Establishing Good Eating Habits In Children | And Break Bad Habits!

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Do you want your kid to eat anything?
How do we encourage our kids to be adventurous and healthy eaters?
How do we keep them from being picky or eating too many sweets? 

I love the topic of healthy eating habits because establishing them has been a huge challenge in our home. Mealtimes drove me crazy and ruined many otherwise good days. No more and I’ll show you how. Janet Lansbury has massively influenced me to find freedom around my children’s eating and I recommend listening to everything from her.

If you ever feel like your child’s eating habits are affecting their health or are an indicator of an underlying problem, be sure to speak with your child’s pediatrician and get professional advice. 

The key to healthy habits is found in the boundaries we set around eating and mealtimes. Simply, the things we do and the things we refrain from doing when it comes to food.

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A fundamental step in healthy eating habits is having healthy boundaries for what you can control during your child’s mealtimes and accepting what you can’t control.

Parent’s Responsibility

  • What food is being eaten
  • Where it is being eaten
  • When it is being eaten
  • Mealtime manners

Child’s Responsibility

  • How much food they eat
  • How fast they eat

Your responsibility

Firstly, the parent ultimately chooses the food choices. The child can and should be involved in choosing their meals. We can even stick to their favorite foods within reason. But, when mealtime comes, whatever is on the plate is your final decision. My children could eat Halloween Candy all day every day. It’s my job to say, “Here’s a carrot”. 

Next, the parent chooses where and when the food is eaten. This may seem to be an irrelevant point to mention, but setting the atmosphere for meals can cause bad eating habits. If children are more isolated at a meal, they may want to eat less. If they are sitting with siblings they may be distracted. “Routine” is the best friend of “cooperation” when it comes to children, so if your child struggles to eat a meal, setting clear “where and when” expectations might help them have better habits. 

Lastly, the parent chooses the manners expected at mealtimes. We decide if they are allowed to get up from the table or not. We decide whether they are allowed to spit food out or throw it on the floor. A child’s manners and habits are the parent’s responsibility. I use 1-2-3 Magic with my children at meal times to help set clear boundaries respectfully.

There was a season for my child when she would only eat if I let her run around and come to me for bites. We did this for several weeks because it worked. But, every night we started mealtimes in her seat, at the table, eating on her own. When she was ready to join us at the table full-time I knew the season for this bad habit was over because I kept focused on the goal of sitting at the table to eat. Some “bad habits” can help for a season and it’s important to meet kids where they are limited. 

A Note On Food Throwing
Babies throw food. Why wouldn’t they? Our job is to pick it up and say, “Please keep your food on the plate” and see what happens. Maybe they do it again and we give them a few more learning attempts or we recognize that they are finished with the meal or that particular food and end the meal or switch foods. A 3-year-old should not be throwing food on the floor. In order to avoid that behavior we can gracefully and gently end meal times for our babies when food throwing becomes a game or boredom management. We simply say, “Oh, you keep throwing food, you seem to be telling me you’re done eating. Let’s get cleaned up!” A simple, clear boundary and lots of repetition is all it takes. 

Their responsibility

Many parents will find this part of healthy eating habits difficult to accept. A child is the only one who can say how much food goes into their body. I have seen many ways parents try to encourage or force their children to finish their meals. I have been the child who has to clear the plate and I have been the parent demanding portion size obedience. But I’m not that parent anymore. 

We can not know when a child is full. We can’t know if the food they are eating is actually disgusting to their new palettes. The few extra bites they may take at the hand of a forceful parent will set them up poorly in the long term. Force-feeding children with bribery, intimidation, and manipulation will only harm them and our relationships with them.

It’s. Not. Worth. It. 

We always need to ask more of ourselves as parents before we ask more of our kids. The guidelines I share in this post will help you set boundaries around eating that can help your children make great choices when it comes to this part of eating that they have control over. 

In regards to how fast they eat, well, short of shoveling the food in their mouths there simply isn’t much we can do. And we can’t do that either! What you can do is set a limit on how long you keep them company before you go do something else. We can say, “You’ve been eating for a while now. I’ll sit here with you for two more minutes and then I’m going to start cleaning up the kitchen.” My kids are incredible at marathon meals that last forever but who does it hurt? If you have somewhere to go the boundary has already been set. Prepare kids by saying, “Eat as much as you can but at 7:15 we have to stop eating and get ready to go. You can finish when we get home.” In this case, save the leftovers for their next snack or meal. 

Do you already have a picky eater? 

If you already have a picky eater all hope is not lost.

My grandmother peeled every grape for my aunt when she came home from school. My brother may still not eat the crust on his sandwich bread and my mom can tell the difference between gelato over regular ice cream. I have the taste of a 2-year-old so it’s a blessing I have to cook all my own meals. 

Picky eaters survive to tell the funny tales but it can make life very hard on the parents. Especially if you have more than one kid, picky eaters can make mealtimes very difficult.

When I told my grandmother (the grape-peeler) that I don’t make an individual meal for each kid and I don’t make something additional if they don’t like their dinner, she was lost for words. I am not as tough as I sound though, read on for the healthy boundaries and kind cooking practices I do enforce.

I’m grateful to say that after I learned to accept the fact that how much my kid eats isn’t my choice, and after I established boundaries around mealtimes, my kids have become adventurous and healthy eaters.

That being said, if I allowed my kids to eat sweets day and night, they would! But truth be told, if I didn’t have boundaries set up in my own life, I would eat sweets all day as well!

So, let’s see how we can help our picky eaters.

What picky eating is not

Not all problems need to be fixed. Let’s look at some normal behaviors that can be mistaken for picky eating.

Picky eating is not a child who eats small portions

  • All children are different in portion preference. Some kids just don’t need as much as others. Always check with their pediatrician if you’re concerned. But if they are healthy, have energy, and are growing steadily then trust their natural portion size preference. 

Picky eating is not a child who dislikes a particular meal

  • Accept that kids don’t eat the same amount at every meal. My children hate lunch. Your’s may hate breakfast. Don’t get hung up on your eating-ideal and meet your kids where they are at. Again, mention any eating concerns to your child’s pediatrician but there will be increases and decreases in your child’s eating and it should be acceptable as long as they are healthy.  

Picky eating is not a child’s love of sweets

  • Many, if not all children, love a good treat. This doesn’t mean they are picky. If their love of sweets seems like a problem then it is our job to replace bad sugars with good ones, set healthy limits with the amount of sweets they eat, and avoid having sweets in the home altogether. 

Healthy Habits Before Mealtimes

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Make sure you’re feeding them enough

Each day should consist of 3 meals and 2 snack times. Additionally, I like to start the day with milk-mornings. This is where we just drink milk (well, coffee for me), first thing when we wake up so they get something in their bellies, cuddles, and calm mornings before I have to start cooking. Make sure your kids have enough structured opportunities to eat so they can get the necessary calories. This will also be helpful if they refuse to eat well because you know the next snack or meal isn’t far away.

Make the meal choice together but no repeats

Whenever we can give our kids the food they prefer, we should! To avoid picky eating habits, have your child choose a different food from the previous day.  If they can’t choose on their own, you will have to choose for them. Likewise, if multiple children are deciding what’s for lunch but can’t agree, you say who gets to choose today and who gets to choose tomorrow. Even with very you g kids I have seen parents show them pictures of different foods they can choose between to establish the freedom of choice and help them enjoy meals!

Allow substitutions

My kids’ favorite breakfast is a very simple yogurt and granola dish. One kid usually wants it with raisins and one wants it with bananas. Customizing a meal should be allowed within reason. Ideally, let them mix it in or add whatever it is to establish some independence and save you the extra work. Let’s allow our children to be different.  

One meal for all

There is a risk with cooking a different meal for each child or a “kids meal” so they don’t eat what you are eating. You risk working very hard, encouraging picky behaviors and making less nutritional food because of the increased demand of variety. For most parents, myself included, this is too demanding. I want to have a lot of kids because I believe in the idea of family. If I am crushed by too much personalization of everything I won’t have the family I long for. Make one thing for everyone with no guilt. Whoever didn’t get their meal of choice today can choose tomorrow!

Side Note: Breakfast is child and parent approved meals that I make on rotation. Lunch is the same. Dinner is the one chance for me to bless my husband with a delicious “adult” meal so it may not be child-approved. This has been FANTASTIC for my children. They have to eat so many different healthy foods, try things most children won’t try, and they have to stretch themselves to be adventurous. 

No exchanges

If we’ve made something our child normally likes or has asked for, changing your mind is not allowed. We often hear of children who ask for a certain food then request something else once the food is in front of them. This is perfectly normal, expected, and even funny behavior of children. Nonetheless, my response in this situation would be, “I see you changed your mind, you can definitely have that meal tomorrow but for today we have this.” No need for shame or guilt trips. Just a clear boundary that keeps you from preparing and re-preparing food 24/7. 

Healthy habits during meal times

The drinks on offer are Milk or water

I think most people by now have accepted that juice is not healthy for children. Special drinks are not only unhealthy but also expensive. Keep a spillproof water bottle where your child can access it whenever they want and keep it filled with….water! Juice and special drinks should be treated as dessert.

Water Bottles

Let them fill their own plate

For younger kids we can fill their plates but try and keep the portions small. Put one of everything from the table on their plate, put the plate down, and let your child discover what’s there. Your job is more or less, done. The what, where, when for this meal has been established.

Use the lack of pressure as motivation

Often, if my husband and I eat something we don’t want to share with our kids or we think our kids won’t like, they end up begging us to try it. We never encourage them to try anything spicy because, ow. Without fail those are the things they become desperate to try and sometimes they love it!

Have them try everything on the table

There was a season where I would say, “Just try it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat any more today.” Often, my kids would take the bite without a fight once they knew there was no pressure. My strong-willed kid would, out of principle sometimes act like she didn’t enjoy it but I noticed. Then the next time that food was served she would eat it!

For young kids, maybe let them chew and spit out what they don’t like. For older kids, encourage them to swallow it down or maybe have two bites. The goal is to have them try new things not eat gobs of something they hate. But they should try everything. Encourage them every single time saying “It’s great you always try something new.” If all else fails read Green Eggs and Ham! 

If my kids hate broccoli I don’t have to put a pile in front of them and keep them there until it’s gone. Instead, I can try broccoli in different ways, cooked, uncooked, mashed into a sauce, or baked into a muffin, until I find a way they like it. Or I can accept that it’s not their favorite veg and simply have them try it every time it’s on the table. One day, they might enjoy it. 

Always include at least one thing you know your child likes
(If it’s possible)

I’m talking about side dishes to any meal. It’s tough to eat something you don’t like and our kids may choose to go hungry instead of eating something they don’t like. To avoid this, have something they like on offer whenever you can. Go an extra step and make breakfast and lunch into a rotating schedule of their favorites! Check out my bonus content for this post to see the different breakfasts I make each week and when we do them.

Switch it up

I know it can be tempting to give a child one thing they like every. Single. Day. Amen to the PB&J. BUT, changing it up can combat pickiness. The best way to have a picky eater is to always serve the same thing. Change the menu! We don’t need 40 different breakfasts but we need more than one or two!

I have a month of rotating dinners which you can find (with recipes) in the bonus content for this post. I have a week of rotating breakfasts and lunches that are parent-child approved to keep their taste buds alive and excited! Food should be awesome!

If it’s on the menu let them eat it!

I often make these biscuits that my kids love as a side dish for dinners. (Thank you Aldi brand biscuits!)  I would give them a reasonable portion of food and a biscuit on the side that could be eaten once the plate was cleared. If they tried everything but didn’t like it then they could have the biscuit as well. 

Sweet Limits

Honestly, sweets in our home are a regular occurrence. We often make cookies together or banana bread and grandparents always bring gummies or treats when they visit. What they are not is routine. 

We don’t have sweets or dessert after every meal. 

We try and limit their consumption to the morning or early afternoon so that sugar buzz doesn’t set in around bedtime. 

We limit the amount and make that amount clear before the sweets are distributed. For example we will say “You can have two cookies and then go play.” Or “There is only one cookie so you have to spilt it with your sister. I will break it.” Positive, clear and firm. 

Sweets can be the fun surprise bonus in the day instead of the expected routine. 

We can be generous with our kids and treat them to sweets without them becoming a harmful addition to every day.

Boundaries Around Snacks

What do you think of when you hear “snacks”? Is it small bags of cookies? Fruit rollups and gushers? Cheese and crackers? I think of fruit and vegetables. If you hear that and think, “my kids aren’t going to eat that!” I want to challenge that thought. Our kids will learn to eat what they are given. If it’s the only option and there’s no emotion attached to the food.

No Emotion

What do I mean when I say “no emotion attached to the food?” Kids often want to eat what we don’t want them to and don’t want to eat what we push on them! Not because of taste but because of our involvement. They have a natural inclination to push back against what we push and they are interested in what we want to prohibit. So, take your emotions out of it. 

If my kid eats a carrot or a cookie my response is the same. I even try to limit good foods at snack time just like I would limit sweets to help them see food as food and nothing more. My children eat brussel sprouts by the pound because I found a brussel sprout recipe I LOVE and I eat them! (Read on for some more tips to help kids eat healthy).

It may take a few weeks to change bad snack habits but if you are consistent, and give delicious and healthy options, the change will come. 

Nothing Fancy

I am not a mom who makes mini zucchini breads and special healthy cookies. God made the perfect food for snacks and I don’t need to add much. I don’t like doing more for a snack than washing and cutting the food. Don’t cave to the pressure to make grand, complex snacks. Keep it simple.


When they say they are finished…

If our kid is saying they are done but there is still food left on their plates we have two options. We can offer to help them (sometimes they are bored or distracted), or let them be finished (maybe they will be hungry, that’s ok, the next meal is soon!) I say something like, “Would you rather finish this now or later?”

If there is still food left over, serve it for the next snack or meal until it is finished. Unfinished breakfast becomes the morning snack. Unfinished snack becomes lunch and so on. Dinner and foods that don’t keep well are the only exceptions to this boundary. For example, scrambled eggs will be little bullets in two hours and who can eat dinner for breakfast except my husband?

This boundary helps children recognize that food is precious and we shouldn’t waste it. Keep an eye out for foods your child never finishes. Perhaps the portion sizes are too large or that food needs to be taken off the menu. 

If you choose to try and help them you can sit with them if you weren’t already. Maybe they could take their food and join you in what you’re doing. Maybe they can sit on you, maybe you can feed them. Give them the options but if they are done, they’re done.

The big question

What do you do when your child refuses to eat the food you have provided but you know they are hungry?

First of all we want to try our best to give them something they find edible. Even if it is canned corn, we want to have something that’s a guaranteed winner so they are never truly hungry. That being said, if our children have the option of food and they choose not to eat it, there is not much you can do except try again next meal time. 

I tired too hard for too long to intimidate and pressure my kids into eating as much as I felt was enough. Once I stopped worrying about the remaining morsels, gave them leftovers for the next meal and let them decide how much they would eat, everything around mealtimes immediately got better and our relationship was better as a result. 

They never went hungry, although I am sure there might have been a few nights they laid in bed wishing they had finished those last bites! There was always another snack or meal around the corner. I have sent my children to bed exactly 2 times when they refused to eat dinner. The following mornings we had an earlier breakfast and they truly learned that refusing to eat may lead to a temporarily hungry belly. That is an okay lesson with me. 

When you face resistance

Will kids try and fight every limit you set? Absolutely. That’s their pre-programmed job! But, if you set kind limits (don’t be stingy or completely unfair) and stick to your boundaries (2 cookies means 2 cookies!) your kids will learn to be grateful for what they get and after those 2 cookies are gone, so are the kids! They are off to play because they know 2 means 2. 

If you have a child who really struggles to accept limits and boundaries you can try several things. 

As I previously said, communicate the limit before you give them the treat 

Set them up with a clear expectation. 2 cookies, 5 gummy bears, 3 pieces of Halloween candy etc.

Empathize with their disappointment and frustration

I don’t want someone telling me I have to stop!

Explain that if they can’t accept the limit the next time there are treats around you can’t give them any

Don’t let this be an empty threat. If your child is really melting down when you set limits then this could be kay. When you think about it, you will either have a child who eats sweets excessively, a child who lashes out every time you say “all done now”, or you have a child who lashes out because you say “I can’t give you any now because the last time I gave you a treat you didn’t accept the limit. You can try again next time!”. You have a problem no matter what so have a problem that will bless your child in the long run and doesn’t pressure you to “give one more”. 

Communicate with friends and family about the limits you’re setting 

Ask family to stop bringing sweets and give them alternative treats to bring.

Healthy Eating Principles For Your Home

Law of Gratitude

In our home we keep pretty firm boundaries around food. We want to always recognize how many people in the world lack enough food to carry them through the day. Therefore, we want gratitude for our food to be present at every meal and snack. 

The Lie of Fairness 

There are some parents who feel they have to share whatever they are eating with their children. Or, if their kids are only allowed 1 cookie they will only take one cookie. Fairness is fine but our kids need to understand that there are different rules for adults and children and our bodies are different. You wouldn’t give your kid the glass of wine they see in your hand and we also don’t have to give them the candy they see. This isn’t something we need to feel bad about!

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