Healthy Eating Habits Start by Giving Kids Control

Create happier, more relaxed family meals
overhead shot of a family meal
© Can Stock Photo / sonyakamoz

Has mealtime become a dreaded power struggle of pleading and arguing with your child to eat something...anything...just one bite? The struggle to get kids to embrace healthy eating habits is real and although it can cause anxiety for us as parents, it is beneficial for us to take a step back and allow our children to be in control of what they eat while setting a healthy example with the things that we can control.

1. Plate for success

Think about how it feels when someone makes a heaping plate for you and expects you to finish it all! Set them up for success by filling their plates appropriately. Filling them too much can be overwhelming for them causing them to shut down and refuse any of it. Instead, start with a small portion of food so that their eyes and stomachs are able to handle.

2. Let them define their hunger

Children's stomachs are a lot smaller than we think. Our little ones have the same internal voice as we do and teaching them to listen to that voice is far more important than the 2 or 3 bites you may sneak into them. Forcing them to finish the whole plate when they may not be hungry can lead to a habit where they eat when they aren’t hungry. Children will not starve themselves and you would be surprised at how much food they actually do need. Their appetites, eating habits, and their taste in food can change from day to day and from week to week. Try not to focus on them finishing their whole plates. Rather, celebrate the fact that they have at least tried a few bites of each food and instead help them learn to eat more mindfully.

3. Lose the power struggles

You are not a restaurant. Mealtime battles can quickly become an hour-long battle of wills. Children have very little control of their day, but deciding what they will and will not eat is something they have full control of. Making a big deal out of a skipped meal or smaller-than-usual meal can actually perpetuate the struggle and making a second or third meal will still not guarantee they will eat it. This can also set the stage for picky eating. It may take practice but allowing them to simply decline your offering and making the amount of food consumed a non-issue will keep it there.

4. Let them play with their food

Healthy eating habits don't have to be boring! Try jazzing up some of their meals by making them fun. Try once a week to make a scene with their food, make a butterfly sandwich, a stick person out of carrots (with dip!), a caterpillar with bananas and pretzels, or ants on a log with celery, nut butter, and raisins. You can fill an empty ice cube tray with small portions of different options of food so that they are presented with a variety of foods and they can choose what they would like to taste. Exciting, like getting hors d'oeuvres at a restaurant!

5. The taste-it-10-times challenge

A great way to encourage your child to taste and eventually like a new food is to do the "10 times challenge." That is, it can take children ten times of trying something before you can definitively agree they do not like it! Create a chart that lists all of the foods your child refuses to eat with enough space for 10 squares beside it. Each time your child tastes, takes a bite of, or eats that specific food, they can check off a box. The more toddlers see food, the more likely they are to try it so if you are introducing a new fruit, offer that fruit at breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few days. No pressure, just there so that he gets comfortable seeing it over and over again.

6. Mind the mealtime routines

In order for your children to be hungry at meal times, try and schedule snacks and meals at approximately the same times every day. This will allow your child’s stomach to feel hungry and prompted to eat. Unless you're comfortable with them grazing, avoid having your child snack all day long as this can genuinely cause them to never be hungry enough to eat a full meal. We have discovered that many little ones will only eat one big meal a day, like a big breakfast or lunch and hardly any dinner. It is also best if water, juice, or milk is served in between meals. Finally, it's important to have a healthy overall routine to set the tone of the day from breakfast onward.

7. Model openness to food

Your children are watching you. If you refuse to eat certain foods or voice your opinion on them, your children will be a lot less likely to try them and like them. Even if you are not fond of some foods, make the effort to try them while your children are around. Keep the scrunched-up, grossed-out faces to yourself!

Follow these tips and most importantly, relax! Healthy eating habits should be a pleasure, not a chore. Kids will wax and wane with their appetites, tastes, and moods but they will rarely go hungry by choice! If you feel that your child is not getting enough nutrition, is losing weight, or is complaining of stomach pain, please consult your doctor or health care professional. They will be able to ensure that your child is given the proper care and attention needed.