Raising a Young Child with Healthy Eating Habits

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., BCC, Parent Coach

As the family joined together to enjoy Christmas dinner, I noticed my cousin having a disagreement with her 4 year old son over the food. She was piling turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and peas onto her son’s plate as he held up his hands, saying “no, no, no!”

His mother continued piling things on his plate, saying “Oh, come on! You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t eat this yummy food!”

Her son was becoming increasingly agitated, saying in a high, upset voice “I don’t want the peas touching the potatoes!”

Happy Thanksgiving this week!  Do you worry about what or how much your child eats?  If so, this could be a good time to make a change.

What shapes our approach to our children’s eating? Our own parents shaped our feelings about food and our approach to our children’s eating. The result is that eating can become another life area in which our approach with toddlers causes more stress than necessary. The attitudes and approaches that cause stress in our relationships also hinder child development.

Many of us grew up with parents who worried about our eating or parents who insisted we must eat everything on our plates. It just makes sense that this causes us to develop anxieties associated with food and meals. Many of us have difficulty figuring out when we are truly hungry and when we’re eating to fill other needs.

You can help your child develop healthy feelings and attitudes toward food by handling this differently. We want to make sure that our children eat enough nutritious food that they grow to be strong and healthy, but not so much that they become obese. We want them to try diverse foods, to expand their palate, and not to develop habits for eating the most fattening, least nutritious foods. We have found that young children do best if they choose how much to eat. When given the opportunity to serve themselves, they choose and eat more nutrition foods. Our cajoling them to eat tends to backfire, making their eating an emotional issue for us.


Don’t pressure, trick, or coerce your child into eating. When you bring home your baby, you may naturally feel anxiety about feeding. Your baby needs to eat much more often than you do to gain weight and Baby and Adult alike need to work things out. It can take a while to figure out nursing, whether with a breast or a bottle. After the early months, though, allow yourself to realize that children eat when they’re hungry. Get past that anxiety about their feeding as you go on to the next stage of your child’s development

Don’t continue to feed them without trying to give them opportunities to feed themselves. You are both accustomed to the adults feeding the child, but the toddler stage is an important point of departure for them to begin to feed themselves. Encourage your toddler to take more responsibility for feeding themselves. I have observed toddlers eating together with grace and courtesy day after day. It starts with treating them like human beings and expecting them to behave like considerate human beings at the table.

Don’t believe the propaganda that toddlers will only eat easy snack foods like hot dogs, french fries and chicken nuggets. It’s not true and it will lead you to feed your child the least healthy fast foods. That is not consistent with your goal.

Do understand that children go through stages when they react differently to different foods, and provide food that is healthy and diverse, including some food that you know your child is likely to enjoy. Young children go through stages when certain smells, textures, and tastes are repellent to them. You can encourage them to try things that aren’t familiar. Make novel foods available and model enjoying diverse foods, but don’t force it.

Do trust that your child will eat enough. Don’t insist that your child clean their plate. We don’t want to get into power struggles with our children over food. When someone tries to force us to eat something, we naturally assume it’s something disgusting. If it weren’t, why would you have to force us to eat it? Understand that people, including children, have a natural desire to eat when they’re hungry. We want our children to learn to recognize when they feel hunger and when they feel sated. Children need to learn this for themselves; we cannot do it for them. When we force on them our perceptions of how much they should eat, we train them to ignore their own bodies. This does not serve them in the long run.

Don’t make meals-on-demand for your toddler. To do this is to make your child fussy and demanding about food. If your toddler refuses to eat what is offered, there is no need to punish or scold them. Just excuse them from the table and let them experience a little hunger. Feeling hungry is great motivation for eating what is offered at the next meal.

Don’t rush through meal preparation and consumption. Slow down and give your child more opportunity to participate in meal preparation. For example, give them a low shelf where they can store and retrieve their plates, silverware, glasses, etc.

Don’t put them in a high chair (container) with its own tray and give them a sippy cup. Do make it easy for them to participate more like other people. You can put them in a booster chair or graduated chair that allows them to eat at the same table the rest of the family eats at. Give them utensils that fit their hands. Put serving bowls on the table that they can handle and encourage them to serve themselves. Research shows that young children who serve themselves are more likely to try novel, nutritious foods.

Don’t allow inappropriate behavior, such as throwing or playing with food. It may indicate they are full and ready to leave the meal, or it may indicate they are bored or frustrated.   Do model courteous and considerate mealtime behavior. If they don’t stop handling the food inappropriately, tell them “I won’t let you throw your food” and remove them from the table.

When you follow these Do’s and Don’ts, instead of doing what your parents did, you can help your young child to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food. Your child will thank you for this gift!

What do you appreciate about your relationship with your young child?

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