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Getting Your Child to Eat Is Not The Goal

Getting your child to eat is not the goal

Do you find yourself getting anxious as the dinner hour approaches? Planning for World War III? Wondering how you’ll get this one to eat vegetables and that one to eat more than just pasta?

You’re not the only one. Parents today report using all sorts of tricks to get their children to eat or not eat. It’s turned the dinner table into a battlefield, rather than the pleasant and nourishing space it’s supposed to be. Getting kids to eat is not, nor should it be, the goal.

Yet, every parent across America has been programmed to believe that getting kids to eat, at all costs, is the answer to a happy, healthy, eat-everything-kid.

News flash: Kids can eat all by themselves, without prompting, pressuring, bribes, or rewards. They can also stop eating without being told to do so. In fact, children are programmed at birth to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

If appetite regulation is naturally present at birth, what happens to mess it up?

A lot.

Sometimes parents mess up their child’s natural ability to manage food intake without even realizing they are doing so.

Of course, various facets of the world — our food environment, food marketing, and even child development and a child’s temperament — all play contributing roles to getting off track with food regulation.

Your feeding style

In a nutshell, your parenting style trickles down to your feeding style. If you are a lax parent with few boundaries and consequences, you’re likely to be a lax feeder as well. You allow far too many sweets and junk foods, you cater to food requests in order to get your child to eat, and you have a hard time saying no to food requests. This can mess up your child’s ability to eat a wide variety of healthy foods, may tip the balance of nutrition away from ideal foods and nutrients, and puts your child in charge of nutrition.

You could be using an authoritarian style, which isn’t any better. You make your child finish his or her meal, take a certain number of bites at mealtime, and are strict about “bad” foods like sweets. This may end up encouraging your child to overeat, dislike eating and or coming to the table for meals, and covet or obsess about sweets.

In the end, your approach to feeding, or your feeding style, molds your child’s ability to stay in charge of eating. Keeping your child in charge of his or her own eating means adopting an authoritative feeding style and using positive feeding practices such as a regular meal structure, a willingness to plan modest amounts of sweets and junk food into the family diet, an ability to say no when unhealthy food is taking over the diet, and a sensitivity to your child’s feeding cues and food preferences.

In the end, the goal is to raise a child who is able to regulate his or her own appetite and eating, rather than rely on external signals.


  • Castle JL and Jacobsen MT
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • Jossey-Bass, 2013.

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