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A mealtime should be a happy ritual in which parents and children relax together to enjoy the comfort of good food. Teaching healthy eating behaviors involves parents knowing which aspects of eating they should control and which ones their child should control.

Many parents would agree feeding young children healthfully is a challenge. From older infancy and beyond, your child will seek to establish independence and a sense of self. Learning about foods, food preferences, and eating behavior are important aspects of your child’s physical and emotional development.

Setting Boundaries

It may seem children are born to test boundaries set by parents. However, research shows that children function best when parents are consistent and set reasonable limits that are developmentally appropriate for their children.

It's your job as a parent to decide when each meal and snack will be.Children normally need to eat about every 2-4 hours during the day. If your child is in the habit of eating or drinking every hour or so (grazing), sticking to set meal and snack times may take some getting use to.

You can help your child by providing structure around mealtimes and offering a variety of foods while allowing your child to determine how much to eat at any given time. You should expect your child to sit at the table or high chair for meals and snacks, and not to be distracted by other activities.

You child will learn to wait for a meal if timing is consistent. Your child will eat better in the long run when he has security in knowing when meals are and is hungry for them. And for you, it is reassuring to know that if your child refuses to eat at a specified mealtime, another opportunity to eat is just around the corner.

Food Choices

Encouraging a child to eat a wide variety of foods can take a lot of perseverance. In order for your child to learn to eat a healthy and varied diet, you should offer nutritious foods repeatedly.

It is normal for children to refuse some new foods. In fact, research shows it may take offering a new food eight to 12 times before your child wants to eat that food on his own.

Given this, it is wise to offer at least one favorite food with a new food. This way, your child is likely to eat at least part of the meal while exploring the smell, taste, and texture of the new food.


To foster self-regulation, it is important for your child to be in control of how much he eats at a meal or snack — or whether he eats at all. This way, your child will learn to recognize and respond to hunger and fullness cues without external pressures like coaxing, bargaining, or restrictions.

Part of learning self-regulation usually involves mistakes by your child. A tantrum at mealtime may result in refusal of part or all of that meal. When hunger sets in shortly after however, your child is less likely to act up at future meals and the next meal or snack will probably be well received.

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do be a role model: Your eating habits are an important aspect of teaching your child what and how much to eat. Send the right message by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, serving appropriate portions, and not overindulging in less nutritious foods.
  • Do involve your child: Planning and cooking meals together with your child can be a fun opportunity to teach him about nutrition. When you shop, have your child look at food nutrition labels to help make healthier choices. When you cook, have your child figure out how to fix balanced meals and assign age-appropriate tasks for him to do when preparing food.
  • Don’t force your child to clean his plate: Forcing a child to eat when he’s not hungry teaches him to eat when he’s full.
  • Don’t bribe or reward with food: You should never use food as a bargaining chip for good or bad behavior.
  • Don’t use food to show love: A hug, spending time together, and praise are the most powerful ways to show your child how much you love him.