The Best Tactics for Teaching Your Child to Eat Well

A new study looked at different tactics used by parents to get their children to eat well, and determined which were most effective. Cleaning your plate turns out not to be the best idea.

Parents looking to promote a healthy diet for their children face a set of unique challenges. What steps can parents take to promote healthy eating from kids? This difficult question is the subject of a recent study from Australia, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The study examined 133 children from 86 families. It measured the eating habits of the children at baseline and then again after an intervention of education and dietary coaching for the parents. Parents logged what tactics they chose to use and researchers compared the results of each method.

What tactics improved a child’s diet? First, parents who perceived a direct responsibility for their child’s diet enacted the most positive change. Without taking responsibility for the food served to their children, little positive change was possible. Next, role modeling was particularly important. Children sought to model their parents, even in eating habits. Making food more available while simultaneously restricting access to bad foods was also important. Finally, greater nutritional knowledge in parents resulted in better eating in children.

Some parental behavior also promoted poor eating. Restricting access to food seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect, as children consumed fewer healthy foods in greater quantities whenever restrictions were lifted. Also, pressuring children to eat resulted in overeating.

This study gives parents some practical tools to promote healthy eating. Most of the tools are intuitive: take responsibility, educate yourself, and restrict access to bad foods. But some aren’t so intuitive. The age old mantra of “clean your plate” may do more harm than good. Making food available to children at all times rather than just specified meals may also be beneficial.

One caveat with this study: It defined “healthy eating” as lowering saturated fat intake from dairy products. Most strength and conditioning professionals no longer subscribe to the “saturated fat is always bad” fallacy. But however misguided the specifics of the study, the parenting tools it examined would be equally applicable to any dietary change. Parents can start their children on the right dietary path by implementing some of these simple tactics. Unfortunately, simple does not always mean easy.


1. Gilly Hendrie, et. al. Change in the family food environment is associated with positive dietary change in children. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2013. 10:4. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-4

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