Recipe for Raising Healthy Eaters

By Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, parent educator, Originally published on on May 4, 2012.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Ugh, I hate green beans!”

“Can I have dessert yet?”

“I’m not hungry (but I will be as soon as you clear the table)”

The list of mealtime complaints can go on and on–not to mention the mayhem that may ensue before your little one can even talk. Not many parents can forget the frustration of thrown food, the mess of the yogurt in the hair, or the game of “watch Mommy pick up my bagel over and over again.”

Food is a huge part of human life, and most parents I meet cannot wait to dive into the world of food with their babies. I am the wife of a food blogger and chef, and we must have spent weeks talking about what our first food would be! Little did we know we were in store for a whole lot more than the idyllic family meals of The Cosby Show.

Clearly, Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with food. Scan the headlines in just about any newspaper, and it’s filled with what to eat, what not to eat, who should eat less, who should eat more. It’s enough to drive an anxious parent to confiscate Halloween candy, only to wallow in chocolate when no one is looking.

What if there was a different way? What if we step back and look at the big picture?

Taking a long-term parenting perspective can help us let go of the power struggles and give our children the skills to develop a healthy relationship with food. I am not a nutritionist, so this will not be an article about nutritional content or what a healthy diet looks like. Instead, I offer a recipe for building healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.


Step 1: Create Self-Awareness


Children learn so much more from what we do than what we say. Given that we eat several times each day, your relationship with food is readily apparent to your children. They notice what you eat, how you talk about food, and how you talk about your own and other people’s bodies.

As a mother of two girls and someone who struggled with body image from about age 12, this was an area I thought about a great deal. As a matter of fact, for me, it was the one thing I hoped to get “right” with my daughters. If I could pick one area to be successful in as a parent, it would be for my children to know they are loved unconditionally for who they are on the inside, not what they look like on the outside. This meant being very aware of what my eating habits look like. Was I eating a healthy diet? Did I have a lot of variety on my plate even before they were eating table food?

It is critical that we think about not just what our children see now, but where our values and beliefs around food came from. Were mealtimes pleasant in your own childhood? Were you plagued with body image issues, as many in our culture are? Even if you are one of those people who can live on donuts and nachos without gaining an ounce, that’s worth thinking about, as well. Sometimes parents who have never had to give a thought to maintaining a healthy weight find it challenging to understand the body image issues that may come up for their teens and tweens.

Whatever our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs on food may be, we need to be aware of them before we can really help our kids be clear on theirs. If we don’t, we risk sending mixed messages to our kids.

Step 2: End Power Struggles

Nothing can strip kids of a healthy relationship with food faster than power struggles. Kids are smart. They know what they want. They also know their bodies are their own. The more we try to control, the more they will resist. Anyone who has spent some time with a toddler knows they can outwait us grown-ups every time.

I know most parents have heard this before, but at least once a day I want to slip a piece of paper stating it to a parent deep in the dance of wills with a child. So here it is: Your job is to put healthy food options on the table; their job is to choose whether or not to eat and how much to eat. Seems simple? It might be, if we really have worked at step one, examining our own relationship with food. Let me say it again: Parents decide the what and when of eating; kids decide the how much.

Once upon a time, we, too, had an innate ability to listen to our bodies, know what they craved, and know how much our bodies needed of it. From years of using food as rewards and comfort (and whatever else we believe has contributed to obesity in America), we have learned how to override our amazing self-regulating system. Let’s not do this to our children!

Here are some of the most common power struggles I see around food, along with tools that can help you avoid them from the start:

Behold The Power of Treats!

Kids want them. All of the time. Of course they do! We often have made it the source of all happiness and the forbidden fruit at the same time. All of life’s big events seem to have them: birthday parties, holidays and celebrations have them. We use them as reward for big things and small. Pee pee in the potty? Yay, you get an M&M! Bad day? Let’s go get cupcakes.

What if you decided on some clear rules around the role of treats in your family, shared those with your child, and then followed through with kindness and firmness at the same time?

Here’s an example of what this looks like in our home: First off, we took some time to talk about our own experiences with treats. We were both pretty clear that we love treats and think they are a normal part of life. We knew from our life experiences that if we feel deprived of something, we just want it more. We all pick our battles based on our core values. For us, we felt that battling over treats was not going to be helpful to our children in developing a healthy relationship with food.

We decided when our first child was around 2 years old, and started regularly asking for treats, that a small treat each day was absolutely fine. Some days there are birthday parties or special events or some other opportunity for a bigger treat. If we know those are coming up, we make sure not to have bigger treats on the days around then. We very clearly explained this to our 2-year-old and have had virtually no struggles around treats in our house. We have gone through both children’s toddler and preschool years with a candy bowl in an open cabinet at their level. They know what a small treat is because we have taught them. It is one piece of candy, a few chocolate chips or a few M&Ms, and they rarely ask for more. On occasion, they will ask for something bigger. We take a moment, think about the days ahead and whether they will be having any bigger treats in the next day or two, and we can decide together.

There’s another part of the treat power struggle that I see frequently: “You can have dessert when you finish dinner.” I often see this as an invitation for kids to either rush through dinner to get on to dessert or not eat enough dinner just so they can move on to dessert.

This was not a struggle I wanted to spend time on. I wanted mealtimes to be calm and focused on eating a well-balanced meal together as a family. Again, I also wanted my children to have a healthy relationship with treats. If it was such a big deal that they had to eat something else before getting to dessert, I would be making dessert into a forbidden fruit, and I might as well write a formal invitation for a power struggle. For this reason, our children often have their treats after school. If after school is not a good fit for your family, I would consider putting dessert on the table at the same time as dinner. If desserts are an appropriate size, it shouldn’t matter the order they eat it in.

Short-Order Cooking

While I often see families put their foot down about finishing dinner before dessert or taking a required number of bites, I see them send the opposite message about mealtime when they make special food for their children. If you have prepared a meal for your family and your children immediately reject it, how often do you make them something else? In our home, the answer is never.

Thanks to a friend with a child older than my first, we embraced a fantastic rule for addressing the inevitable rejection of what’s for dinner. If our children do not want is made, they are welcome to have fruit or yogurt. Now that our children are old enough, we took it a step further–they need to get it themselves. This means if the fruit they want is an uncut melon, that’s not going to fly. They need to pick something they are able to manage by themselves so that we may continue enjoying our dinner. Not only is this a lifesaver for power struggles, it is also an opportunity for kids to exercise the essential life skills of independence and self-sufficiency.

Forcing Foods

Children who are exposed to lots of different flavors will eventually eat a varied diet. They may reject foods many times before agreeing to try them, only to decide that they actually like them. Our second child rejected tofu, a staple in our vegetarian home, for a full two years! We just kept putting it on the table with no pressure to try it, knowing she would when she was ready.

If we insisted on her eating a mandatory amount of bites, we likely would have pushed her away from tofu for much longer. Put the food that you make on the table, allow them to choose whether or not to eat it, and you go ahead and enjoy it. Remember how kids learn so much more from what we do than what we say? I think the quickest way to get a child to try a new food is for the parent to sit down and eat it and not even ask if they want to try it. Just the fact that you are enjoying it is enough to pique their interest!

I love vegetables. I loved that our first child ate any and every vegetable for the first four years. Then her adventurous palette went in to hiding, as is common in 4-year-olds. If I forced her to eat vegetables that she doesn’t like, I would have likely sent that former veggie lover into many years of hating vegetables. Instead, I know that she gets almost as many nutrients from fruit, she takes a daily multivitamin, and she will eat the few vegetables she likes with glee. We continue to make a variety of vegetables and put them on the table, and I know that she will enjoy them when she is ready.

Along the same lines as forcing food, another common issue I see in my practice is parents spoon-feeding kids who are way too old to be fed. From the time your children start solid foods, they are old enough to practice feeding themselves. Yes, it may be messier, but they cannot develop the skills without practice. I understand that it may be longer before toddlers can use a spoon with runny foods, but by all means, they need to be feeding themselves everything else! I often see parents feeding 2- and 3-year-olds. This is only going to hasten the process of your child tuning out their own body signals around what they need to eat and how much. Put the spoon down, and trust your child will get enough to eat.

Parental fears and guilt plays a huge role in this one. There is the dreaded fear that if they don’t get enough to eat, they will wake us up at night. This is a self-correcting problem if we let it be. Mealtimes and snack times are when we eat. If we don’t eat when meals and snacks are offered, we may be hungry. What happens if you miss a meal? Missing one meal will not have any long-term impact. But what about the long-term impact of saying: “This is when our family eats,” instead of rescuing our children from the choices they make? If we rescue them from discomfort and frustration, they will believe they are not able to handle those emotions. What happens then when we are not there to fix their world for them? Will they believe in their own ability to make healthy choices for themselves? Will they have the resilience to deal with life’s challenges? Your child will survive if they miss dinner one night. Believe in their resilience, and they will believe in themselves.

Then there’s the guilt. Food represents so much more than enjoying taste and sustaining our bodies. It represents care: I feed you, therefore I care for you. If I deprive you of a snack when you didn’t eat dinner and you are supposed to be sleeping, I must not care for you. Is that really the truth, though? How about: I love you enough to believe you will survive this night. I love you enough to know that if I resist the urge to say “I told you so,” I will be giving you the space to evaluate for yourself if you want to make a different choice tomorrow. If we let guilt run the show, we may do all sorts of things that deprive our children of critical life skills. As parents, we owe it to our children to sit with our own feelings instead of always rescuing so our children learn to sit with theirs.

Step 3: Involve Kids in the Process

Many of us fondly remember cooking with our parents. For my husband, it was the inspiration for a lifetime of cooking. He lost his mother to breast cancer at a young age, yet cooking with her and then for her as she fought cancer shaped him profoundly. The connection he had with his mom through cooking with her as a child is still what keeps him connected to her today.

When people feel connected and valued for their role, they are much more likely to be an active participant. This is true for adults and kids alike. How much better does food taste when you worked hard to create it? How much more do you appreciate what went into creating something when you saw the process? Involving kids in meal preparation not only helps them feel needed, it also helps them appreciate the meal that follows.

Children can join in with meal preparation at a very young age. Our first child was experimenting with modernist cuisine at the age of 3 by making asparagus spheres with Dad! No, they may not julienne the carrots perfectly, but there is much even an 18-month-old can do to feel a part of making the meal.

Involving kids can start before the actual cooking. Families who involve their children in meal planning and shopping are giving their kids even more opportunities to feel connected. The learning opportunities are overflowing when we teach them about planning ahead, selecting ingredients, weighing produce, learning about money, and all of the steps that bring food from farm to table. They develop a sense of pride from contributing to the family work right up through setting the table. The biggest bonus when they are involved throughout the entire process? They are more likely to eat it!

Step 4: Bon Appetit!

When we step back and take a long-term parenting perspective on the role of food in the lives of our children, we quickly realize that controlling and rescuing are not going to give our children a healthy relationship with food. If we want our children to find joy in food and love their bodies, we must let go and put an end to power struggles around food.

I know I am not the first to suggest our culture’s love-hate relationship with food is literally killing us. I also know that we want a better world for our children. We want them to be healthy; we want them to love themselves unconditionally.

All of this is possible when we widen our parenting lens and start with ourselves. When we are able to develop a healthy relationship with food as adults, we will let go of the guilt and fear that clouds our parenting choices. Only then can our children truly develop a healthy relationship with food.

10 thoughts on “Recipe for Raising Healthy Eaters”

  1. On unhealthy treats, I think best just to not have them in the house at all, or only very occasionally have them in the house. Treats can be healthy treats like fruit.

    Am wondering our way forward on snacks. Our toddler didn’t eat very much at all (breastfed) for so long, that now that she actually likes and asks for food (apples, bananas, bread, raw tomatoes, grapes, even olives !), we always give it to her, so snack times determined by her not by us, also (healthy) snacking at any time of day. Is this a good thing or bad thing ?

  2. Awesome article!! Thank you. We are parenting grandparents to our 17 month old grandaughter so we have been given another chance at the parenting toodler thing. Thank you for giving us the tools to have a great mealtime routine and snack handling idea!

  3. Hi Sarina,
    There is so much to agree with in your article, family meal-times, family cooking times (and gardening times growing veg are good) and allowing children the freedom to eat or not eat are so important in developing a healthy attitude to food (both for parents and children).
    On this last point I have looked at many cultures where dishes of food are put on the table for the family to share, everyone helps themselves in a polite and respectful way, children are given portions of whatever they like, no issues are made. In these cultures obesity and eating disorders are much less prevalent.
    On treats I agree with Elaine, why make treats sweets? Sugar (especially the refined sugar used in sweets)creates cravings for more sugar. Fruits or cuddles make great treats.
    Above all you are right to say that children soon pick up the ‘food vibe’ from their adults so parents need to make sure that it’s a positive vibe.

  4. Elaine~each family does what works for them but here is some “food for thought.” My parents never allowed “treats” in our home when I was growing up. In turn, when I would go to parties, or a friends house I would overload on treats because I was never allowed to have them. This type of situation eventually caused binge eating because whenever I had access to treats I would hoard them and over indulge. I still have eating issues to this day. However, I have tried to turn this around with my own children. I have two girls: 9 and 5 and I have always allowed all sorts of snacks in the house. They do not see any big deal with having a package of Oreos or bag of chips in the house and will often choose the fruit or yogurt over the oreos or chips. And oddly enough, they will also usually pass on the cake and ice cream when they go to birthday parties!!! I feel like what I have done is working to make them more independent, healthy eaters.

  5. Re: healthy snacks – anytime your child is hungry and requesting a healthy snack, give her one! It is perfectly fine for her to determine when she snacks. We provide our toddler with plenty of healthy options at mealtimes and he determines which option and how much of it he eats. He indicates he is done by pushing his plate away and we never force him to eat more after he is satisfied (even if he has only had 2 bites). Some meals are only a bite or two, some meals he eats more than my husband and I! Only he knows what is going on in his body, if he is hungrier than usual, if he is having a growth spurt, if his tummy is giving him issue and he doesn’t feel like eating.. If he ever leads me into the kitchen and asks for a tomato or a piece of fruit, I will always give it to him, regardless of what time it is. (He loves to climb up to look at the fruit/veggie bowl on the counter and point to his choice). We have found that by giving him plenty of healthy options and allowing him to set the pace in terms of quantity and even frequency of food, he has developed a very healthy relationship with food – meals are never a struggle and he eats practically everything!!

  6. Thanks for the article. Healthy eating is an important part of our parenting responsibility. We’ve made some huge missteps in this area as well as some lucky strikes, so I thought I would share our experience. We have two boys, ages four and two. From birth, we exposed the boys to a wide variety of fruits and veggies and proteins. My oldest had a blueberry muffin as his first birthday “cake” and we added homemade whip cream for fun. He promptly wiped off the sweet whip cream and ate the muffin plain – like he was used to! He ate fish with zeal, avocado was a treat and mushrooms were a delicacy!

    Fast forward to today and this same boy, now age four, will only eat black olives if they have a perfect “x” on the bottom, chicken has to be cubed, with no sear marks from the grill or “black spots”, eggs need to have cheese, but the cheese must be fully melted, hidden and not gooey or stringy. Fruits will only be eaten if pureed like baby food and veggies are never eaten (I hide these in turkey burgers, muffins and pancakes).

    Where did we go wrong? We didn’t realize two things: (1) taste buds are developed…if you start to give treats, such as a quick run through a fast-food joint for chicken nuggets which are laden with salt – an addictive food or start giving lollipops on occasion, etc. then taste buds get accustomed to those salty and sugary foods and your child is less likely to eat peas and carrots (2) biologically, we never ate sugary foods and grains thousands of years ago. Although we have evolved, our body’s ability to give us a “full” signal when we eat grains and sugar isn’t yet developed. These two reasons is why it is much easier to sit down on the couch and eat a bag of chips or m&ms then a bag of carrots. Carrots take some maturity and willpower, if your body is used to junk food.

    When our second son was born, we became so overwelmed that we started eating pizza, mac n cheese and other fast foods, although this was against our former eating habits. Our oldest son became used to these foods and it has been quite a journey to turn that around.

    Control is also HUGE with 2-4 year olds and dictating what kids can eat, cajoling and bargaining simply backfire! So here is what we have done that works!

    1. We create small snack trays with a little bit of a wide variety of foods. We might serve 2-3 bites of turkey burger (that is made with eggs for extra protein and pureed veggies) 2-3 bites of fruit 2-3 bites of a fat, such as olives and 2-3 bites of a food they go crazy for like gluten-free pasta, rice or homemade muffins (again packed with veggies).
    2. We back off. If the kids only eat the muffins and fruit and leave the rest we just put it back in the fridge. Today, our youngest has only eaten four sticks of cheese and two handfuls of raisins.
    3. We set an example (our Paleo diet is a bounty of colorful foods)
    4. We don’t give treats. If the kids ask for something sweet, we serve muffins, 80% chocolate or Paleo cookies which are low in sugar and gluten-free. I keep these cookies in my purse and that’s what my kids eat at the grocery store instead of bakery cookies. These items are available as much as they want. Because I know that they are healthy, yummy and packed full of goodness, I don’t have to bargain or plead for them to only eat a small amount and oddly, they have never sat down and eaten an entire tray of muffins or an entire chocolate bar. We go out for ice cream that is very low in sugar and only eat pizza every 6-8 weeks and have one slice each, not a whole pie with leftovers the next day.

    I would love to see my kids munching on sweet baby peppers with guacamole dip, like I do, but someday they will. Right now, the lesson for me is that I’m helping my children feel secure in their own decisions, meal time is a joy instead of a battle field and my kids are getting plenty of nutrition thanks to strategic choices.

  7. I grew up in a house under this rule–NO ONE LEAVES THE TABLE UNTIL YOU’VE FINISHED YOUR WHOLE PLATE– And didn’t work well…I have no auto control, overweight and can’t seem to be able to stop eating unless plates are empty….It takes a lot of effort to change this habits now…I am trying so hard to let my daughter control her hunger, but a I am doing it as good as possible. Not making the same mistake done with me..

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