How Not to Worry over Your Child’s Every Bite

An email showed up in my inbox recently from an old friend worried about her four-year-old child’s fixation on food.

It read:

“My daughter eats a good diet, but has an obsession or interest in food that I don’t think is necessarily normal.  She is the kid who will hang out at a snack table at a party because she just likes food, but doesn’t moderate well. I am concerned with lifetime habits and wonder why food is her trigger. She’s young, it may all resolve itself, but I’m concerned.”

Her sentiments were familiar. I had similar worries not so long ago about about one of my own children who was especially interested in eating. As a baby, she’d burst into tears when she’d get to the bottom of her food bowl, as if to say, “you mean it’s over?” And as a toddler I once found her holed up in a closet greedily working her way through her sister’s Easter Basket, happy as a clam.

Part of me went straight to a place of panic with visions of a lifetime of closeted overeating. But my calmer self recognized  this as a perfectly innocent child who had simply discovered the delight of food, and in the latter case, the wonder of chocolate.

The fact is, there is a range of “normal” when it comes to eating. Some children are happiest sitting at the table over a bowl of mashed bananas while others find staring down a dinner plate nothing short of torture.

Wherever your child falls on the spectrum — whether they are fascinated with food or afraid of it — what’s most important is the way in which you respond. If you panic over every bite, they will absorb that anxiety like a sponge. Allowing feeding fears to develop into dinner table battles is not where any of us want to be.  I recognize that for some families, mealtime challenges are significant and can’t always be solved with a few simple guidelines. But, in the interest of our kids, I thought I’d share with you the advice I shared with my old friend. Consider it a bit of food for thought that may help get things moving in the right direction.

1. Get Clear on Who Does What — Consider it your job as the parent to decide what is served for meals and your child’s job to decide what and how much they’re going to eat. Translation: you put the chicken, green salad, and broccoli on the table at six p.m., your child chooses what goes on his plate and how much of it he is hungry for.  There is room within this approach for nuance. Perhaps you have a child that needs to be reminded to consider a new food or one who can be encouraged to slow down so his brain can catch up to his tummy.

2. Don’t Let them see you Sweat — Working yourself into a lather over how much or how little your child is eating can breed anxiety and lead to dinner table battles that you don’t want to wage. Try to stay calm and measured around feeding issues. This process is a marathon, not a sprint, so focus on the long term goal of raising a child who will be drawn to wholesome food by adulthood, not one who isn’t eating her spinach at dinner.

4. Be a Role Model — Let your child witness your own healthy behaviors: enjoying food, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you have had enough. It goes a long way towards helping them develop good eating habits.

5. Pay Attention to your own Baggage — Whether you were the kid who was forced to finish every last pea or the one who struggled with weight, it’s important to be mindful of your own triggers around eating and not lay those onto your offspring.

3. Get Help — If you are worrying, check in with your child’s doctor, seek the counsel of a pediatric dietitian, or pick up a copy of a good resource such as Fearless Feeding or How to get your Kid to Eat, but not too Much for some advice and insight.

As for my own child, she still loves food . With age and maturity, she has learned to pay attention to her appetite, eating when she is hungry and stopping when she has had enough.  The “Easter Basket Incident “was the one and only time I found her holed up with a storehouse of chocolate.

As for her mother, well, that’s a different story.


05.20.2013 at6:40 AM #

meg hart

Thanks Katie, you handle this serious topic with intelligence and an appropriate levity. Well done!

05.20.2013 at6:40 AM #

Katie Morford

Appreciate that Meg. I think most parents struggle with feeding at some point, and it can be really difficult.

05.20.2013 at6:51 AM #


Thanks for this, my daughter is in the middle of this stage at four and a half. It’s so hard not to panic and freak out. Breath, one day at a time. One meal at a time.

05.20.2013 at6:51 AM #

Katie Morford

Exactly. Easier said than done sometimes, though.

05.20.2013 at4:17 PM #

Nicole Sommerfeld

Hi Katie, thanks for summary! Also important to make sure that for the child’s sake that both parents/grandparents/care givers etc. are on the same page with reference to these great points you make. I will be sharing this around.

05.20.2013 at4:17 PM #

Katie Morford

Good point, Nicole, especially if grandparents are heavily involved. Less confusing for the child.

05.20.2013 at4:53 PM #


I love the idea of letting kids choose how much to eat yet we have hit a snag. Our 3.5 year old won’t eat lunch and then hounds us for snacks the rest of the day because she is starving. We’ve taken to insisting that she eats at meal time but really wish she could make the connection between not eating and being hungry.

We have snacks at specific times of day now and there is no spontaneity because of the begging for snacks. She does eat well when she eats and we have a good well rounded gluten free (we both have celiacs) diet and our snacks are things like apples and almonds so it’s not like she doesn’t want real food and only wants junk.

Any thoughts on how to handle it when you can’t be as laid back as you’d like to be? She needs to eat at meal times and I have no desire to make her clean her plate or spoon feed her.

05.20.2013 at4:53 PM #

Katie Morford

Hi Laura

From what you’ve shared, it sounds like you are completely on the right track. My instinct is that if you can keep your cool and stay the course, your little one will figure this all out. One thought is perhaps her morning snack is more than she needs so she’s not hungry by lunch? Too much juice or other drinks in between meals can also interfere with hunger. When she comes to you soon after lunch and says, “I’m hungry.” You can remind her that she’s probably hungry because she didn’t eat lunch. Then, tell her when snack time will be and give her a good snack when the time arrives (which it sounds like you are doing). There is room for some flexibility here. If meal or snack times need adjusting based on your child’s natural rhythm, that’s okay. Some of this may also be a three year old trying to take some control….she wants to decide when eating happens. Hope that helps. I really do recommend the new Fearless Feeding book. It’s a gem.


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