Encouraging Good Eating Habits, Respectfully

Encouraging Good Eating Habits, Respectfully

What is this obsession we have with making children eat? Ok, it’s obvious I know, we need to make sure they’re healthy! But, in the absence of any health issues, do we really need to force them to eat? Are they really likely to starve themselves when provided with a house full of healthy food choices?

Do you know what I’m sick of hearing?

‘If you don’t eat your dinner you don’t get dessert’

‘Just two more mouthfuls’

‘See who can be the first to finish their lunch’

‘You’re such a good girl eating all of your dinner!’

‘I’m not talking to you until you’ve eaten more dinner’

I understand these are really common things to say and maybe I’ve offended some people already! I am not immune, I have said a couple of these things more often than I like. But it’s time for it to stop! Imagine if my husband said that to me? Well, I would be mighty ticked off. Who does he think he is to tell me what and when and how much to eat? I imagine my children feel the same every time something similar slips out of my mouth, or every time we are eating with others and people seem to want to evaluate their eating success.

Well no wonder mealtimes become one of the biggest battlegrounds. We’re inviting it! Constantly trying to manipulate and coerce our children into pleasing us with their eating habits. How absurd when you really think about it! No wonder children resist. Eating, drinking, and sleeping are pretty basic human functions that we all need to do. If they can’t even have control over them then how powerless they must feel. It’s like trying to get our kids to poop to our schedule! Kids deserve to eat when they’re hungry, drink when they’re thirsty, sleep when they’re tired, and poop whenever they need to. Without having to stick to someone else’s schedule, and without being shamed if they don’t live up to someone else’s expectations.

We all want to have ‘good’ eaters and healthy kids. But, our kids aren’t out shopping for their own food. All we need to do is to provide healthy meals and snacks. That’s our job. Our children’s job is to follow their own body and eat when they’re hungry. We don’t need to interfere with that. It seems like coercing children into eating more or different foods might make them grow up to be better eaters, but this view is misguided. In my experience trying to force a ‘picky’ child to eat something she doesn’t like, or keep eating when she’s full, and then shaming her when she doesn’t, does not cure her ‘pickiness’. It does make her pretty angry and resentful though!

So let’s stop all this madness hey? It’s not effective, and it’s not respectful. We can trust children to be in charge of their own bodies and eat when they’re hungry. And they surely deserve this trust and respect, right?

So, these are some of the things I am doing instead:

Start at the beginning

Encouraging good eating habits, respectfully

And by the beginning I mean birth! Babies know when they’re hungry from birth. Feed on demand, not on a schedule, if you can. When you start solids baby can feed themselves right from the start. We started at the recommended 6 months with all our kids and it was finger foods from the start. No purees or mixing fruit with vegetables, just whole foods. Then baby can taste what real food is like, feed themselves, and control their own intake. They are more than capable!

Provide healthy foods

Well, that’s obvious isn’t it. But what I mean is, provide only things you’re happy for them to eat. Then there’s no need for you to be the controller of all food. Give them as much autonomy as possible. I like giving the kids a chopping board and veggies and letting them chop up pieces of whichever they want for their lunch. They’re still choosing what they want, I don’t have to tell them ‘not too much of that’ or ‘eat all your veggies’. If I don’t want them to eat junk all day then I don’t have junk in the house.

Encouraging good eating habits, respectfully

Don’t comment on their eating

There’s really no need to comment, positively or negatively. Do I want people to tell me ‘well done you ate all your dinner!’ when I finish a meal? No. It’s really none of our business. We’ve provided the food, our job is over. Try not to fall into the trap of praising for ‘good’ eating, comparing siblings against each other, bribing, or shaming. That’s just not fun for anyone and as far as I can see could end up setting a child up for unhealthy eating habits. Food is about nourishing our bodies, not about control and pleasing others.

“In terms of how much they eat, then, children seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-regulation. Unless, that is, we try to run their bodies for them.Β Two nutritionists in Illinois conducted a fascinating experiment a few years ago. They observed 77 children between the ages of two and four, and also learned how much their parents attempted to control their eating habits. They discovered that those parents who insisted their children eat only during mealtimes (rather than when they were hungry), or who encouraged them to clean their plates (even when they obviously weren’t hungry), or who used food (especially desserts) as a reward wound up with children who lost the ability to regulate their caloric intake.” -Alfie Kohn

Let them eat on their schedule

I know traditionally there’s breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime. But is it a big deal if our children aren’t quite on our schedule yet? Maybe they need dinner earlier? It’s not a huge problem. Trying to force them to eat when we’re hungry doesn’t sound like a very sensible thing to do. Be flexible!

Encourage independence

Encouraging Good Eating Habits, Respectfully

It can be frustrating having to prepare food all day. Especially if your children are not hungry at mealtimes and end up wanting something to eat not long after you’ve packed up! This can easily lead to trying to pressure them to eat at more convenient times. Instead, encourage them to prepare their own foods when they’re able. Set up your kitchen so their plates and cups are easy to reach. Have snacks ready in the fridge that they can access themselves.

Don’t make a big deal about ‘treats’

Encouraging good eating habits, respectfully

I’m still working on this! I never wanted to even use the word ‘treat’ but here we are. My kids know what treats are and you can bet they like them! I don’t have a problem with sweet treats occasionally and I don’t want them to see them as something forbidden or a reward. So we talk about what foods are used for in our body, what ones are best for us, what too much sugar does, etc. We’re working on not making ‘treats’ a big deal, we don’t use them as a reward, and we’re trying not to have many available as I mentioned before, so that we don’t have to have restrictions around food, making them seem even more enticing.

Cook with your kids

Involve the kids in food preparation! They’re learning, it’s fun, and they’re more likely to try something new if they’ve helped make it. Most kids love to cook.

Encouraging good eating habits, respectfully

So that’s where we’re at at the moment. What are mealtimes like in your house? Have you got it all figured out, or are there things you would like to change? Got any other tips to add for me?

68 thoughts on “Encouraging Good Eating Habits, Respectfully

  1. I love this post. I was actually thinking about doing a similar one. I’ve been thinking a lot lately and pondering why we feel the need to have our biggest and most nutritious meal at dinner time? My kids have a “snack plate” every day for lunch. It’s an assortment of cut up fruits, veggies, nuts, cheese, crackers etc… They stuff themselves at lunch time every day. And yet I often still find myself in the “just one more mouthful” trap at dinner time with them (ok, mainly just Shayla haha) and I don’t really know why. Relax Mummy! Lol.

  2. Wow this came at the perfect time! I’ve fallen into the same trap and eating has become a battle. I know my problem is that I’m offering my kids food I don’t really want them to eat too much of, but it’s what we’ve got in the house. Early in my pregnancy I was too naseous to cook. I’m feelings good now and ready to turn things around. You’ve given me the motivation to get going. Thank you!!

  3. Oh my! My in-laws are from India and you can’t fathom the amount of hand-wringing and force feeding that occurs. My husband is pretty bad about it himself. It actually makes me loose my appetite when we’re at the dinner table and the prodding, threatening, and spoon-thrusting begins.

    I especially hate the idea of bribing with dessert because that just reinforces the idea that the meal is the chore and the dessert is what’s really yummy. Blerg. It’s a daily struggle.

  4. That is such a terrific article. It makes such sense (although I’ve slipped in some of those areas for sure). I’ve seen many kids who were regarded as “stuck” in some area of eating as they developed and now they eat better than I do! Very insightful.

  5. I could not agree more! I totally relate to the urge we all have as parents to push our kids to eat more. I’m sure that’s the animal in us, wanting our offspring to survive and thrive, which does involve healthy diet. But in our modern lives, the actual affects of pressuring our kids to eat (or eat more or eat a certain thing, etc.) is far from what we really want for them. It backfires and creates all the habits and behaviors we should be avoiding. Parenting’s tricky like that! Anyway, I think all your advice here is very solid. And some good reminders. Even for me, who agrees with everything you’ve said, those urges to say things like “Oh good job finishing your beans!” or “Why don’t you eat just a little more lunch?” sneak up on me. Need to keep them in check! Thanks for this post.

  6. Oh love this post, I have a 4 year old who will not eat any fruit or vegetables in their given form! I have absolutely no idea how I can help him try them, because he point blank refuses them. I also hate all the “3 more mouthfuls” etc and trust that he will eat as much as he feels he needs. It is all such a worry though, and am sure he can sense that, I think I just need to accept, offer healthy foods and be done with it! I was fussy when younger and now eat everything. Thanks for the post x

  7. What a good reminder! I find myself saying things like “two more bites” often and have realized it’s not what I want to be doing.
    I will still probably enforce a rule that all the foods on the plate must be at least tasted.

  8. This resonates so closely with me. I hate hearing myself say ‘you’ll get dessert’ lines because it’s a terrible way to have our children eat dinner!
    I’m in two minds with encouraging them to eat their dinner/try new things because we’ve had a few nights recently where Miss 4 pushed the bowl of dinner away and said ‘not eating that’. Then after several different methods of ‘coercion’ she ate the entire bowl and exclaimed it was delicious!!
    I’m also not quite brave enough to ‘send them to bed hungry’ so we always end up compromising and offering something else which is usually yogurt or frozen banana/berry ice cream or something.
    One thing we did do recently with Miss 4 was to ask her all the things that she loved for dinner and we made a list. We agreed that when we made those things she would eat them because she liked them and they were good for her body. So I have a little go to list now that she compiled which will hopefully help! We also love involving the girls in cooking and preparing dinner. And we grow veggies which they love to harvest and include in meals and snacks!
    Thanks for putting into an informative post all these things because they’ve reminded me of what I want mealtimes to be! x

  9. It is soooooo culturally ingrained in me to feel stressed about how much my child (only 15 mo) is eating, and it can be quite difficult to let that go. Aren’t we creating unhealthy psychological relationships towards food within our children by using pressure, coercive tactics and too much praise associated with eating? As an adult I find it very difficult to leave any part of a meal on my plate even if I’ve had enough to eat.

    We still do meal times so that my daughter learns to enjoy the social and cultural interactions that come with sharing a meal. But, if after some gentle encouragement she doesn’t eat that much we leave it be (though occasionally I’ve heard myself say “one more mouthful…” and “good girl on eating all your rice!”). At her age I keep a variety of healthy food choices in her reach and remind her throughout the day that they’re there (she’s often so distracted by exploring – she doesn’t have the patience really to sit down and just eat something!). Often she’ll be toddling around with a piece of fruit firmly in grasp which she’ll just nibble on whilst she’s busy exploring her world.

  10. hi. Just wondering what those cutting tools in the photo are? I’ve never seen them before and would love to have my son try them.
    Thanks for a great article. πŸ™‚

  11. People have been trying to tell me this over the years in regards to my struggle with my children, but something about the way you put it really hit home. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

  12. Amen! As mum to a now almost 7 year old who was failure to thrive for the first three years of his life due to severe reflux, I wholeheartedly appreciate it. We were told by so many “specialists” how to get him to eat, and how to force high-caloric foods into his body. And, do you know what? When I finally relaxed and listened to my gut rather than the specialists, lo and behold he ate. And he’s thriving. Present healthy foods, explain why it is important to eat a healthy and varied diet, involve them in the process, and voila- they will eat!

  13. While I don’t entirely agree with the rationale (parents are supposed to teach about healthy eating and encourage good habits- it doesn’t exactly compare to a spouse or stranger discussing your own eating habits with you), I totally agree that the methodology employed by many parents is counterproductive. Setting it up so that finishing dinner is work and dessert is a reward is not a healthy way to view food and has been proven to have consequences when kids turn into adults who are in charge of their own food consumption.
    Another consideration is kids with divorced parents who aren’t on the same page. We have the boys 50% of the time, and while we don’t keep junk in our home, their mother does and we have had non-judgmental talks with them about not gorging on candy, savoring it, and making good choices in our absence.
    Great blog!

  14. I agree with your premise that children know how much they should be eating. It drives me nuts to hear my husband say things like, “If you eat all your dinner, you can have some icecream!”. I think it just teaches children that there is something better out there and if you gorge yourself you can have it. But the one thing I disagree on is schedule and always eating when they’re hungry (and not eating when they’re not). My son is an itty bitty – he’s of small build , so I don’t expect he will be able to eat a mansize dinner. But my problem was he was losing weight (at age 3). He only wanted to snack (on healthy options, but still just snack) but he would never eat a full meal (except breakfast). It’s not like we over stack his plate or serve him food he hates. He was breastfed on demand, we followed baby led weaning. He ate like a champ before he was about 2. After that… It was only when we started to schedule meal and snack times that he suddenly had an appetite and ate well. I think this happened because he was too busy having fun. He didn’t WANT to eat if it meant stopping playing, and if he could graze lightly it meant he could easily ignore his hunger cues – eat a piece of apple and you take the edge off hunger. He’s so much happier and healthier now that he can’t just snack when he wants. I don’t demand he eats everything on his plate (but he must take at least one bite of each thing) and if there is food left on his plate after dinner / lunch he can eat it later if he is still hungry, but at the scheduled times.

    So I guess what I’m saying is I agree that we should be respectful of our children’s needs when it comes to food, but I also don’t think one-size-fits-all. Too much snacking, even if on healthy options, can be a bad thing too if there isn’t a good balance.

  15. I found myself stressing out about meal time so much with my 10 month daughter. My daughter’s pediatrician told me that she was very healthy but a little below average on the weight chart. After that, I tried stuffing her face with food constantly even when I knew she wasn’t hungry. It turned into a fight with her a lot of the time. Like you said, they know when they are hungry and are capable of feeing themselves. I tried to transition to more finger foods vs spoon-feeding her pureed foods so she could be more independent. She loves feeding herself at her own pace and not being forced. We are both so much happier!

  16. Yes, yes, yes! I grew up with the Clean Plate Club, and it’s so hard to break that habit with my kids, but I’m working on it. (I did some research on ways to break the cycle and wrote a post about it, which was highly controversial, ha!) Thank you for writing about this important topic.

  17. We sometimes have dramas at meal times too and I’d rather they stopped eating if they are full instead of saying “2 more bites” or making them sit there for ages until they’ve finished and everyone ending up upset with one another. We try not to focus on treats too much as well but we do have ice-cream night every Friday night which the kids look forward to (and me as well!).

  18. Oh, I forgot to mention that I now get the girls to help me work out dinners for the week and what ingredients we will need so they get involved and get to choose things that they like as well.

  19. This is such a great post, and honestly, one I wish I had read when my kids were younger! I think we all fall into this trap at some point, in the hope of making sure we’re giving them ‘enough’ but I know I sometimes don’t remember that they are capable of making these little choices for themselves. I will definitely be thinking about this post the next time they ‘aren’t hungry’!
    Thanks for sharing!

  20. Hi there,

    I agree with the principle of this, but am not always able to implement in practice…my son will flatly refuse to feed himself now at age 3 even though we employed self-feeding techniques with finger foods when he was a baby. So he’ll just sit there not eating, waiting for dessert. Dessert is usually yogurt or fruit, so it’s still healthy, but it’s not balanced if he just eats fruit, so I do fall into the trap of saying ‘no main meal, no dessert’ as well as the ‘two more spoonfuls’ etc. Would love to hear anyone’s practical tips for overcoming that.

    Also, do you have any book recommendations of books to read together with your toddler about which foods are healthy, and what happens to the food in you? He loves educational books so I know he’d find it fascinating.

    Thanks!

    • We just don’t serve dessert at house. The meal is the meal, and that’s it. But if yogurt is what he will eat for his meal, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Just don’t present is as the meal and then separate dessert. Make the yogurt and fruit part of what is offered at the meal. A cup of greek yogurt has as much protein as a pork chop. If you don’t want him eating just fruit, then don’t offer it at all. Only put on the table things that you are ok with him eating, and then let him choose what he wants from what is on the table.

  21. Yes, yes, and yes. 100% I was actually just sitting at my desk writing a point about this very same topic. Forcing kids to eat by our made up rules does not work. We all fall into those old habits because it’s ingrained in our brains, it’s what we all heard as kids. But I’m trying really hard not to do it.

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  23. We had a pretty relaxed atmosphere at meal times … lots of fun and didn’t stress. I have three really good eaters… still. All three breastfed. They started on solids at 4-5months (when their chewing reflex developed). I did steam veggies and mash them … the other thing I did as the variety of food increased was that I would mash up whatever my husband and I were having for dinner for them to try. I had a spoon and they had a spoon until they were managing most of their spoonfuls in their mouth (messy sometimes but always fun). Finger food came on the scenr at about 6mths.
    We had healthy snacks on offer during the day … and main meals were usually around the same time each day. Lots of active play also promoted good appetites.
    If we had meals where there was a main an dessert, then the main was a realistic size as was the dessert. If they didn’t like what was on offer then they went without. I honestly can’t remeber them knocking anything back unless they were sick or a bit full.
    If my 8 year old doesn’t finish something she will often put the leftovers in a container for later …and she will usually come back to them.
    This article brought back some fond memories … they grow up so fast. I think that us not stressing about kids food from the start helps them not to stress either. πŸ™‚
    Thanks.

  24. I agree. Its so logical. That would be very easy to implement if my kids only had meals at home and if i was the only person who got to decide what kind of food gets in in the house. My husband is very closed minded to alternative ways to do things … Its very frustating sometimes. Grandparents also. I feel so powerless …

  25. 7 yo son eats lots of fruit n pasta pretty much everyday. Muesli for breakfast. Has lots of cavities. What to do when he refuses to eat anything else?

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  29. Apart from the above, we take along our 3 year old to veggie and fruit shopping. He gets to pick his choice. Also, we have started a small garden of veggies such as peas, cucumber, tomatoes so that he can water the plants and harvest. He loves eating his garden produce. We even took him along to select which veggie seed he wanted to grow. All these have helped my picky eater.

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  32. I love this article, we try and operate this way as much as possible and remain relaxed especially around snacking and main meal times. My question is around ‘healthy’ food options. As much as we have healthy options there are so many things the kids won’t eat, which is fine but then if they are hungry what do they eat!!! Copious crackers, chips, (and not the unsweetened kind) are consumed in our house, (8 and 5yr old who are particular about what type of crackers these are! ) and if I remove these options the kids will just be hungry. I have read lots of things that talk about children not starving themselves but if we are talking about letting the children control their food intake then me taking away these less than optimal items I feel like its control anyway. My question is what do you recommend around encouraging trying new foods or foods they have already turned their noses up at!! Great encouraging read!

  33. I have found that talking to the kids while we pick food at the supermarket, having them help to cook a little if they feel like it, and being able to serve themselves at the table from a bowl in the centre has really helped encourage healthy eating habits for my 3 and 5 year olds.

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  36. This is something I’ve been struggling with. We only offer healthy foods at home but, given complete autonomy, my 5 year old son would fill up on milk, pasta, bread and rice, and maybe a small amount of protein. Veggies wouldn’t even get a look in, even though we involve him in growing, buying and preparing them and talk about how they help our bodies.
    For us, balance is the key. We often serve veggies first at meals (letting him decide which ones he wants) and then the protein and starch. We do ask that he eats a certain amount of veggies before getting the rest of the meal, but do not require him to eat if he’s not hungry when the rest of us are (often he’ll come back to a meal later). We usually limit dessert to one night a week but even so, I’m still guilty of saying ‘eat your dinner or no dessert’ and I do admit to over praising when he eats veggies or tries something new… Sigh! Still a work in progress, I guess!

  37. I enjoyed reading this and thoroughly agree. I’m a nutritionist and spend my days coaching adults out of bad eating habits which have led them to become overweight and some to develop chronic illnesses due to their weight. Those habits, in the most part, have been learned at a young age around the dinner table. They’ve learned to tune out from their own bodies telling them when they are full and to only listen to their parents telling them to clear their plates (over eat) so they can get their ‘treat’ (and over eat even more).

    Those habits once learned are increasingly difficult to break away from, and any parent who thinks they are doing right by their child in encouraging such practices is actually so far at the opposite end of the ‘what’s right for my child’ scale that it verges on child abuse.

    Great blog, keep them coming.

  38. I agree with this… when it works. My daughter is completely able to regulate her food intake and responds really well to being in the know about what her body needs. She helps herself to snacks and drinks. My son LOVES carbs, protein and sugary foods… he would happily never see another vegetable and lots of fruits. Even when I’ve tried to give him control over making food he will only eat cucumber. I settled on writing a list of all the vegetables I could think of, talking about how many is ‘a lot’ not to eat, then agreeing that he could choose 6 ‘worst’ vegetables that I would never give him and the others he will at least try even if they are not his favourite (obviously I don’t include unusual stuff in this list!). So now I try to give him mainly the stuff he likes and I give him smaller portions or tiny amounts of stuff he doesn’t love. He has increased the stuff he likes now and happily chooses and eats strawberries, mushrooms, different lettuces etc that he was totally against before.
    I also will provide a sandwich with salad and if you want more sandwiches then you need to eat the salad first (of agreed vegetables that they often prepare themselves). I don’t feel that throwing food away when you are still hungry and just want bread is ok, it costs money. If they are not hungry obviously it’s fine.
    My sister did give total freedom to her son with a similar taste and he is now a teenager who really does only eat dry chicken, bread, pasta and apples. I agree about not nagging and being overly controlling, I’ve tried lots of cooking, involving him in the shopping, letting him choose dinner sometimes. It doesn’t work, he still needs support in healthy eating otherwise he gets constant runny noses and I don’t feel it benefits him long term.
    As I said, with my daughter it was soooo easy, she just self regulates.

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