One of the most frustrating things about feeding kids is that you can’t make them eat.

Not that most of us haven’t tried at one time or another. It’s OK to admit that you once wrestled food into your child’s mouth. Cracked a joke to elicit laughter — and an open mouth. No one’s immune. Remember the time when I told my teen, my teen, that we weren’t going shopping unless she ate her breakfast. (Talk about bringing out the big guns!) Read my confession and how it turned out.

You know the technique that kids use to avoid getting into car seats and strollers? The one where they go rigid in a slight back arch so that you have to sit on them to get them into the seat? There’s nothing really comparable in the feeding-department, because there’s no way to sit on them. Even when you can get food into little mouths (by pinching closed the nose?), you can’t make kids swallow. Try to and watch how quickly kids vomit. Game over.

The key to ending tantrums is to eliminate certain kinds of negotiation. Get rid of the wiggle room.

Every time your kids ride in the car they must sit in a carseat. No exceptions. No bartering. (OK, I’ll let you skip the car seat today, if you promise that tomorrow you’ll get it in without a fuss.)

The rule produces structure. Structure leads to consistency. Consistency eliminates fights and tantrums.

Yes, I know the car seat rule is easy to enforce because safety is at stake. And, unlike eating which happens all the time, riding in a carseat only happens one or twice a day. Nonetheless…

The Goal: Teach the 3 Habits that Translate Nutrition into Behavior

  • Proportion Eat truly healthy food most frequently
  • Variety Eat different food from meal-to-meal
  • Moderation Eat when hungry, stop when full, and don’t eat because bored, sad or lonely

Read more about these habits.

The no-tantrum structure for teaching children to eat what you serve establishes a regular set of rules around how food and eating decisions are made. This produces structure. Structure leads to consistency. Consistency eliminates fights and tantrums.

Skeptical? You’re probably thinking about all the fights you have night-after-night over things like tasting one bite  or eating vegetables before dessert. These fight happen, though, because there’s wiggle room. Think about all those times you didn’t require a few more bites, or were negotiated down from 5 bites to 3.

 1. Serve very small portions. 

Whatever you’re doing now, cut it in half. Better yet, cut it by a two-thirds. The idea here is to make it incredibly easy for your children to eat the food you serve, including the vegetables.

You’ll be surprised by how willingly most children will eat the few bites on their plate when there are only a few bites on the plate. In this way, serving small portions will eliminate the “seconds-of-pasta-before-vegetables” problem. You know what I mean.

Think longterm: Teaching children the habit of eating their vegetables can only happen when children willingly eat their vegetables. This requires a small serving. It’s what I call the Happy Bite.

 2. Serve a fruit and/or a vegetable at every meal and every snack—every darned day. 

Make fruits and vegetables the go-to food. Reaching for an apple at snack time is a habit. One that adults find it hard to establish. That’s why you’ve got to start early.

Serving fruits and vegetables throughout the day takes the pressure off dinner. Think about how great you’ll feel when your kids arrive at dinner having eaten 8-10 bites or more. It’s a win before your kids even sit down.

Familiarizing kids with the taste, texture, aroma, and appearance of fruits and vegetables will help them be receptive to other healthy foods.

 3. Clearly delineate Eating Zones, times for eating and times for no eating times.  

Children transition from eating on demand to eating on a schedule during the toddler years. You can match the schedule to your child’s natural hungry times—no sense serving breakfast at 7 if your child is never hungry then—but there have to be times when food isn’t available. Grazing is associated with poor eating habits because the kinds of foods people tend to graze on aren’t the healthiest.

Eating Zones help parents in two ways: You can plan meals and snacks more efficiently. You can feel more confident that your children won’t starve to death if they skip a meal or snack ’cause everyone knows when the next eating opportunity will be.

 4. Commit to The Rotation Rule: Don’t serve the same item two days in a row. 

Variety=different. Variety≠new. Of course, the goal of every parent is to teach their children to enjoy new foods. Start by teaching them to eat different foods. If you don’t, it’s too easy to reinforce their love of monotony.

The Rotation Rule is pretty easy. Make a list of all the foods your kids will willingly eat and then rotate through them. We all know you can serve breakfast for dinner, but you can serve dinner for breakfast and snack for lunch. (If you wouldn’t serve snack at a meal then maybe you should reconsider the quality of the snack.)

 5. Introduce new foods as if you are conducting a science experiment. Explore. Don’t Eat.  

The standard instruction, “Just taste it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” teaches children that “not liking” something is the only “legal” way out of eating it. No wonder children say they don’t like something they’ve never even tasted!

Explore a pea-sized sample in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature and, yes, sound. Here’s an exercise sheet to get you started.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~