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Getting Children to Eat Properly

(how to keep from making food the issue)

Food Tips and Suggestions:

(Do you have a suggestion we can add to this page? Please tell us!). Print out this page and use it as a reference!

Children don’t eat like adults do: Do you get frustrated when your child wriggles around, talks a lot at the table and stops frequently to play with things or stare out the window? We know such behavior can try one’s patience, but it might help to know that it’s normal. Deal with the fidgeting calmly — while still insisting on good manners and on eating a proper meal. For example, your children should learn to sit properly at the table while eating. They should not watch television or play games while eating. They should not crawl on the floor, or leave the table before finishing. They should learn to chew with their mouths closed (this will not happen for some time, though!) and to not talk with their mouths full. They should ask for things politely, and they should ask for permission to be excused.

Don’t miss breakfast: Breakfast is a critical meal for you and your children — it wakes up the body and provides fuel for the day. Studies show that children who miss breakfast (teens, too!) have a harder time concentrating in school, and they’re more likely to eat poorly later. Get up a few minutes earlier if you must, but make sure your children have food in their bellies before they leave the house. Try to serve breakfasts that include fruit, protein and fiber. Even if food is served at school or daycare, give your children something healthy to nibble on before they go. Sharing meals together is not just nutritionally sound, it’s also an important part of family cohesion.

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The No Thank You Bite: Having trouble getting your toddler to eat the proper foods? Our child was saved from a lifetime of cereal by the “No Thank You Bite,” taught to us by a baby-sitter. It became a rule to eat at least one bite of everything on her plate, and gradually, she discovered that some of them weren’t so bad. At first, it wasn’t easy to enforce the rule — we had a few timeouts and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth — but we stuck to our guns, and she wasn’t allowed to refuse the No Thank You Bite (except for dessert). Eventually, the rule was set for her, and she stopped fighting it. It also helps to introduce new foods every three or four days — this way, your child is used to giving new things a try. Don’t force more than a bite, but do insist on one.

Remember the Food Pyramid and the Five Food Groups? They’re still important. Your children must eat every day from the five food groups: grains, vegetables, fruit, meat or other protein, and dairy products. Many families are too light on fruit and vegetables, but nutritional experts now say everyone should make fruits and vegetables about half of what they eat every day. Juices (even if they’re 100% juice) aren’t a good substitute for fruits — they’re too high in calories and sugar and too low in nutrients and fiber. You can serve fruits and vegetables (not just potatoes!!) as finger food, with dips, cooked in meals, mixed in yogurt, on top of cereal, in soups, on sandwiches, on pizza, in casserole dishes. Turn dinner into a salad bar. Turn it into a picnic. Mix it up and try fruits and vegetables you’ve never tried before. Show your children that you eat fruits and vegetables with every meal (if you don’t, they won’t!), and that you’re willing to try new ones. Give them a small selection and let them choose.

Go here for more on the Food Pyramid and go here for more on the Fruits & Vegetables – More Matters initiative.

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Don’t use food as reward or punishment, or as a means of shaping behavior: Don’t turn the dinner table into a power struggle. Discipline should be kept separate from food. If the child is hungry, the child should eat. If the child is full, he or she should stop eating. If the child misbehaves at the table, discipline the child briefly (a short stay in the corner without toys or entertainment was always effective for us), and then bring the child back to the table to finish the meal. Don’t reward bad behavior with bribes or promises of food, and don’t punish poor behavior by withdrawal of food. Insist on the “No Thank You Bite,” and make everything else more flexible.

Don’t make dessert a part of every dinner: Dessert should be a special item. Making it a regular part of dinner might cause the child to eat less dinner in expectation of getting dessert. Dessert also should be contingent on the consumption of a well-balanced meal.

Try dipping: Many children enjoy dipping their food, and they’ll eat items this way that they won’t eat plain. Try dipping fruits, vegetables, meat and salads in sauces, salad dressings, gravies or special dips. We used this idea to get our toddler to eat broccoli, lettuce, carrots, roast beef, ham, chicken, turkey and other foods.

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Is your child stuck on one food? Try alternating: Children often go through jags when they only want one type of food. Over a short period, this probably is OK, but if the jag goes on for a while, or leaves out a particular food group, it mightnot be healthy. Tell your child to alternate bites between the favored food and the other foods. You’ll have to watch to make sure the alternate bites get taken, but if your child knows you’re serious, the other foods will get eaten.

Don’t force your child to eat everything on the plate, or to have “just one more bite”: Avoid serving your child large portions, which can discourage them from trying at all. It’s better to serve less than you think they’ll eat, and then reassure them that they can more if they want. Most young children are instinctively aware of when they’re full. Allowing them to develop the skill of listening to their stomachs will save them a lifetime of overeating later. If your child isn’t eating enough at mealtime, he or she is probably eating too much for snacks, or drinking too much juice. Substitute water for juice and pull back on snacks and see if the mealtime eating improves. Remember that many experts suggest that the body does better with small meals eaten several times a day. If this works better for you and your family, we’re happy — as long as the meals include fruits, vegetables and protein. It can help to save portions of uneaten meals for use as snacks, as long as any meats and dairy products are refrigerated and reheated properly..

Don’t nag or argue: If you’re nagging or arguing with your children, it’s because you’re allowing it to happen. Tell them what’s for dinner, and stay calm. Don’t make substitutions, and do allow them to leave the table. If they choose to leave without eating, don’t let them have dessert or come back in an hour or so for a preferred snack. When your children get hungry enough, they will eat the food you prepare. And if they pass up a meal, hoping to get a snack later, turn the dinner you made into the snack they get. Be careful about this, however. Your goal is to feed your children properly, and to teach them to eat good food, try new food, expand their food horizons, appreciate the food you make, and to respect and obey your choices. You want to be firm but kind. Always have these conversations lovingly, and make sure the meal has been stored properly and has not become inedible.

Use snack time to fill in nutritional gaps. Avoid processed and prepackaged foods, fatty foods and sugary foods. Instead, prepare a plate of fresh fruit and vegetables each morning for snacking throughout the day: Allow your children to help choose the fruit and vegetables. Give them a variety on a plate and let them choose. They can help cut the food and arrange it on the plate (perhaps older children can decorate it with umbrellas or toothpicks), and then bring it out at snack time. We found it helpful to have the healthy snacks visible and easy to grab (this helped us avoid unhealthy snacks, too!). Sometimes, a plate of fresh fruit and vegetables can make a wonderful meal.

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Watch what you say and do, and hide your fashion magazines (or buy fitness magazines instead): If you’re constantly moaning about your own weight and making promises to lose weight, your child will pick up on it and imitate you. Go ahead and diet, but keep it to yourself. Avoid eating or drinking special diet products around your children. Children gain their ideas about themselves, the food they eat and the amount of exercise they should do from examples set by their parents. Set a good example about your own body and self-image. Make it all about being fit and healthy, NOT about being thin. See the Safer Child Thoughts on Dieting pages for more.

Don’t ban foods from the house: This only makes them more tempting. Keep them in a special cupboard or drawer for special occasions. Don’t lock them up, however, or turn them into a big deal. Don’t call them “bad stuff” or “temptations.” Don’t berate yourself or your children for “giving into temptation.” They’re just food, like other types of food, except that they’re meant to be eaten in small doses.

Don’t focus on a specific target weight: People come in all shapes and sizes. Instead, talk about getting strong, healthy and more energetic.

Don’t allow your child to make the rules or to choose the meals: It’s your responsibility to make decisions about meals and snacks — even for your teen-agers. Allow your children to make choices, or to even plan a meal one night a week, but don’t totally hand over the reins. Insist on eating at the table with the family. Insist on good manners. Insist on help with dishes. Insist on sitting properly, eating slowly and with mouths closed. Insist on finishing vegetables before asking for seconds or dessert. Insist on asking for permission before being excused from the table. Childhood habits set the tone for adult habits. If your child “refuses” to eat fruits or vegetables, it’s because you’re allowing your child to refuse. Make it a rule that fruits and/or vegetables get eaten at every meal (it can be helpful to offer a selection of vegetables with dip and then allow the child to choose).

Get your children involved in cooking, shopping and cleaning: If it’s fun and interesting, and if they have a small measure of control, they’ll enjoy helping you. If you make meal preparation a fun family activity, it can only promote better eating habits.

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Limit fast food to occasional treats: Restaurant portions tend to be much larger than one person needs — sometimes five times as much. Fast-food restaurants try to make it sound like a deal to “super size,” but this is no deal for your body. Plus, restaurant foods tend to be high in sugar, fat and salt. Make eating at home — around the dinner table and with the television off — a habit in your home, and make fruits and/or vegetables a part of every meal. Don’t allow cereal to make up any meal other than breakfast. Also watch those already-prepared foods. Besides being more expensive, they also tend to be higher in fat and salt. Want a quick and easy way to make nutritious meals? Buy a slow cooker and use it regularly.

Try to avoid the processed, fat or sugar-filled and “quick” foods: Popular foods that are high in fat, salt, sugar and empty calories include these: soft drinks, sugar drinks and “juices” that aren’t 100 percent juice; prepackaged lunches and snacks; hot dogs; french fries; baked goods such as doughnuts, toaster pastries and cookies; fried foods such as chicken nuggets and fish and chips; bagged snacks such as potato chips, taco chips, snack mixes and crackers; supposedly “healthy” snacks such as snack bars, high-fat granola, and fruit leather.

Don’t assume that a low-fat diet will help your child lose excess weight: Unless you’re eating mostly whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat or skim milk, a low-fat diet may do nothing for you except put on weight. Many processed fat-free or low-fat foods are high in sugars, and thus high in calories. They also tend to be extremely high in salt content. Weight loss or weight gain is measured in the total number of calories consumed versus the total number expended. Consult your pediatrician for help in putting together a healthy menu for your child.

Don’t let your children crash diet: Weight-loss pills and wacky diets are unlikely to be safe for growing children. If your child is too heavy, a better way to lose weight is to adopt permanent changes in both exercise intensity and food intake. A healthy goal is to lose a half-pound to one pound a week. Help your child increase his or her physical activity first, and then consult a pediatrician before putting your child on any calorie-restrictive diet.

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Don’t eat in front of the television, in the kitchen, in the car or on the way out the door: People tend to eat more food when their brains are too preoccupied to tell them they’re full. Studies show that children who watch television while eating also tend to eat poorly — more fat and salt and fewer fruits and vegetables. They also tend to eat poorly (and too fast) when they’re eating on the go, and their stomachs don’t digest the food as well. Eating on the run also means no one’s taking the time to get to know each other. Make family meals — with the television off — a regular part of each day (preferably each meal). It’s a great way to stay in touch with your child and to enjoy fun and casual time together.

Watch portion sizes: Experts say a good rule-of-thumb for younger children is 1 tablespoon of a particular food on the plate for each year of age. But you know your child, and each child is different. Plus, when children go through growth spurts, they may want to eat all day long. Just don’t allow your child to consistently stock up on breads, cereals or fast food. There should be fruits and/or vegetables for snacks and at every meal. If you aren’t sure how much your child should eat, check with a nutritionist (your hospital might have one available).

Limit soda and juice: Eating fruit is much better than drinking fruit juice, and sodas are not only full of sugar and useless calories — they’re also dehydrators. Juice is fine as part of a meal, but for regular drinking throughout the day, water is a better choice. Most people don’t drink nearly enough water. Some sports drinks can also be helpful in hydrating your child. When your child drinks juice, try to make sure it’s 100 percent juice, not just 100 percent Vitamin C.

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Make sure your child stays well-hydrated: People often mistake thirst for hunger — and they reach for food (usually salty food) instead of what the body really wants (water!). Your children will not think to drink until they are thirsty — but by then, they’re already dehydrated. Teach your children to drink to prevent thirst, not in response to it. See the Safer Child Dehydration page for more. Make sure everyone drinks a big glass of water on wakening in the morning, drinking throughout the day and during meals. The body depends on water to function and to process food. When your children say they’re hungry between meals, do a quick check of how much water they’ve had that day.

Stay active: Encourage your children to participate in sports or other physical activities, and limit time in front of televisions, video games or computers. Get lots of time outside, playing in parks or helping in the yard. Your children will find all of this easier to do if you set a good example, and especially if you get active with them. One study we saw found that people who lost weight — and kept it off — engaged in about an hour of some physical activity a day.

Don’t assume that because you don’t like something, your child won’t: Give your child lots of variety, and don’t give up on a food just because it’s rejected once or twice. Offer it several times, always alongside something you know your child enjoys, and then insist on a No Thank You Bite. You’ll be surprised at how your child will eventually become a well-balanced eater, once meals become interesting and fun — and once the rules are made clear and consistent. We also found that when we were willing to try new foods, our child became more willing.

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Shake it upYour children might benefit from a break in routine and from a break from rules. For example, a fun project might be to offer your child food from other countries. Take out the atlas and find the country on a map. Look in the encyclopedia for information about the customs and traditions. Children can even dress up in traditional dress. They can help shop and cook the chosen foods (initially, try to stick with foods that are somewhat familiar).

Another suggestion is to replace a traditional meal with a plate of fresh fruit and/or vegetables (with dip, of course). Turn dinner into a salad bar. Put a big plate of vegetables, egg, shredded cheese, fruits, dips, and strips of ham or other meats on the table and let your children build a big salad. Or, have a picnic in the living room and watch a movie. Or, pack up a bunch of food and drinks, and go have a picnic on the grass. We made it a rule to not have rules at picnics (outside of the no hitting, no kicking, etc.), and that means dessert can be eaten first (this was always a big hit). Sometimes we’ve eaten pudding with fingers, or dipped our carrots in the peanut butter sandwich. On picnic day, anything can happen!

Make the dinner table a pleasant place to be: Ban teasing (from anyone!) about a child’s weight or eating habits. Make sure everyone has time to eat slowly and to chew their food properly. Resist the temptation to deal with family issues at the table — unless, of course, it’s something that just has to be discussed right then. Also try to not argue with spouses or children while eating. If there is a difference of opinion between you and your spouse on how to handle mealtimes, try to have that discussion at some other time, away from the child in question. Keep table conversation light and fun, and encourage everyone to participate — perhaps by sharing something wonderful that happened to them that day.

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  2. Sylvia Sylvia

    Kids between the ages of five and eight years old need at least 25 grams of fiber per day, and kids nine to ten years old need 31 grams. In the grocery store, look for packages that contain ingredient panels stating “whole grain,” not just multi-grain, to ensure that the grain is being consumed in its whole form.The best way to get your kids to eat their vegetables is to start early, make them a habit, and make them fun. Whenever possible, look for seasonal fruits and veggies.Essential for healthy bone development for life. Dairy is always a great source of calcium—organic yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk have it in abundance. Supplemented foods like orange juice or nut milk are fine, too. Another option is dark, leafy green vegetables.

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