Thursday, March 8, 2012

Don't Force Your Child to Eat

By Julia Moravcsik, PhD, author of Teach Your Child to Love Healthy Food

As a parent, you know it's your job to feed your child. If you set a plate of food in front of your child and he doesn't eat, or only eats a few bites, it can make you frightened. Is he getting enough food? What if he starves? 

If you get scared enough, you may find yourself pressuring your child to eat with any of these techniques:
  • Feeding him when he's old enough to feed himself
  • Following him around with plates of food
  • Demanding that he eat all the food on his plate
  • Bribing him to eat
  • Getting angry, or threatening him if he doesn't eat
  • Pestering him by repeatedly telling him to eat
  • Forcing food into his mouth

Children Naturally Don't Eat Much

Children can eat less than half the calories that an adult eats. This may seem alarming to a parent, who wonders how a human being, even a small one, can survive on so little food.

Unless your child is one of the very rare children who have a feeding disorder, he will eat enough to be healthy. Interestingly, researchers have found that eating less food, as long as it is healthy, can actually make animals live longer! This is, of course, not a reason to restrict your child's food supply. But you can rest assured that if your child naturally has a light appetite, this may help him live a longer and healthier life, as long as the food he is getting is healthy.

Pressuring Destroys Your Child's Natural Appetite

Children are more in touch with their natural appetite than adults are. Eating when they aren't hungry can feel disgusting or painful. Respect their natural sense of hunger. If your child can maintain this natural sense of eating when he's hungry and stopping when he's not, he will have a powerful weapon against the culture of recreational eating that he will encounter when he's an adult.

Pressuring Children Into Eating May Make Them Eat Less

Researchers conducted an experiment where they told one group of children to "finish their food" and let another group of children eat as much they wanted. The children who were told to finish their food actually ate less than the ones who were left alone! They also made more nasty comments about the food.

Pressuring Children Into Eating More May Make Them Hate Food

Adults with food aversions (hating a food) often say that their aversion started when an adult forced them to eat a food they didn't like. Researchers found that 72% of adults who were forced to eat a food when they were children said that they permanently refused to eat that food for the rest of their lives!

If you don't let your child get up from the table until he tries his green beans, you may inadvertently create a green bean-hater for life!

Some children may rebel against the pressure to eat by refusing to eat anything, or only eating certain foods. It gives them a measure of control against the scary prospect of being forced to eat a food that they are on unfriendly terms with, or of eating more food than their stomachs feel comfortable with.

For Some Children, Pressuring May Work Too Well!

Overweight adults often attribute their weight problem to their childhood, when their well-meaning parents made them clean their plate, or repeatedly asked them if they wanted more food. These experiences taught them to tolerate an overly full stomach.

Not all obese adults start out obese. Your skinny kid could become an obese adult if he learns to eat even when he's not hungry.

Short Children Won't Grow Taller If They're Pressured Into Eating More

Some parents of short children think that if their child eats more, they will catch up to their taller friends.

As long as your child is getting enough protein and vitamins/minerals, eating more won't make him grow taller. It will just make him fatter.

Make sure your child is eating some foods that are high in protein, and getting enough zinc, iron, and other minerals and vitamins. Then stop worrying. Your child's height is mostly determined by his genes.

Notice What Triggers You Into Pressuring Your Child to Eat

As a parent, you naturally feel anxious if your child is doing something that you think is unhealthy, like not eating "enough." Reassure yourself that in all but the rarest of cases, children will eat enough food to survive and be healthy.

Notice the times when you feel tempted to pressure your child to eat. Relax, take a deep breath, smile, and say to yourself "Oh well. His brain knows how much he needs to eat." Then go do something else to distract yourself.

The following behaviors are perfectly normal! Don't get scared into pressuring your child to eat when he does them.
  • refusing to eat a meal
  • eating a lot of food for a few weeks, then eating practically nothing for the next few weeks
  • refusing to eat certain foods
  • eating less than a sibling, neighbor kid, or cousin
  • being so excited by toys and people that he doesn't finish his meal
 What To Do Instead of Pressuring

To get your child to eat at mealtimes, try these techniques:
  • Sit down and eat the same food as your child.
  • Children often need to try a food many times before they like it.  Feed your child healthy foods for each meal, and be patient in the knowledge that they will probably eventually like them.
  • If your child is easily distracted, you can gently call his attention back to his food. Do this only occasionally, so that he does not feel pestered, and only do it when he's first starting his meal, so that he does not eat when he is no longer hungry.
  • Don't worry or stress out!

Would you like a simple, easy-to-follow program that will teach your child to love healthy food? See my new book Teach Your Child to Love Healthy Food on

Related Articles

Is My Child Too Thin? He May Just Look Thin Compared to Today's Kids

The One-Bite Suggestion - Help For Picky Eaters

Don't Force Kids to Eat, But Don't Let Them Complain

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  1. Great information! I love your blog! You always post interesting things!

  2. wonderful information. I'm the big sister of a 22 month old girl. Her father forces her to eat food and will not let her do it herself. She's learning the wrong habits and this helpful for me to turn everything around.

  3. When an article makes false assertions in the first few paragraphs, it's very hard to take any of it seriously. I refer to the statement "Interestingly, researchers have found that eating less food, as long as it is healthy, can actually make animals live longer!"

    This has been shown to be false:

    1. "Interestingly," you can find just about anything on the internet to support or refute your personal beliefs. I believe in less caloric intake, and obviously about half of Americans don't. I know I will live a much healthier life than those. Live longer? Family genetics are on my side.

  4. Hi Julia,

    My name is Blake and I'm working with an award-winning production company and a top-rated national cable network to cast a new docu-series that will explore unique perspectives on parenting -- styles like attachment parenting, authoritative parenting, green parenting... you name it, we're interested in hearing about it.

    I'm reaching out to you because obviously your blog has become a community for parents. An outlet to discuss and learn from each other. We're looking to speak with parents who have a new take on parenting and would like to share their story. This will be a eight episode series and each episode will follow 2 separate families.

    Our bread and butter is MTV True Life and we've produced over 30 episodes of those. The format of that series will be the same for this Parenting docu-series. It's an anthology series and we will be following these families for five days (not all at once).

    I wanted to see if this something that you would help us spread the word on! Or maybe you can off the top of your head think of a great parent that might be interested. I tried to answer a lot of the questions people have on the project, but if there's anything I didn't cover let me know! You can reach me by email -

    718.422.0704 ext. 117

  5. Thank you for this wonderful article. My 3year old daughter does not eat any type of meat and has issues with texures of cooked vegetables. So I make soups, blend them and use the as sauce with pasta and rice and I never ever force her to finish everything if she doesnt want it. My daughter is tall for her age and thin but healthy in MY EYES. My mother on the other hand feels like I am a bad mom. There are something you mentioned in your blog that we already do but I feel my husband and I would be more successful in improving our daughters eating habits if we added a few more of your tips. Now I wish I can get my mother to believe in what you have written :(

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