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Building Healthy Eating Habits: How to Foster a Positive Relationship with Food in Your Children

ages 11 years - 18 years ages 5 years - 11 years ages 6 months - 5 years communication eating health Nov 07, 2023

As parents, we strive to raise happy and healthy children.  One important aspect of their well-being is teaching them healthy eating habits.  In our family, the essential message around food is teaching our children to listen to their bodies.  By understanding their body's signals, children can develop a healthy relationship with food.  That may sound like a novel concept if you were raised with a “clean plate club” mindset.  In this post, we will delve deeper into the psychology research that supports the idea of not forcing children to eat all the food on their plates.  We will also explore how encouraging kids to listen to their bodies can extend beyond mealtime, empowering them to make mindful decisions in other areas of their lives.  Keep reading to learn tips you can start using today to raise the next generation to be healthy eaters.


Trusting Their Appetite

Fun Fact: The Clean Plate Club concept actually stems from a presidential act during World War I when there were food shortages in the U.S.  Thankfully, these are relatively peaceful times for our country, so we can focus instead on best practices around raising healthy children.  Research in child psychology suggests that forcing children to finish all the food on their plates may have unintended consequences.   Here are some key findings:


  1. Overeating and Disrupted Hunger Cues: Forcing children to finish all the food on their plates can disrupt their natural hunger and fullness cues.  When children are pressured to eat beyond their comfort level, they may lose touch with their body's signals of satiety.  This can lead to overeating and an inability to recognize when they are truly full.  Over time, this can contribute to weight gain and an unhealthy relationship with food - an important issue, as one in every six U.S. kids have obesity, and two in every five U.S. adults have obesity.


  1. Negative Associations with Food: Pressuring children to finish their plate can create negative associations with certain foods.  When children are forced to eat foods they dislike or are not hungry for, they may develop aversions or resistance towards those foods.  This can lead to mealtime battles, increased pickiness, and a limited variety of foods in their diet.  It's important to create a positive and supportive environment where children feel empowered to make choices about what they eat.


  1. Autonomy and Self-Regulation: Allowing children to listen to their body's hunger and fullness cues promotes autonomy and self-regulation.  When children are given the freedom to decide how much they want to eat, they learn to trust their own appetites and develop a healthy relationship with food.  This approach encourages them to become more in tune with their body's needs and fosters a sense of ownership over their eating habits.


  1. Long-Term Eating Behaviors: Research suggests that children who are forced to finish all the food on their plate may be more likely to engage in emotional eating or have difficulties with portion control later in life.  By allowing children to self-regulate their food intake, we help them develop a balanced approach to eating that can carry into adulthood.  This can contribute to a healthier relationship with food and a decreased risk of disordered eating patterns.


Children have an innate ability to recognize when they are hungry or full.  By trusting their appetite, we empower them to make decisions about their own body's needs.  It's important to create a supportive environment where children feel comfortable expressing their hunger and fullness cues.  Encourage open communication about how their body feels during and after meals, and validate their experiences.  This helps them develop a strong sense of body awareness and fosters a healthy relationship with food.


Pro Tip: If you’re concerned about food waste, initially serve your children very small portions and let them know that seconds, thirds, or even fourths are available.  Encourage them to serve themselves what they are sure they can eat and remind them that they can always go back for more.  You can bring extra food in serving bowls to the table so as not to disrupt dinner conversation, with people running back to the kitchen for more food.


Honoring Food Preferences 

Just like adults, children have their own unique tastes and preferences.  It's important to respect their individuality and allow them to make choices about what they eat.  By giving them the freedom to decline foods that don't appeal to them, we empower them to develop a positive relationship with food.


Research shows that pressuring children to eat certain foods can lead to negative associations and resistance.  Instead, offer a variety of nutritious options and let your child decide what they want to eat.  This approach encourages autonomy and helps children develop a sense of ownership over their food choices.  While it's important to expose children to a wide range of foods, it's equally important to respect their preferences and not force them to eat something they genuinely dislike.


It's worth noting that children may go through phases of being selective eaters.  This is a normal part of their development and usually resolves over time.  As long as they are getting a balanced diet and meeting their nutritional needs, there is no cause for concern.  Many kids have survived on little more than chicken nuggets or mac and cheese for months on end.  Encourage your child to explore different foods at their own pace and be patient as they expand their palate.


If you worry your child does not have a balanced diet, let them know that they can substitute the undesirable food for anything else in that food category.  For example, if they don’t care for fish, they can get a glass of milk, a slice of cheese, a handful of nuts, a spoonful of peanut butter, etc., to be sure their meal has enough protein in it to keep them powered up for the rest of the day.


Some families have a rule that you must try at least one bite of everything on their plate.  I really like that idea.  Of course, at some point, you’ll want to just give them a pass on certain food - like when your child is eight years old, and they’ve been trying a bite of eggplant every time you serve it, and they still don’t like it.  Having serving bowls on the table with extra food from the other offerings that night is helpful to be sure they can load up on other food they do like.


Extending "Listening to Your Body" Beyond Food

Teaching children to listen to their bodies goes beyond mealtime.  It can be applied to other aspects of their lives, such as sleep and physical activity.  By helping children tune in to their body's signals, we empower them to make mindful decisions that support their overall well-being.


Sleep is a vital component of a child's development.  Just as adults have different sleep needs, children also require varying amounts of sleep depending on their age and individual requirements (see Why Consistent Bedtimes are Important At All Ages).  Encourage your child to pay attention to their body's signals when it comes to rest and sleep.  You can do this by teaching them to recognize when they feel tired or when they need a nap.  For example, if they yawn, you might yawn too and say, “I’m feeling tired too.  My body is telling me that I need to go to bed early tonight.”  By honoring their body's need for rest, we help our children establish healthy sleep patterns and ensure they get the rest they need for optimal growth and development.


Similarly, physical activity is essential for a child's overall health.  However, it's important to teach them to listen to their body and recognize when they need a break.  Encourage your child to pay attention to how their body feels during and after physical activity.  If they are feeling fatigued, experiencing pain, or simply need a rest day, it's important to honor those signals.  By fostering a balanced approach to exercise, we help children develop a lifelong habit of listening to their body's needs.  That will help them to prevent burnout and injury so they can focus on regular moderate exercise throughout their lives.


Take-Home Message

We all want our children to be happy and healthy, and developing a healthy relationship with food is a huge part of achieving that goal.  Child psychology research indicates that forcing children to finish all the food on their plates may have negative implications for their eating behaviors and overall relationship with food.  Encouraging children to listen to their body's hunger and fullness cues, and allowing them to make choices about what they eat, can promote autonomy, self-regulation, and a healthier attitude towards food.  When children are encouraged to eat until they are satisfied, rather than being pressured to empty their plates, they learn to self-regulate their food intake.  Let's nurture healthy habits by encouraging our children to listen to their bodies and make choices that support their well-being.  By doing so, we lay the foundation for a lifetime of positive self-care and body awareness.  Take a moment to think about your family’s rules around eating and see if there are any adjustments you can make this week to help raise the next generation to have a healthy relationship with food.


Healthy eating is part of the Consistency category of my 5 C’s parenting framework (see Check Yourself: Are You An Intentional Parent? to learn about the 5 C’s).  To view more posts in this category, use the category search menu on the right of your screen.  Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!

P.S. A great resource for you on the topic of family meals is my free guide called How to Make Dining Out With Your Children Enjoyable.  Download it today and enjoy a night off from cooking and doing the dishes.  You deserve it!

Listen on Spotify Podcast

Watch on YouTube


Amazing parenting is not about always saying
and doing the right thing and raising perfect children.  It’s about becoming intentional in your parenting and proactive in learning skills to help you parent more effectively in a way that fits best for your unique parent-child dynamics.

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