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Manners Matter at Mealtime

While we know that too much control over food is negative for kids, a free-for-all in the kitchen is not healthy either.

You can think about teaching manners in terms of training a pet. If the dog is trained early on to go to the bathroom outside, walk on a leash and sit before eating, these become frequent behaviors. Alternatively, think about trying to tame a wild horse. They have to be socialized to humans in order to tolerate carrying a person on their back. And that can be a successful process…or a long, arduous one.

Here are three healthy boundaries that will help you set the rules without being too controlling, and ease the task of feeding your child over the years. 

Set a schedule—While you don’t have to be rigid about the timing of meals and snacks, a set schedule helps build predictability and rhythm with eating, as well as food security. You will want to work toward a regular schedule of meals and snacks in the toddler years. Be flexible but not too loose. Allow some wiggle room around the timing of meals if needed, but don’t be unpredictable. Young children like to know when they can expect to eat and generally what will be served.

This or that—One of the cornerstones of being a good feeder is to give your toddler or preschooler a voice when it comes to food preferences and amounts. But don’t make the mistake of giving too many choices, as this can be overwhelming and counter-productive for some kids. A good rule of thumb for young children is to offer two choices within the same category. In the case of food, these would be two types of fruit, like apple or grapes, or two preparation methods like baked potato or mashed potato. These reasonable choices are effective with all ages. Children need to see that you remain in control of feeding, but that they have a say in the matter, too.

Use an “ask first” rule—Asking first is healthy, even for older children. It keeps you in charge of feeding and encourages your kids to be respectful. Remember, parents are a food filter, or the gatekeepers of nutrition, and teaching your child to ask for food  first keeps that filter in place.


  • Castle and Jacobsen. Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • 2013.
    Dovey, T.M, Staples, P.A., Gibson, E.L., and Halford, J.C
  • “Food Neophobia and ‘Picky/Fussy’ Eating in Children: A Review.” Appetite, 2008, 50(2-3), 181-93.

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