Healthy Eating is not a Discipline Issue

by Beverly Pressey, MS, RD, mom

Children are born with an intact instinct to survive, which includes eating foods that will healthfully sustain their bodies.  Unfortunately in our attempts to nourish our children, we become disciplinarians. This will simply not work. In fact it could permanently damage your child's innate ability to regulate her own appetite, leading to lifelong eating and weight problems.  Studies show that punishing a child for not eating or using rewards or bribes can easily lead to a child who over or under eats as a teen or adult.  Therefore, creating a healthy eater is about helping a child to maintain an emotionally healthy attitude about food for a lifetime. 

A child who is a healthy eater:

  • Recognizes when his body needs food due to hunger, not due to emotions, outside circumstances or the need to control himself or others.
  • Recognizes satiety (fullness) and stops eating.
  • May sometimes chose to eat more than necessary because the food tastes so good, or the experience is very enjoyable, but realizes what she is doing and doesn't do this on regular basis.
  • Eats a variety of foods.
  • Eats both healthy and fun foods.
  • Does not eat or refuse food to control his environment, his body size or others.
  • Knows that her parents or caregivers trust and respect her sense of hunger and satiety.

So how do you create a healthy eater?

1.     Offer a variety of healthy foods on a regular basis.

2.     Offer foods at least every 3 hours and for some children every 1 ½ hours.  This provides food security for children. They know they will be fed at regular intervals.

3.     Let a child eat until she has decided that she has had enough, no matter how much or little they eat.  Children’s eating likes, dislikes, and amounts consumed are erratic day-to- day, month-to-month and year-to-year.  If they don’t eat much on one day or one meal, they will make up for it later.

4.     Respect a child’s decision to eat or not, but feel free to remind him that if he chooses not to eat when food is served, no food will be available until the next snack or meal time.

5.     Do not allow anything but water between snack and meal times.  This gives the parent a break from being a 24-hour waiter and teaches the child to eat when food is offered. 

6.     When a fun food is being served (in a limited portion) always offer an unlimited amount of a healthy food with it, so a child can eat until he decides that he has had enough.

7.     Help children focus on how their body feels during a meal by not distracting the eating process with television, reading or intrusive music or radio programs.

8.     Do not impose rewards, bribes, or punishments for eating or not eating.  The natural consequences of hunger or satiety will teach our children.
Many parents have told me that they have had success with discipline techniques such as rewards, bribes or punishments, and I don’t doubt that.  But these techniques produce children who eat for the wrong reasons. These children are eating to either avoid or gain something else.  Forcing a child to eat with bribes, punishments or rewards only results in the parents feeling better; they got their child to eat some “healthy” food.  But how much nutrition is really in one pea or one bite of stew? And what does a child learn from eating to please a parent?  Healthy eating is not about who has the power at the table. It's about nutrition.  Furthermore, discipline techniques, although implemented for the right reason (getting a child to eat nutritious foods), produce the opposite results in the long run and make meal times unpleasant for everyone.

It is almost impossible to keep meals enjoyable, social, and pleasant if there is always a battle over who needs to eat what and in what quantity.  Who wants to keep track of who is eating how much of what, or not?   Why make mealtimes so stressful?  Resorting to discipline to make children eat often results in either the adults and/or the children feeling angry, powerless, disrespected, untrustworthy or manipulated. This can all be avoided by serving food at regular intervals and letting everyone eat it or not. 

Creating a healthy eater is about having a child develop healthy lifelong eating habits. Studies have consistently shown that a child who is forced by parents or care givers to eat or not eat per the parents demands are more likely to over eat when left on their own.  A child who is eating for a reward or bribe or to avoid punishment will certainly not choose to eat those foods once on his own.  And children are on their own earlier than you might expect. Some schools have kindergarteners going through the cafeteria line. 

A child who has the opportunity to try new foods when they are ready will gradually widen their food choices.  These children, once they decide they like tomatoes, will always like tomatoes.  A child forced to eat a tomato will likely avoid them, not because of the taste, but because of the memories associated with eating tomatoes. That’s not an emotionally healthy reason to eat. 

child nutrition bookAbout the Author:
Beverly Pressey is a Registered Dietician with Master’s degrees in Education and Nutrition and specializes in working with care givers of babies and children.  Beverly has worked with individuals, presented at conferences, consulted with child care centers, taught continuing education and college classes, and presented at numerous parent groups.  As an experienced counselor, cook, teacher, speaker and a mother of 2, she has a realistic understanding of infant/child eating patterns plus the perspective of a busy parent.  Beverly lives in Seattle, Washington, find out more about her and her book at

More articles by Beverly Pressey:
Ending Dinnertime Battles
Nutrition Happens
Eat Healthy, Even During the Holidays