Raising a Healthy Eater

Do your children prefer to play with their peas or feed them to the family dog?

Parents often worry about what their children eat – and don’t eat. To ease your concern, keep in mind that it is normal for children to be picky and to refuse foods. What matters is what children eat over the course of weeks, not what they eat at a single meal. 

Focus on helping your child establish life-long, healthy eating habits.

Q: Mealtimes with my 2-year-old son have become a battle. The only way I can get him to eat is if he’s watching television or I feed him while he plays with one of his toys. What can I do?

A: Remember that your son won’t starve himself. If he is hungry, he will eat. Your role as a parent is to set the standards and the ground rules around meal times. You decide what foods your child can choose from and when he eats. Your son can then decide how much he eats and what foods he picks from the selection you offer him. Follow these tips to avoid mealtime battles and create healthy eating patterns for the whole family:

  • Establish set times for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and only offer your child food at these times. Don’t let your child graze throughout the day.

  • At each meal, offer a selection of three to five healthy foods. For example, a snack could be low-fat milk, whole-grain crackers and some fresh fruit or veggie sticks. Making a wide variety of healthy food choices available to your son will encourage him to make good food choices in the long run.

  • Enjoy all your meals and snacks at the dinner table and ensure that meal times are pleasant, social occasions. Don’t try to force your son to eat something he doesn’t want. Better that he skip a meal and continue looking forward to family meal times.

  • Keep the TV turned off and other distractions such as toys or books at bay. Television and toys can keep your child from noticing when he is full.

  • Offer only low-fat milk or water to drink. Cut out juice and keep sodas out of the house. 

  • Don’t be a short order cook – your whole family should eat and enjoy the same meal.

Q: My 5-year-old son is so fussy. All he wants is pasta. How can I get him to try other foods?

A: Continue offering your son a variety of healthy foods at every meal and at snack time. If your son has eaten all the pasta on his plate and asks for more, remind him that he has other food choices on his plate and he should eat those first if he is still hungry.

If he refuses, simply remind him that he’ll get the chance to eat again at the next set meal or snack time. Keep in mind that children tend to accept new foods very gradually and you may have to introduce a new food repeatedly, perhaps as many as 20 times, before your child will try it. 

Involve your son in food shopping and preparing meals. Not only is this a good opportunity to teach your son about nutrition, he may be more willing to eat or try foods he has helped prepare.

Yes, you may end up throwing away a lot of food using this approach, but it is an investment in your son’s health. 

Q: My kids and husband love sweets and think that no meal is complete without dessert. Should I give in and offer something sweet after every meal?

A: Remind your family that no one needs sweets or treats every day, as sweets have no nutritional value. However, it’s also important not to forbid sweet items entirely or use them as a bribe – both can cause eating problems later in life. 

Enjoy a cookie or slice of cake occasionally, but don’t always have something sweet in the house. Remember, too, your children are watching what you are doing and will follow your example. Don’t be tempted to sneak sweets from a secret stash; the same rules should apply to everyone in your family.

Q: My 8-year-old daughter is tiny and very slim. How do I know she is getting enough to eat?

A: As long as your daughter’s weight and height are increasing at a consistent rate, you don’t need to worry. Her slim build may be due to many factors, such as her genes, metabolism and level of physical activity. Don’t try to increase her weight by giving her fattening, unhealthy foods, as this could create eating problems later in her life. Continue to offer a range of healthy foods for her to choose from. Always speak to your child’s pediatrician if your child is losing weight or you are concerned about your child’s weight.


Patricia Samson, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Mountain View center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.

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