Kids & Company Blog

Getting Young Children to Eat: My two biggest mistakes

The two biggest mistakes I’ve made when it comes to fostering healthy eating habits in my two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son are:

1.  Paying too much attention to what/how much they eat.

2.  Giving them too many choices regarding what/how much they eat.

When I share these mistakes with other parents in my Wholeplay classes, they are often surprised.   After all, providing young children with a variety of healthy options and making sure that they’ve had plenty to eat, sound more like guidelines to adhere to, rather than, pitfalls to avoid.

However, in both my personal experience and in my work helping families to overcome picky eating, I’ve discovered that too much attention (both negative and positive) as well as too many choices, not only exacerbate young children’s defiance around eating, but also, are oftentimes, the cause.

First, while parents should know what their kids are eating and ensure that those foods are reasonably healthy, they should also avoid placing too much of their attention on their kids during mealtimes by: putting pressure on them to eat, over praising them for eating, threatening them if they don’t eat and/or coaxing them to eat, (e.g.- “Just three more bites and then you’re done.”).

While these tactics maybe successful in getting you through a few meals in the short-term, they can also set you and your child up for a never-ending power struggle around food in the long run.  In short, you should not have to negotiate with your child in order to get her to eat.   Ideally, she should be intrinsically motivated to eat, by her own hunger and by the desire to participate in the mealtime tradition.

Second, while it’s essential that kids have input into the kinds of foods they eat, it’s equally important that parents don’t give them too much decision-making power.  In other words, young children should not be allowed to dictate what they want to eat, whenever they want to eat it.   If this is the case, parents run the risk of having their child go on a particular food strike every other day, (e.g.- “I don’t like chicken anymore, make me macaroni and cheese.”).

Instead, parents can offer their child a few healthy choices that they know their child likes, and if he still can’t decide or refuses to decide, then parents should choose for him.  It should sound something like this:  “We’re going to have chicken or fish for dinner tonight.  Which would you prefer?   You don’t want either?  Okay, I guess I get to decide tonight.  We’re going to have chicken.”

That’s it.  Period.  End of discussion.


M.E. Picher, PhD (d) provides personalized parent support and coaching to families dealing with specific challenges common to early childhood, such as picky eating, transitioning to school/daycare, sleep challenges, potty training, discipline challenges, and more.  Contact her at to set up a FREE 15 minute consultation.  Kids & Company families receive 10% off parent support sessions.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *