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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

How to get your child to eat

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

For your child to eat well, you must present him with the same foods, again and again, in a non-pressured and matter-of-fact way. That only happens at mealtime. Eat with your child and share the same food, don’t just feed him. Keep mealtimes pleasant by following the division of responsibility in feeding. You do the what, when, and where of feeding; your child the how much and whether of eating.

Parents can be desperate about children’s eating

Three-year-old Oscar’s parents are convinced that his eating will protect him from calamity, although they aren’t sure what that calamity is. Oscar eats just a few foods and rejects others on sight. Oscar’s parents are experts in positive pressure: rewards: high fives, applause, and occupational-therapist type coaching (touching food with fingers, touching with the tongue, tasting). They once tried withholding his favorite foods, but for a week everyone left the table in tears and Oscar still didn’t eat anything new. What to do instead?

Be considerate without catering with meal-planning

Parents are entitled to serve foods that they enjoy. They can also sneak up on new food and learn to like it, just like their children do.

Only in the context of the day-in-day-out of family meals will children be presented matter-of-factly with the same foods again and again. Parents get to prepare the foods they like; children learn to like foods parents eat. Don’t try to please every eater with every food at every meal.

  • Settle for providing each eater with one or two foods (milk can be one) they generally enjoy at each meal. Make this a side dish that everyone shares, such as bread, pasta, fruit, etc.
  • Pair unfamiliar with familiar food, eaten with not-yet-eaten.
  • Settle for one main dish. Don’t offer an alternate, such as pizza, hot dogs, or chicken nuggets (unless that is the family menu).  Don’t keep cereal or peanut butter on the table.
  • Include high-fat foods (butter, salad dressing, gravy). To get filled up, people with high calorie needs eat more fat, those with low calorie needs eat less.
  • Avoid pressure, Pressure, even cheery pressure or rewards, slows or prevents that learning.2 

Include foods you enjoy 

For some children – and grownups – some foods taste bitter, and take a lot of learning to enjoy.3 Parents who don’t enjoy a food pressure their children to eat it and children don’t eat it. Parents who enjoy a food eat it, don’t pressure, and children eat it.4 Parents are entitled to respect their own food preferences and serve foods that they enjoy. Parents whose list of food they enjoy is very short can sneak up on new food and learn to like it, just like their children do.5 But they mustn’t foist it on their children – or on themselves.

The cook’s job is done when the meal ready 

The cook’s job is done when the meal goes on the table. After that, it is up to the eaters. A telephone survey of almost 200 parents found that the second greatest barrier to family meals, after not having enough time to cook, was children’s picky eating. Almost half avoided introducing new foods because they anticipated the child wouldn’t eat them.6 Some parents gave up on meals altogether because feeding their child is such a hassle. The impossible dream of pleasing every eater with every food at every meal has been the downfall of many family cooks.



1. United States Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. 2005; accessed August 15, 2005. Web Page. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/default.htm.

2. Birch LL. Development of food acceptance patterns. Developmental Psychology. 1990;26(4):515-519.

3. Turnbull B, Matisoo-Smith E. Taste sensitivity to 6-n-propylthiouracil predicts acceptance of bitter-tasting spinach in 3-6-y-old children. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76:1101-1105.

4. Fisher JO, Mitchell DC, Smiciklas-Wright H, Birch LL. Parental influences on young girls’ fruit and vegetable, micronutrient, and fat intakes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2002;1025:58-64.

5. Satter EM; Learning about new food. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 1999:186.

6. CMU Public Broadcasting, Michigan Nutrition Network. Healthy Weight in Preschool Children a Project of Central Michigan University Public Television, Mt. Pleasant MI. 2005.



Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family says the secret of raising a healthy eater is to love good food, enjoy eating, and share that love and enjoyment with your child. When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers. 

Family Meals Focus ~ No. 19


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