Tips to make your kids fabulous little eaters

When Beast and I started thinking about having kids and discussing what our family would look like and operate like, there were two things that kept coming up as important to us: meal time and sleeping.  Meal time was important to us because we wanted to be able to take our kids to restaurants and actually enjoy ourselves as well as have family meals around our own table each night.  (See this book for more topics we discussed before getting married.)

It was important to us so we put some work into figuring out how to get our kids to do a good job at the table and eat well.  They do a great job the vast majority of the time.  I’ve been asked several times why they are the way they are and it always seems like too big of an answer to just quickly spit out to a random person at a restaurant or to tell a friend over coffee (there are so many other things to talk about!).  So, I’ve outlined some things we did over the years here in case it is helpful to anyone.  These rules and methods worked for us and for the personalities of our kids.  

This post is long (sorry) but I tried to spend some time explaining some of the reasons behind the rules we had at various stages.  Now make sure your understand me, our kids are not perfect (whose are?) so they still have their moments and meals that don’t go so well but these are the things we try to enforce and really practice at home to make meal times everywhere go better.  And they are fabulous little eaters who I truly enjoy cooking for so I do think the rules we put in place after lots of reading or learning from others really did work.


Five overarching themes to our rules:

  1. “Begin as you wish to go”  This one is really the mantra for all of our parenting. Various versions of this quote are attributed to many individuals but it is the basis for many of the Baby Wise techniques (see books by Gary Enzo and Robert Buckham, MD).  Basically, it means that if you don’t want something to become a habit or your new ritual, don’t do it.  Not even once.  It may make for a hard meal or two to not give in on something, but you’re in it for the long game, not just a meal or two.  Sticking with your “rules” is worth it. 
  2. They eat what we eat.  As soon as we could, we got our kids eating the exact meal that we were eating.  We make dinner for the entire family with no separate meals or dishes for the kids.
  3. They sit at the table the whole time we do.  No one gets up early or runs around while we are eating.  Meal time is a ritual where we sit and eat and talk.  If they finish early, they sit at the table with us until everyone is done.
  4. We don’t sabotage ourselves.  If we want to have a good meal with our kids, it is worth pushing through them being hungry and making them wait instead of giving them a snack and then having kids at the table who aren’t actually hungry.  Schedules we followed are below.
  5. We remember that they are a little smarter than us at times.  Most kids only eat when they are actually hungry.  Often our kids would eat a big breakfast and not really be that hungry for lunch.  We wouldn’t force them to eat at lunch time but would still stick to our feeding schedule so the next meal would be snack time or dinner, depending on the stage they were in.  No extra or early snacks just because they didn’t eat a good lunch.  Because they eat well and eat good things, I don’t worry at all if they have a meal where they don’t eat much.  This takes a lot of stress away from the table and gives them the power to control how much they want to eat.

And now some of the things we did at different stages that helped develop good meal time habits:

4 m-1 year

  1. Use a variety of baby foods.  When I would go to the store for baby food, I would buy only one of each flavor in order to encourage my kids to eat different things.  If you make your own food, you could just make sure to make a bunch of different things and vary them with each meal.  
  2. Serve fruits and vegetables, individually and mixed.  We would serve a fruit or fruit blend for breakfast, mixed fruit and veggie for lunch, and vegetable or vegetable blend for dinner.  This helped them to get used to things that weren’t sweetened with fruit.
  3. If they don’t eat it, save it for the next meal.  If my kids turned their nose up to one kind of baby food, I would put whatever was leftover in the container in the fridge and serve it to them again at the beginning of the next meal.  This taught them that they didn’t get away from eating something by refusing it.  
  4. If it is gross, don’t serve it.  I tried the vast majority of the baby food I gave them and if it was truly gross, I would not buy it again.  I can remember one that was a black bean and grain puree which basically tasted like dirt.  I gagged when I tried it so I didn’t force Bear to eat it and definitely did not buy it again.
  5. Give little bites/purees of whatever you are eating.  As soon as we could, we would mass up bits of whatever we were having for dinner and let them try it.  
  6. Stay on a feeding schedule.  We had breakfast around 8 AM, lunch around noon, small snack around 4 PM, and dinner between 6-7 PM each day.  They knew when to expect food and to know that I didn’t give extra snacks in between.  
  7. Have them eat dinner with you.  As soon as they could sit in their Bumbos, we had our kids sitting on the table while we had dinner.  They would watch us eat, eat themselves, and get used to sitting in one spot during meal time.  If they were restless and done eating before we were, we would give them a toy or two to play with at the table but they had to stay in their seat.
Bumbo on the table

8. Start taking them to restaurants.  I started taking my kids to restaurants during my maternity leaves and continued to occasionally take them as infants out to lunch on my days off.  This helped them “practice” behavior at restaurants.  I would pick restaurants that were loud at first and times (mainly lunch) where they were less busy so it wasn’t as high stakes as say taking them to a busy restaurant for dinner.  

I swear this is the stage where Bear developed his love of salmon.  He was 6 months old and sitting on top of the table in his Bumbo.  We had my parents over and cooked up a huge piece of salmon.  He kept grabbing for it so my dad gave him the tiniest bit to try.  He loved it and my dad got a big kick out of feeding it to him.  He still eats salmon better than most adults.

I tried to make my own baby food but was unsuccessful.  I couldn’t quite ever get the texture right (probably needed WAY more water in hindsight).  Bear could not stand the food I was making but would gobble down store bought food so I quickly abandoned making my own.  This video is of Bear trying his first baby food (made by me).

1-2 years

  1. As soon as our kids could do “table food” we transitioned them away from baby food.  They had been getting small bites of what we were eating all along so it was easy to move them away from the baby food to exactly what we were eating.
  2. No toys at the table.  Coloring on the sheets given at restaurants was fine but at home they were sitting and talking with us while eating their food and learning that toys were not for the table.  
  3. Give small amounts of everything and more of whatever they like.  We would give small amounts of everything in our meal (usually a meat, veggie or two, and occasional starch or grain).  If they loved one thing and wanted more of it, we would keep giving it to them.  This meant sometimes they really only ate 1 item for dinner (with Ladybug it was often peas) but they were happy and eating something good so it wasn’t a big deal.  We would encourage trying the other items but not force it.
  4. Serve sweet items like fruit or dessert later.  Because of number 3, we wouldn’t serve strawberries, for instance, with dinner because if we did, Ladybug would only eat strawberries.  BUT, we would give strawberries after the meat and veggie as a dessert.
  5. Give water throughout the day and milk only at meal times.  We made sure they could always have water if they wanted it but milk was only available at meal times, not snack.  This was so they wouldn’t fill up on milk shortly before a meal or throughout the day.
  6. Have them eat dinner with you.  At this stage, we used a high chair with a little safety belt so they were literally buckled in at the table.  If they finished early, they sat with us until we were done.
Baby seat with buckle

7. Give lots of praise for trying new things or being good at the table.  We would constantly say things like “I love how you tried the X” even if it was only one bite or “You say very nice at the table.  That makes Mommy happy.”  

8. Give timeouts for inappropriate table behavior.  This is the stage where if they were being inappropriate at the table, we would put them in timeout away from the table (in our house it is the steps going upstairs).  They can still hear everything going on but not see it or participate in it.  When we told them why they were going to timeout, we would say something like “You were not acting nice at the table.  You can come back when you are ready to sit nicely and eat with the rest of us.”  

9. Start having them say “thank you for dinner” and ask to be excused.  Our kids know that when everyone is done they can get up if they say two things:  “Thank you for dinner, X” and “May I please be excused.”  I heard this from one of my friends and loved how it asked the kids to acknowledge the effort that was put in to making the meal.  Asking to be excused gives them a clear time when it is okay to get up.  If they haven’t been excused yet and get up, they are asked to go back to the table.

Watching this child eat is seriously one of my favorite pastimes.  I will see that she is done with a meal and realize I’ve barely touched mine because I was watching her the whole time.  This is her thoroughly enjoying eating corn on the cob.  Translations:  “CHEESE!”  “Mommy’s corn cob.”  “Switch sides.” “Where’s my chicken?”  (She had eaten it all.)

2-3 years

  1. Transition away from snack time.  By the time both our kids were 2, I noticed they were doing great at the table for breakfast and lunch, eating a small snack, and not really that hungry for dinner.  So we went to smaller and smaller amounts for snacks and eventually eliminated it all together.
  2. Treats/desserts are the exception, not the rule.  If you knew after every meal you would get a nice big dessert, would you eat as much of your meal?  Of course not.  If kids expect to get a treat or dessert after a meal then they will often focus on that and eat the minimum you deem acceptable in order to get the treat.  We have a treat (usually a cookie) or dessert after dinner only occasionally so that it is not expected.  The kids instead focus on their meals.  If they have eaten a good dinner AND had a good day otherwise with behavior then we’ll offer something after they are completely done about once or twice a week.  Never enough for them to expect it and if they start asking for dessert then we usually say “not tonight” for a few nights to get them back on track with not expecting it.
  3. “No thank you bites.”  If they wanted more of something at this stage, we would have them take a “no thank you bite” of something they had not tried first.  This could be a very small bite but would get them to try something different and possibly to start eating something else in addition to what they were really enjoying.  
  4. Transition to sitting in chair like “big kid.”  One of the rewards for our kids potty training was getting to sit at the table like a “big kid” in an adult chair or on a bench without a baby seat.  By this time they had been used to sitting at the table and not getting up during meal time.

Ladybug has recently decided that asparagus is one of her favorite foods.  Here is her method for chomping down a whole spear at a time.

3+ years

  1. “I’ll give you more X, if you eat 3 bites of Y.”  By age 3, they’ve had the “no thank you” bites and know that you’re not trying to poison them.  You can encourage them to take more bites of something in order to get more of what they are really enjoying.  That being said, we certainly have our exceptions.  My kids actually gag when I give them cottage cheese.  So I’m not going to force them to eat something that literally they physically cannot get down.  I feel like everyone should get to have a few things that aren’t their favorite, especially if they are doing a great job eating everything else.  We try to read our kids and determine if they are not eating something just because they like another item a lot or if they aren’t eating it because they are turning their nose up to it.  Bear will often devour all his meat and ask for more before he has even touched his vegetables.  He’ll ask for more meat but we’ll ask him to take 3 bites of veggies before we give him more.  Once he tastes the veggies and determines he likes them as well as the meat, he will typically start eating them just as well.  
  2. Table manners.  Up until 3, I feel like the main goal for meal time with kids is to get them to eat a variety of things and sit at the table without screaming.  Right?  By age 3, you can expect more from them in terms of table manners.  With Bear we are talking more about leaning over his plate so crumbs don’t fall, making sure to use his fork/spoon correctly and all the time (no fist shoveling), and using his napkin instead of his shirt or my tablecloth.  He seems much more receptive at this age as well as able to perform our requests compared to when he was 2.

Here is my sweet Bear asking for more politely when he had licked his plate clean.

The Grandma’s House Clause:  Now there are times when it makes total sense to relax the rules a little bit.  I am not going to tell my mom or mother-in-law that they can’t give my kiddo a treat at 10 AM because we have a food schedule that we stick to.  Grandma’s get a ton of enjoyment out of giving treats.  Special events at other people’s house are in the same boat.  Rules can be bent and broken when needed, especially when there is a solid foundation or meal time ritual at home.

And that is where we are now.  I’ll probably have to add to this post as we go through additional stages but that is what we have so far.

If anyone has any questions or additional thoughts/ideas on how to get kids to eat well, please put them in the comments.  I always love to hear what tricks other parents have up their sleeves!

Happy cooking!

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