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Young boy with his head on the table while holding a piece of broccoli on his fork

How to Encourage Healthy Eating Habits

My 4-year-old granddaughter sat picking at her once-favorite meal, macaroni and cheese. “I don’t like this.” Even with the unicorn and star-shaped pasta, she wasn’t having it. Her next question made me smile. “How much do I have to eat, before I can have a candy?” Aha! I can relate. Some days, I’d rather have candy, too. Our conversation got me thinking about eating habits and how early they get established. It’s OK to have a treat sometimes, but balance is important.

We can establish healthy eating habits and make sure our children and grandchildren get the nutrition they need by making mealtime enjoyable and avoiding power struggles.

Here are a few tips to get started:

Let your child help plan and prepare a meal. Children get excited about cooking and are more likely to eat what they make.

  • Young children can squeeze fruits, put peanut butter on crackers, peel hard-boiled eggs, put cheese or sauce on a pizza, or shell peas and tear lettuce.
  • As they get older, they can use the stove or oven with supervision and create a meal for you!

Make mealtime interesting. Have a picnic, get dressed up and eat by candlelight using your fancy manners, or incorporate a theme like a Hawaiian luau with coconuts and pineapple.

Have routine times for meals and snacks. Avoid snacking too close to mealtimes or going too long between meals. Sometimes a misbehaving child is a hungry child. Avoid sugary drinks that can decrease the sensation of hunger.

Make placemats or name tents for each family member to foster a sense of belonging. If a family member misses a meal, their placemat or name tent is still on the table to save their place.

Young children often have favorite foods. Toddlers and preschool children may go through periods of picky eating. Serve some of their favorite food and try adding a small portion of a new food. Children’s taste buds are more sensitive than ours, so avoid strong flavors that may be off-putting.

Do not force your child to eat. Provide a variety of healthy options, and let your child tell you when they are full.

Do not bribe your child to eat or punish your child for not eating. Food provides nutrition and we don’t want it to take on additional meaning or cause a tense mealtime experience. Getting into a power struggle about eating can reinforce picky eating and lead to unhealthy habits.

If your child is willing to taste something new, resist saying “I told you, it wasn’t that bad.” Instead, ask them: “What do you think?” That way, your child feels like they made the choice. This helps them focus on the taste of the food, rather than who is right.

When dining out, order foods for your child that are familiar. If you’d like your child to try something new, offer them a bite of your dish. Take along some tabletop toys in case they finish before you.

Mealtimes can be challenging, but with some effort they can also be a time to enjoy good food and create warm family memories.

Your children’s pediatrician should be your primary source of advice about your child’s health. Visit for information on a variety of parenting and child development topics.

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.