A lot of times parents try strategies that fail—even ones I have suggested. (Say it isn’t so!)

If I ask my son to have one happy bite of something and he refuses to the point of tears, do I press it until he gives in/force it or just try again the next meal?  —Kendra  Read The Happy Bite.

But what if, when you ask him to work on a little more of his dinner, he still doesn’t eat the peas and asks again for seconds of pasta. Does he get it? —Sally  Read How to Serve Seconds Without Hurting Your Kids’ Habits.)

Attacking an individual eating issue head-on usually doesn’t work, at least not in the long run.  It’s like applying a bandaid to cure a disease: it’s a topical solution to a systemic problem.  (And you need a different solution for every problem. It’s enough to drive you nuts.)

You need to change the system to change your kids’ habits.

The way to solve pretty much any eating issue is to set up a strong feeding/eating structure.

I wish I had a magic bullet answer—Do this and your kids will eat peas! Try new foods! Turn into foodies!—but I don’t.  And that is because:

Eating problems never start where you see them, and they’re never isolated issues.  

Solving an eating problem is like fixing a water leak. The source could be anywhere. And the water shifts as you plug up its path!  (Bandaids? Water? Sorry for so many similes.)

To fix an eating issue for the long run you’ve got to fix the structure (or the system).  In other words, you’ve got to start fixing dinner problems at breakfast. Everything is related.

Think of structure as a set of rules (or patterns) that shape how you and your kids interact around eating.

I know the word rule sounds bad, and I apologize if it makes you bristle. But every family already has a set of unpoken rules that shape eating behavior.

Go a few rounds with your kids before fixing them their favorites? The rule your family is living by: everyone eats what they want (but sometimes you have to fight for it first).

I hate to be the one to say this but…

Children eat the way they’ve been taught to eat.

That’s not to say that your children don’t come to the table with their own issues.  They do. And some kids can be particularly challenging to teach. But if you can recite the routine, your kids can too.

If you want to change the way your kids eat you’ve got to change the way you interact with them around food.

Put this structure into place regardless of your issue.

Even if you can’t see how it’ll help.  It will.

1) Serve different foods from day-to-day for every meal and snack. (Structure for What to serve.)

I cannot emphasis the importance of rotating foods on a regular basis for increasing your kids’ food acceptance, and for shaping their attitudes towards eating. If you can also mix things up so fruits and vegetables are offered more frequently, that’s a bonus.

Read House Building 101 and Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day.

2) Establish a regular routine for the timing of meals and snacks. Eliminate grazing and eating on demand. (Structure for When to serve.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be responsive to your child’s hunger. By all means, adapt the timing of meals and snacks a little here and a little there. But kids have got to come to the table ready to eat (both physically and emotionally) in order to eat what you offer—when you offer it.

3) Build compromises into the structure.  Don’t wing it.  (Structure for How to serve.)

This is the most complicated part of the plan, and so it’s the most difficult component to discuss succinctly, but it’s probably also the most important.  Structured compromises:

  • Eliminate the power struggle.
  • Stop your structure from being rigid.
  • Prevent the structure from crumbling.

With structured compromises everyone know their role and everyone knows their limits.

Conversely, compromises that come willy-nilly encourage your kids to be combative. (With enough effort they might just win!)

Here are some structured compromises:

  • Let your children choose food items from within the rotation: Would you like apple or banana?
  • Pick a standard method for dealing with regular rejection.  Read How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life .
  • Empower (instead of enable) reluctant eaters.  Read When Less is More.
  • Introduce new foods in a way that doesn’t invite rebellion. 

4) Make sure your lessons are hitting home.

  1. Talk to your children about the structure.  Most parents keep the game plan a secret.
  2. Then make sure your kids are learning the lessons you intend.  
  3. Finally, respond to your kids’ resistence by returning to the structure.

Many parents mistakenly believe that the opposite of pressure is leniency. It’s not. The opposite of pressure is STRUCTURE.

Don’t set up a confrontation.  A strong structure will resolve your eating problems:

  • Parents and kids both know what to expect when it comes to eating.
  • Structure transfers discussion from the food to the behavior.  When the structure is successful, it eliminates discussion about eating entirely.

Structure acts like the walls of your house: it keeps everything standing.

Sounds unbelievable, I know. But it’s true.  When a strategy fails, go back and shore up the structure. It’s the only sure-fire way to succeed.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~