The Secret To Ending Mealtime Battles


Learn the secrets to ending mealtime battles by focusing on the HOW of feeding rather than the WHAT.

Has dinner become a battlefield at your house? Do you dread sitting down at the table, despite having prepared a great meal because you expect a combat scenario getting your children to eat it?

You may think that because Lesley and Ann are dietitians, their  kids eat perfectly. Let us assure you that this is NOT the case at all. Their  kids are the same as yours…one week they like something, the next week they don’t. Or how about the scenario where they refuse to eat a food at your house but come to find out, they eat that same food at their friend’s house! Mind-boggling, right?

If you are tired of the constant tug-of-war at mealtime then keep reading to discover that raising a healthy eater has less to do with the food and more to do with how  we are feeding our kids.

Find balance between the perfect world and not so perfect world.

What, How, and Why

I can still hear my mom say, “You are not getting any dessert unless you eat everything on your plate” or, “If you don’t eat your peas you don’t get anything else to eat.” But, are they just empty threats? If they don’t finish what is on their plate and then an hour after dinner are begging for dessert and you are just too tired for the fight so you just give in. We have all been there.

But, we do know that this is probably not the lesson you want because your child may end up hating the food that is being forced upon them. And even more problematic is that this kind of pressure to eat or “clean your plate” teaches your child to keep eating when they are full and to ignore his or her’s own body cues for fullness. This leads to overeating later in life and potentially weight problems down the road. 

The questions to focus on are:

  • What do I feed my child?
  • How do I approach feeding them?
  • Why does my child behave the way they do?

This is where we start to talk about “trust based feeding,” a concept our colleagues,  Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen  discuss in their  book, Fearless Feeding

Trust based feeding is when we help our children learn to trust their ability to regulate their own appetite and develop a healthy and positive outlook on food.

Well, how do we do that is your next question?

Believe it or not, kids know how to eat all by themselves – and I don’t mean with prompting, pressuring, bribes, or rewards involved. Children are born with the ability to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. I know it’s hard. But, as parents, we have to trust and respect our child’s instincts and learn to honor it.

I know what you are thinking: “My child eats well when I tell him he gets dessert if he finishes his plate!” Or maybe it is some other reward like a sticker.  So who is really winning the battle? Why can’t mealtime just be a win-win?

In feeding, both parents and children have specific jobs. Ellyn Satter talks about the Division of Responsibility. In short, the parent provides and the child decides if to eat and how much. See more in the chart below.

Division of Responsibility

Parent Jobs:


  • Decide what is served at meal and snack – nutrition is important and you are in charge of it.
  • Serve a variety of foods, tastes and textures.
  • Give your child new experiences with food along with foods they like and are likely to eat. This means make sure there is at least on type of food on the table that your child likes.


  • Create structured meals and snacks at regular intervals to teach children limits and that “snacking” all day at random intervals is not appropriate.
  • Decide how many meals and snacks to offer.


  • Sit together as a family. This improves healthy eating because you are the most important role model of what healthy eating looks like.
  • Sit at a table to help your child focus on their food instead of distractions, such as the TV or computer.


Child Jobs with Parental Support:


  • Do not force them to eat. You know by now, your child will refuse to eat at times, and that is okay! They will not starve!
  • Instead of trying to get your child to eat more, remind them when is the next meal.
  • Stick to your normal mealtime schedule and structure even if they are not eating the amount you think they should eat.

How much

  • Let your child determine how much. This builds trust around food and allows them to listen to their hunger and fullness cues.


In Lesley’s house, she has a concept called “Tries”. Every night, each child will have a “try” on their plate which is probably something they have not had before OR it is something they have had before and did not like the first, second, third, etc. time. Her kids all know that trying something 15-20 times is the magic number to help them start to like it. And, she makes it fun. If they make a funny “I don’t like this” face, they have to take another bite. The kids laugh every time and they watch each other to see what the other ones do.

In a follow-up post, Ann will discuss what happens at her house, especially since her husband and she are not always on the same page when it comes to the “how” of feeding. 

[bctt tweet=”Learn the secret to ending mealtime battles by focusing on the HOW of feeding, not the WHAT” username=”MyMenuPal”]

Additional Resources on Feeding Children: 

Fearless Feeding written by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen addresses:

  • Picky eating
  • Understanding a child’s eating habits
  • Understanding the development of your child and how it relates to feeding
  • Concerns about weight problems, eating disorders, food allergies
  • Food balance and a nourishing diet
  • What about “sweets”?

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter is a great book for more information on the Division of Responsibility in feeding and family meals.

Your Child’s Weight; Helping without Harming by Ellyn Satter offering guidance to help your child grow into a healthy weight for them.

Learn the secrets to ending mealtime battles by focusing on the HOW of feeding rather than the WHAT.

Kristin Althoff, Southern Regional Medical Center Dietetic Intern, contributed to this post. Kristin was born and raised in Wyoming. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Wyoming. Kristin also got her minor in Painting and loves to make art and jewelry. Kristin loves to travel, but her favorite place to be is in the mountains. Kristin believes to live well is to eat well.


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