create anxiety  and a dislike of the foods that they are being force to eat.
    • Not allowing a heavier children to eat until they are satisfied at a meal makes them fearful at mealtimes.
  • There is no need to cook separate meals for different members of the family unless documented medical conditions are present.  Even the youngest members can enjoy foods being eaten by the entire family.  Limiting special orders encourages all members of the family to explore and enjoy new foods rather than ordering their favorites at meal time.
  • Teaching children to behave at the table will make meal times at home and outside the home more enjoyable.  How children behave at home is how they behave outside of home.
    • Parents can support their children’s development by helping them learn the skills they will need to eat in a restaurant, have dinner at another person’s home, and eat meals at daycare or school.
    • A child who dominates meal times with bad behavior will struggle when in the care of other adults who may not tolerate their behavior.
    • When a child misbehaves, he or she is unable to partake in the enjoyment of the family table. Setting limits that are in line with family norms will benefit your child now and in the future.
  • Parents choose when food is available to children. Providing a regular rhythm of meals and snacks is necessary so that the child can learn to gauge his or her intake accordingly.
    • If the hours between meals and snacks vary daily, the child can be served a snack when they do not have hunger or be very hungry and waiting for a meal.
    • Having a schedule allows children to instinctively know how much they need to eat to feel energetic until the next meal or snack.
  • Eating with children is also important.  Eating alone in the kitchen or in front of the TV all the time does not help a child learn the social part of eating or have a good experience while eating.
    • Social skills, conversation, and behavior modeling are all important parts of learning to have a healthy relationship with food.  Children cannot learn these skills if they are always eating by themselves.
    • Sitting with children, at least once per day, and sharing a meal is an essential element of learning to have a good relationship with food.

Food and meal times should be comfortable and enjoyableStruggles over food can plague a family with stress and disrupt socialization. Remembering the distribution of power between the parent and child can help to alleviate power struggles. In addition to removing stress, the child is also learning improved social interaction skills and developing a healthy relationship with food. The efforts made to reduce friction over food will benefit everyone involved.

Reference:  Satter, E. (2000).  Child of mine: Feeding with love and good sense.  Bull Publishing Company: Boulder, CO.

Knowledge is power

  • What new information did you learn from this posting? 
  • Did it help you identify something in your family you would like to change? 

Share your experience below and what steps you plan on taking to guide your family.


Related Articles

What really is the harm in eating processed foods?

Food is everywhere. It nourishes our bodies, is a focal point for many celebrations and events, it can remind us of home when we are far away, and it helps guide our passing through the year and seasons. Food is a fact of life. Food doesn’t have the ability to be good or evil. However, there are some foods that should be eaten in moderation more than others. There are sometimes foods and there are all the time foods. Our diets, if balanced and full of variety, can enjoy both.