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Getting Your Kids to Eat at Mealtime

National Nutrition Month Get Your Plate in Shape Logoby Kristen Strong, MS, RD, CD
Outpatient Clinical Nutrition Manager

March is National Nutrition Month, and this year’s theme is, “Get Your Plate in Shape”.  For most of us this means small changes to our meals.  Shrink our grains and meat portions, while loading up on vegetables and fruit.  I love the visual clarity of the “my plate” graphic.  When you sit down for lunch, look at your plate.  Is half of it covered in veggies and fruit?  If not, think about how you could make it that way.

As a parent you probably already know that a giant pile of instant mac-n-cheese is lacking in the fruits and veggies department.  On the flip side, you wonder if your time and money spent on a well-balanced lunch is really worth the fight.  Do your mealtimes tend to be chaotic?  Do you find yourself fighting with your little one over what and how much they did or did not eat?  Do you worry that mealtime feuds are turning into a power struggle and affecting your relationship with your child?

You are not alone.  Here is one approach that can help keep the peace and improve meal time.  In her book, How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Much, Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD presents the idea that parents and kids have specific responsibilities when it comes to meal time.

So what is your job and what is your kid’s job?  Read on – you may be surprised.

You – The Parent:

1.  Provide your child with healthy options that support growth and development.

  • Select and buy healthy food.
  • Prepare and present healthy food.
  • Make healthy food in a form that is appealing and safe for your child to eat.

2.  Establish a schedule and routine – there are mealtimes and sit-down snack times.

  • Avoid the common pitfall of allowing your child to graze between meals.
  • Make sure you allow a reasonable amount of time to finish the meal or snack.  10 minutes for a snack and 20 minutes for a meal.  If the food is not touched after 10–15 minutes, or your child is playing and not eating, remove the foods and say that it looks like she is not hungry.
  • The meal is over until the next meal or snack time.  This is difficult, especially when they come back for a snack within a short time.  Be strong, and remember – you are the parent.
  •  Eliminate distractions.  Offer meals away from common and tempting distractions such as toys and TV.

3.  Make family mealtimes pleasant.

  • Plan to eat as a family for as many meals as possible.
  • Model good behavior at the table – what they see, they will do.
  • Let your child feed herself as much as possible.  A plastic sheet (splat mat) under the high-chair will catch any mess.  Wipe your child’s mouth and clean up only when the meal or snack is over.
  • Do not coax, beg, bribe (reward), force-feed, or play games.  Do not find another food if your child refuses to eat, you are not a “short order cook.”  Do not act concerned over what your child eats or does not eat.
  • Talk about anything except:
    • How much your child eats.
    • What your child eats.
    • What your child has eaten before.

Your Child:

As simple as this may sound, your child’s mealtime responsibility is to choose what and how much they will eat.

Summary ~

Your responsibility is to provide and offer healthy food.  Your child’s responsibility is to choose how much and what they will eat.  As a parent you may read this and think, Yikes! this means war – and fear that as you implement your child will think, game-on.  I would say, all is fair in love and war.  You may face opposition; remind yourself it will be a short term battle that will pay off.  In the long run you and your child will benefit as you implement these small and doable approaches.

Of course this is an approach for the general healthy population.  If you are worried about your child’s growth and weight, contact your child’s pediatrician or a registered dietitian for evaluation and additional information.  There are several ideas and approaches out there—nobody knows your child like you do.


Kristen StrongKristen Strong MS, RD, CD, is a registered dietitian and the Outpatient Clinical Nutrition Manager at Primary Children’s Medical Center. The treatment and prevention of Childhood obesity is one of her passions.

About Primary Children's Hospital

​Primary Children’s Hospital ranks among the best children's hospitals. Located in scenic Utah, everything in our hospital is focused on providing the best care for children. For more than 90 years, we have been committed to helping children, families, and communities across the western United States.

One comment on “Getting Your Kids to Eat at Mealtime

  1. This is awesome. I have a 4 year old girl that is very controlling and has even become controlling over what she will allow herself to eat. I am going to try this approach and see if this will help her.

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