After blogging for several years and writing four books, I wanted to condense my advice on raising healthy eaters into top tips. This helps guide newcomers and serves as a reminder for my long-time readers.
So here goes…
1. Structure meals and snacks
Having regular meals and snacks in a designated area, instead of grazing or giving in to food requests, helps children regulate their food intake, ask for food less often and feel secure about eating. According to a 2010 study in Child Care Health Development, the more children accumulated eating behaviors like skipping breakfast, snacking between meals and watching TV while eating, the higher their weights were.
More Reading: 10 Things You Should Never Tell Your Child About Food, How Many Times a Day Should Kids Eat? and How to Build Your Child’s Self Control Muscle
2. Eat together when you can
Make eating together as a family a priority. It may not be possible every day, but do it when you can. Have a big lunch as a family on Saturday. If one parent or child is home late, have dinner with the family members that are there and leave a hot plate for the late one. According to a 2011 study in Pediatrics, families that share at least 3 meals per week have children who eat healthier, are at healthier weights and are less likely to have disordered eating than families who eat together less often.
More Reading: Recipe Index, How to Please the Whole Family at Dinnertime and The Side Strategy that Saved My Family’s Mealtime.
3. Don’t interfere with eating
Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding — parents take charge of the when, where and what of eating and children get to decide whether and how much to eat — helps children preserve their food regulation skills, builds trust and allows kids to move along food acceptance at their own pace. That means no bribing with dessert, asking for more bites, restricting portions, eating between structured meals or short-order cooking.
More Reading: End Mealtime Battles with These 5 Simple Words, 10 Pitfalls to Avoid When Feeding Picky Eaters and What Forcing Children to Eat Looks Like 20 Years Later
4. Serve meals family-style
Instead of loading a child’s plate with food, try serving meals in bowls and dishes and allow kids to serve themselves. This not only empowers children with reasonable choice, but it also helps them regulate their eating and builds confidence at the table.
More reading: 7 Dinner Rules Every Family Needs, Dinner Rotations, and The Side Strategy That Saved My family’s Mealtime
5. Expose children to a variety of nutritious food
Aim to slowly add meals to your rotation that include a variety of food groups — lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy or non-dairy alternatives, grains, and fat. In Fearless Feeding we recommend providing 3-5 food groups at main meals and 2-3 at snack time. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that offering a variety of vegetables or fruit instead of one type increased kids’ consumption by 24%.
More reading: Top 10 Nutritious Snack Combinations for Kids, The 10 Golden Rules of Exposing Kids to Food and 15 Sure-Fire Ways to Help Children Eat Healthier
6. Be smart about sweets
When parents reward kids with sweets, take them away for punishment, provide them to make kids feel better or overly restrict or provide too much access to them, they make these foods even more desirable to kids. Instead, parents can serve them in a frequency that makes sense for their family, utilize structure and teach kids how to sensibly fit these foods fit into a balanced diet.
More reading: How to Build Your Child’s Self-Control Muscle, What Rewarding Kids with Food Looks Like 20 Years Later and How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food
7. Teach kids about food before nutrition
Children learn the most about food and nutrition with hands-on experiences, like going to the store or the farmer’s market and helping prepare meals. When you gradually teach a child to cook, you teach them a vital self-care skill they will use for life. According to a 2012 study in Public Health with 5th-grade students, “Higher frequency of helping prepare and cook food at home was associated with higher fruit and vegetable preference and with higher self-efficacy for selecting and eating healthy foods.”
More reading: Chapters 3 and 4 of Fearless Feeding provides cooking tips and recipes kids can make themselves.
8. Promote body satisfaction and discourage dieting
As children get older they will notice a culture that is obsessed with thinness and start to question the size and shape of their own body. Be there for your child to help filter the messages they hear. Focus on health versus weight and check in with your own body and dieting attitudes.
More reading: How to Keep the Weight-Obsessed Culture From Harming Your Child’s Relationship with Food, How to Get Your Child Through Puberty Without Hating Their Growing Body and My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty. for examples of what to say and case studies.
9. Use everyday moments to teach about nutrition
Children learn about nutrition simply by seeing which foods are served and how often. The foods you have in your house should be in line with your beliefs about food and nutrition. They will go out into the world and notice the difference and this is where you can gradually teach them about nutrition. They will ask and you will answer.
More reading: 8 Ways to Talk to Kids About Nutrition so They Actually Listen, 5 Motivational Techniques that Will Transform Your Child’s Eating, 5 Mistakes Parents Make When Educating Their Child About Nutrition and Fearless Feeding for age-specific nutrition teaching examples.
10. Be the eater you want your kids to be
When parents come to me worried about their kids eating I tell them what I know to be true — your kids are very likely to end up eating like you. If you are happy with the way you eat, that’s great. If you aren’t, work to change it. Your happiness and health matter too.
More reading: 5 Ways Parenthood Can Transform Your Health, 7 Simple Ways Dads Can Positively Influence Their Kid’s Health and chapter 6 (The Parent Trap) of Fearless Feeding.
11. Teach kids to tune into their body
Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that young adults who use hunger and fullness to guide eating not only have a lower body mass index but are less likely to have disordered eating (the girls who listened to their bodies were also less likely to binge-eat and diet). Yet research shows that 85% of parents of young children try to get their children to eat more at mealtime and parents of big eaters often use restriction. When parents, instead, honor their child’s feelings of hunger and fullness they give them a gift they will use for life.
The Annoying Kids’ Eating Habit Parents Should Adopt, Saying Good Riddance to the Clean Plate Club and 5 Obstacles That Keep Parents From Raising Intuitive Eaters
12. Understand how development relates to eating
There’s a reason your 15-month-old accepts most foods and your 4-year-old is more selective. Most of these things can be explained in terms of a child’s development and growth. Knowing what to expect, instead of being blindsided, helps parents become more confident and effective feeders.
More reading: The Feeding Mistake Parents Don’t Even Know They Are Making, 5 Reasons Your Child Eats Differently than You and From Picky to Powerful (to understand picky eating).
13. Identify how to meet nutritional needs
Many feeding mistakes are made in the name of “nutrition.” Understanding how to meet your child’s nutrition needs, which is often easier than parents think, will help calm your fears and make you a better feeder.
More reading: 7 Nutrients Even Healthy Kids Miss, How to Meet Your Child’s Need Even When They Don’t Eat Perfectly and DHA for Kids: The Complete Guide for Parents.
14. Serve food with an expectant attitude
No matter how many times your child has refused food, always serve it with the expectation that they will eat it. When parents avoid the “picky eating” label and raise their expectations without exerting force, kids eventually follow suit.
More reading: The Feeding Strategy Every Parent Needs in Their Toolbox, Picky Eating Not Getting Better? 5 Small Changes That Can Make a Big Difference and The Feeding Obstacle that Trips Parents Up (But Shouldn’t)
15. Embrace cooking
Parents spend a huge chunk of their time shopping, preparing and serving meals. As I see it we have a choice. We can hate every minute of it or embrace our role as a provider. For me, 2014 was all about embracing my role as the family cook resulting in The Family Dinner Solution.
Whether you have been reading since day one or are new here, thanks for showing up. And if you feel this site has helped you, feel free to share this post with your friends and family.
This is a wonderful article and resource. Well written, simply explained, full of tips. Great!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thank you Thalia, I appreciate it!
Janet @Rainbowplate says
Maryann, Thank you for this wonderful list! I couldn’t agree more with all your important points. This will be a valuable resource for so many parents. Keep up the wonderful work you do – I’m looking forward to seeing all of your food-related posts in the year ahead!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thank you Janet!!
What do I do about dessert? We try to be as sanguine as you suggest about eating–when my 4-year old says she’s full, we don’t push. And we give her lots of healthy options–high quality proteins, veggies (she loves spinach) and whole grains.
But often, she’ll barely touch her dinner, declare that she’s full, then turn around and ask if she can have dessert. If I tell her no (because she hasn’t eaten enough) I feel like I’m teaching her to ignore her stomach for the treat. If I tell her yes, I’m allowing her to fill up on junk. We try and avoid this by offering things like fruit for dinner, but what about the ice-cream nights? Any feedback on how to handle this, or how to think about it properly, would be appreciated!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
I get this question so much, I devoted a post to it. http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/2013/03/feeding-struggles-that-keep-parents-up-at-night-and-how-to-solve-them/
Hi! I just found your blog through a link on FB and I’m so thankful! We REALLY struggle with getting our 5 yr old (and sometimes our 3 yr old) to eat. *sigh* The thing is, I read Satter’s book, Child of Mine before my first child started eating solids! So I thought it was going to be easy to feed her. *insert crazy laughter* We did the whole “she decides what and how much” thing and so she pretty much ate BREAD for the first few years of her life. Seriously. At some point we decided that that *probably* wasn’t the best diet for her and it’s been a struggle since. Every. single. day. is a struggle. She still only wants/eats pasta, bread… well, anything that’s WHITE. Help!
I just ordered your book through the library so I’m looking forward to reading that, and I’ve been looking around your blog for more tips. But I think maybe I just need to not worry so much about what she’s eating?
What do you think about hiding veggies in things but still offering them at each meal?
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Catie — there may something else going on that needs to be addressed. This article can get you started figuring that out and if you need to seek help. If you decide that there is no underlying issue, then a no-pressure approach works best. You can find more of that in my picky eating series below.
How to tell if picky eating is normal or not: http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/2013/08/the-nagging-question-every-parent-of-a-picky-eater-asks-part-2/
Both of my series on picky eating: http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/category/picky-eating-series/
Let me know if you have any questions!
Thanks! 🙂 I’ll read through some of this and get back to you if I have more questions. 🙂
Hi. I am at my wits end. My 4 year old is obsessed with eating. If she goes to a party she would not leave the table till everything is ate. Her stomach would swell she would of ate that much. I think I might be the problem as well because I draw attention to it. What do I do. She does get treats but it is usually on my terms. She asks for food from d moment she gets up till she goes to bed
. What do I do?’
Kristy at Chocolate Slopes says
This is quite the comprehensive list for raising healthy eaters! I especially love that you provide scientific research supporting your tips – that’s so important since it shows the reader that its not just opinion, but its supported by research!
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