Serving healthy food to your child and still struggling? Here’s why. (giveaway)

Editor’s note: Please welcome Maryann from Raise Healthy Eaters blog as my guest poster today.

Jane served her child (Lila) homemade baby food and let her eat off of her plate. By the time Lila was two, she ate practically everything. But as she approached three, it seemed like a switch turned off and she became more selective and started whining constantly for sweets. Jane didn’t want to bribe her daughter with dessert but it seemed the only way she could get her to eat vegetables and protein. She felt horrible.

The reason health-conscious parents like Jane struggle is because feeding kids healthy food is only part of what it takes to be successful with feeding. When parents run into feeding challenges it’s not their fault, it’s just they haven’t learned to expect them at each stage of development. For example, Jane had a ton of information on feeding babies but when her daughter became a toddler everything changed and she simply wasn’t prepared.

To help prepare parents we wrote the bible on child nutrition:Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. Our Fearless Feeding strategy helps make feeding kids a source of joy, not fear. This strategy consists of the following three components: what to feed, how to feed and why children act the way they do around food. Let’s take a look.

Clara's favorite foods on

What to Feed

Most parents understand basic nutrition principles but what happens when a kid shuns an entire food group, or won’t eat vegetables? Parents may give multivitamins as insurance but these won’t make up for low calcium, low iron or DHA if they don’t eat fish. In fact, studies show kids taking vitamins may be getting too much of certain nutrients such as folic acid, and not enough of others, like calcium.

In Fearless Feeding, we have charts that show how many food groups children at different ages need, along with alternatives to offer if they don’t eat certain foods. Lastly, we spell out which supplements are best when eating is less than perfect. For example, Lila’s varied fruit intake made up for her low veggie intake. And because she only needed 3 ounces of protein foods (for the whole day!) her mom realized she got enough earlier in the day from the eggs, beans and chicken she ate.

When parents understand how to meet a child’s nutritional needs, it makes it easier for them to be patient as children move towards food acceptance at their own pace.

Build-your-own salad on

How to Feed

Jane’s strategy of using sweets as a reward was having the opposite effect on Lila — making sweets even more desirable and healthy foods a chore. Most parents don’t realize the power their attitudes, actions and timing of meals have on how children eat. Research shows that being too controlling (forcing extra bites, restricting food and bribing with dessert) and being too permissive (catering to children, letting them graze all day and being the “yes” parent) are linked to poor food regulation and worse eating habits in children.

The most effective way to feed children is something in between these two: what researchers call an authoritative feeding style. This means parents set the structure (timing and location of meals) and decide what is served, but children get to control what and how much is eaten. (Ed note: much like this DIY salad bar for kids.)

Feeding is structured around times of hunger and children are encouraged to listen to their own feelings of hunger and satiety. Parents still have high expectations for kids’ eating but they keep mealtime enjoyable and use it as a way to connect with children, rather than a battle zone.

Understanding that children are learning about food, the same way they learn to read, write or drive a car, helps parents create a supportive environment that enhances food learning.

Aimee garden

Why Kids Behave that Way

Whether it’s the infant throwing food, the toddler being picky, the school-age kid coming home wanting what their friend is eating, or the teen experimenting with the latest diet craze, there are developmental reasons children act the way they do around food.

For example, the infant is learning about cause and effect. It sure is interesting to see what happens when they throw that meatball! Picky eating is a rite of passage for most kids starting around age two when growth slows and they become skeptical about food.

And school-age children feel the need to belong, which is why they often want the same foods their friends are eating. Let’s not forget about teens. They are developing their identity and are apt to try a few risky behaviors along the way, which is why a fast weight loss diet entices even the most savvy of teens.

When parents learn to expect challenging food-related behaviors, instead of assuming something is wrong, it helps them respond in thoughtful ways. In Fearless Feeding, we not only teach parents this what to expect aspect of feeding, we provide them with the tools and strategies of how best to take action so they can feel more confident raising healthy and happy eaters.

Fearless Feeding


We have a copy of Maryann’s book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School to give away. Just leave a comment on this post and answer the question below:

**This giveaway is now close. Congratulations to Rita, who is our winner. Rita, you’ve been notified via email. **

What stage of feeding are you in right now and what is your biggest challenge?

About Maryann

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD is a mom of two, registered dietitian, and co-creator of the Fearless Feeding Community in preparation for her first book due out next year. Maryann is also founder and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters and blogs at WebMD's Real Life Nutrition.

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  1. My children are 7 and 11 and my 11 year old refuses to try anything new. She likes very few veggies and fruit. My 7 year old is at least willing to try new foos and will eat a lot more veggies and fruit.

  2. Thanks for your article! I have three children: 11, 9, and 7. My 9 and 7 year old seem to try different foods, but my 11 year old just refuses. Her variety of food is limited and I confess that it drives me a bit crazy. I love eating healthily but I think I’ve developed some counter productive strategies with my kids. And yes, I’ve used dessert as a bribe- as in, if you actually eat what I’m making for dinner, then you can have dessert. If you refuse to eat that dinner, then no dessert. I feel like I’m still struggling here….

  3. La Torontoise says

    Thank you so much! I’m a mother of a 9 years old; he loves beans and 2-3 kinds of veggies, but would not eat spinach, asparaus, salads and all other high-vitamine greens. His favorite friits are raspebires and strawberries.
    I’m happy he is curious about food, loves exploring and tries out new food types.

  4. My 22month old is refusing veggies she once loved and my 3month is just beginning to try food.

  5. I’ve got a 2.5 year old and a 15 month old. The 15 month old generally puts anything in his mouth that is w/in reach – that includes food and non-food related items! The 2.5 year old is what I gather is a pretty classic picky eater. He’s generally fine with his breads/grains, fruit and dairy, but veggies and protein are much harder to get him to eat.

  6. I have three girls – 2, 7 and 9. The 7 year old eats breads and crackers, and almost nothing else. The little one eats yogurts and breads. My eldest eats well, although she still is shy around food that doesn’t fall in the ‘kid’ category. My biggest challenge, besides getting them to eat veggies, is encouraging their dad too as well. I can model the eating behaviors I want my kids to have, but I think his eating behaviors are more appealing to them >__<;;;