When we try to force healthful food on our kids, it is more likely to backfire and produce children who will over eat the less nutritious foods (the fun foods) when given an opportunity, and possibly lead to an obese child or a child with an eating disorder.
What's a parent to do?
Our job as parents is to provide food choices, but it is not our job to choose what the child will eat, or how much, nor to discipline a child for their choices. If you don't want your child to eat potato chips, don't have them available at the meal. If you do want to have potato chips, offer them as part of the child's meal. You can let them eat as many as they want to or let them know that potato chips are "fun foods" and that they can have a handful with their lunch.
Once you have offered the foods your job is done. Let your child do what they want.
Giving your child the choice
Once you've allowed the child to make their own food choice, he or she may only eat the potato chips and this is fine. If they complain they are still hungry after eating only the chips remind them that their sandwich, applesauce and milk are still available. If they refuse these, their meal is over.
Inform them that there will be no more food until the next scheduled snack of meal time (usually 2-3 hours away). If they didn't eat enough at lunch, hunger will alert them of their error in judgment during lunch. They will likely make different choices at the next meal.
Using food as a disciplinary tool
Using discipline to make a child eat does not work in the moment or in the long run -- and you will probably be feeding your child for many years to come. Insisting that a child eat something, requiring "one more bite" or demanding that a child finish one food before being allowed to eat another is not about nutrition, it is about power.
Learn to let go; a child's innate sense to survive will not let them go too long without eating some nutritious foods if they are regularly offered a variety of healthy foods.
We can all create healthy eaters without discipline!
8 Steps to get kids to make healthful food choices:
1. Offer a healthful variety
Offer a variety of healthy foods on a regular basis.
2. Provide food security
Offer foods at least every 3 hours and for some children every 1 ½ hours. This provides food security for children; they know they will be fed at regular intervals.
3. Let them choose
Let a child eat until they have decided they have had enough, no matter how much or little they eat. Children's eating likes, dislikes, and amounts consumed are erratic day-to- day, month-to-month and year-to-year. If they don't eat much on one day or one meal they will make up for it later.
4. Respect their decisions
Respect a child's decision to eat or not, but feel free to remind them that if they choose not to eat when food is served, no food will be available until the next snack of meal time.
5. Set snacking limits
Do not allow anything but water between snack and meal times. This gives the parent a break from being a 24 hours waiter and teaches the child to eat when food is offered.
6. Provide ample options
When a fun food is being served (in a limited portion) always offer an unlimited amount of a nutritious food with it so a child can eat until they decide they have had enough.
7. Encourage focus at meal time
Help children focus on how their body feels during a meal by not distracting the eating process with television, reading or intrusive music or radio programs.
8. Avoid using food as rewards
Do not impose rewards, bribes, or punishments for eating or not eating. The natural consequences of hunger or satiety will teach our children.
No matter what the age of your child, it's not too late to start. Stand back and watch as your child learns to take responsibility for their body. Then you will know what it feels like to actively parent a child.
More information on child health and nutritious foods: