5 Do’s and Don’ts for Teaching Kids Good Eating Habits

Learn why forbidding food backfires with kids, along with other helpful tips

Child doesn't like broccoli

Eating together as a family is how kids learn to make healthy food choices, to communicate with others and to master table manners. And you can’t start too soon, says pediatrician Sara Lappe, MD.

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Here are five do’s and don’ts for making mealtimes with young kids go smoothly:

1. Do invite everyone to sit together.

If you insist that young kids sit with the family even if they aren’t ready for solids or are refusing to eat, they’ll start to learn the rules of dining. Here’s how you can make the most of it:

  • Set an example. Let your kids see you trying different foods, and model good eating habits. For example, eat your veggies if you want your child to try them. Also, model good social behavior. Allow your kids to see how you answer questions and don’t interrupt.
  • Limit meals to a reasonable length of time. Eating  shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes. If necessary, you can even set a timer to reinforce the time expectation.

2. Do let kids choose from what’s on the table.

Dr. Lappe says it’s good to let kids — even picky toddlers — choose from what’s on the table, and it’s OK if they choose just one or two things.

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“You are not a short-order cook. Make a decision about what you will serve, and stick to it. If your child does not want to eat all or part of the meal, do not make them something different,” Dr. Lappe says.

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Other tips:

  • Accept that kids will devour some meals and leave others untouched. Encourage the two bite rule -– try two bites of a food — and after that, drop it and don’t harass your child about it. There aren’t perfect days in this process, but if you routinely offer a variety of foods, your child will get the nutrition he or she needs.
  • Don’t expect your kids to eat as much as you do. Their portion sizes are in proportion to their age and body size. An adult serving of meat is about the size of the palm of the adult’s hand, while a child-sized serving of meat is about the size of the palm of the child’s hand.

3. Do keep trying if you don’t succeed.

Kids may need exposure to a food 10 to 20 times before they decide to eat it. It can take another 10 to 20 tries before they determine if they like it.

“This means that you should offer your child broccoli 20-40 times before he or she may actually come to a conclusion about it,” says Dr. Lappe.

So if your child rejects something, try again in a few weeks, she advises.

Other tips:

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  • Let kids choose which vegetable to serve for dinner occasionally. “The sense of pride they get from helping to prepare the vegetable increases their willingness to eat it,” Dr. Lappe says. If your child made it, he or she is much more likely to try it.
  • Try pairing new foods with foods children like to help them feel more comfortable. Offering a variety of colors and textures is important, especially with fruits and vegetables. A child who never sees a green vegetable will become an adult who never eats a green vegetable.

4. Don’t make kids finish dinner to get dessert.

Many parents insist that kids clean their plates in order to get dessert. “There is no magical quantity for how much they need to eat to earn dessert, but they should have made a reasonable attempt to try the meal,” Dr. Lappe says.

5. Don’t forbid treats.

Perhaps your child is overweight. You could feel tempted to make some foods completely off-limits, but “forbidden” foods are a draw for kids and they tend to overeat these foods whenever they get the chance.

Instead, take a balanced approach by encouraging healthier treats and smaller portions of those treats. Again, this is where modeling is important. For example, it is OK to have ice cream but everyone should have the kiddie portion and consider going for frozen yogurt with dark chocolate instead of sprinkles and whipped cream.

“Find a way to incorporate these foods on rare occasions, and they will have a healthier approach to them,” Dr. Lappe advises.

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