Making Room for Healthy Changes: Getting Kids to Eat


Getting Kids to Eat Real Food
Cutting apples from the back yard to make apple sauce

Do you want to hear a confession? The first 6 months of 2012 my kids didn’t eat balanced diets or full meals. Previously, they had always been great eaters, and I’d just shrug my shoulders and say they loved to eat and they didn’t really know anything other than Nourishing Traditions/GAPS food.

But a series of changes happened in late 2012 that lead to them learning to talk (and being more difficult to redirect because of it), other people watching them more often so they quickly figured out that there was more to life than the way mama did it, a mama who may-or-may-not-have started using food as a bribe more often, and a cookbook that lead us to eat whatever we happened to cook to take pictures of that day, whenever we happened to cook it.

But before this my kids were good eaters. I had a general idea about how I could get them back to being great eaters, but it took reading French Kids Eat Everything gave me a good push back in the right direction.

This Making Room For Healthy Changes post is the start of a series of posts to help you make room in your time, budget, and more importantly cluttered mind, to make the healthy changes that you’ve been meaning to make.  Your goals will vary- they can be anything as daunting as doing the GAPS Intro or as simple as using a few more natural remedies and finding a source of local grassfed beef.

Getting Kids To Eat is part of this series because when kids aren’t eating, too much time and energy is spent thinking about it and trying to fix it on a day-to-day basis.

I hear about the struggle to get kids to eat with just about every mother I know.  It seems to be something on the mind of most mothers of young children, and here is what I’ve learned works for us, with some more tips learned from French Kids Eat Everything.

Don’t use food as a substitute for parenting

Yes. I have been guilty of this my entire time as a parent, so no judgement here.  From the time they were mobile, I would have my ready-to-play babies nurse until a time I deemed reasonable to get up (nothing crazy, this was usually 6 or 7:00).  This transitioned into cereal (and once we were on GAPS, blueberries) in the grocery store, cups with juice in the car, and other sweets or nuts whenever I was on the phone or finishing something up for work.

This idea of not using food to substitute for parenting is all well and good, but at the beginning it seems like an uphill battle. The structure outlined below allows me to actually stick to this idea.

I still do what I consider to be bribes (see Don’t Say No below), but they’re not the immediate gratification of getting a favored food while Mom finishes up a phone conversation that so quickly can escalate to struggles about food

Set Times for Meals and Snacks

When we get up sets the rest of the day’s meal and snacking schedule. We usually are up at 6, breakfast is at 6:30, lunch at 11, dinner at 5.  If we’re having guests for dinner we’ll do a snack at 3 or so and then dinner at 6 or whenever works for our guests.  We’ll also include a mid morning snack if we’re meeting a friend for lunch at 1 or 2.

But if we stick to our meals every 5-6 hours we don’t need snacks.  This is a radical idea in America, but the book French Kids Eat Everything explains that our ‘hunger’ is actually a symptom of our body expecting food. So if you’re used to snacking, you might ‘feel hungry’ every hour, but your body can be programmed to expect food less often*.


Balanced Meals

Balanced meals take the guesswork out of knowing if your child has ‘had enough to eat’. Simply choose a fat, carb (optional, but most families will unless there are special circumstances), vegetable, and protein and you don’t have to worry any more.  I’ve gotten in the habit of just presenting them with the options and a small serving of each, and I know that I am providing three balanced nutrient dense meals a day for my children.

For meal suggestions, see my grain free meal plans– I get excited emails from mothers all the time to tell me how much more enjoyable their family meals are now that they can just tell their children to look at the menu- no arguments, and they see when favorite dishes are going to be served next as well.

Serve Meals in Courses

I don’t always do this, but if my kids have made a habit of avoiding a certain food (it’s usually protein for my daughter and vegetables for my son) I’ll simply serve that food first.  I don’t stress if they don’t eat their food, but serving meals in courses can be a gentle encouragement to get hungry kids to eat food that isn’t their favorites.

I generally do not have an attitude of ‘eat this, then you can have that’ unless it’s a defiance issue, I prefer to keep mealtime pleasant and avoid negotiations of any kind.

Keep Meal Conversations Pleasant and Corrections Matter-of-Fact

The modern American culture has a somewhat stressful attitude about food, and I’m doing my best to keep stress away and mealtimes pleasant.  For us that means encouragement and positive statements.  I work to not say anything bad about food, but rather point out the good things in what we are eating (or what I would like them to eat); “Carrots and peas have lots of vitamins that help your body run smoothly” “Chicken has protein to build big strong muscles” “Butter is yummy and helps you feel full and give you nutrients and energy”

I also try to gently nudge improvement in table manners; I’ve seen parenting specialists refer to this as  ‘stretch, but don’t push’ – I will stretch what they are capable of to encourage table manners and polite behavior, but I don’t push to the point of exasperation for either them or me.

Don’t Say No

… if you can help it.  When my children ask for things (apples, oatmeal, yogurt, cake, cookies) I say yes. Yes, you can have an apple at your afternoon snack; yes, you can have oatmeal** Tuesday morning; yes, you can have yogurt after dinner; yes, we can make cake or cookies this weekend.  When said with a smile and enthusiasm it’s easier to accept- “Yes! That’s a great idea, let’s have that kind of cake Sunday when Uncle Grant visits!”

How This Helps Our Family

Even though I enjoy cooking, and I run a food blog, I actually don’t prefer to have food take up an undue amount of time and energy in our lives.  I’m really an eat to live, not live to eat type person and don’t particularly consider myself a foodie.

When mealtimes are relaxed, pleasant, and children actually eat their fill at them it allows us to spend the rest of the day doing fun activities without having to fix snacks, clean up food mess, or be chained to the kitchen.  Seeing meal prep as an enjoyable family activity also goes a long way to getting the children to eat happily.

Since reading French Kids Eat Everything, I’ve banned food from the car unless we’re on a long road trip, and my car stays crumb free.  We can travel to appointments, visit friends’ houses, go swimming or hiking, and get involved in homeschool projects without having to pack along food- this is SO freeing and has made going out with the kids so much more enjoyable.


*A Note on Hypoglycemia

I used to be hypoglycemic, if I didn’t eat when my body expected food (every 2-3 hours, and right as soon as I woke up) I would pass out.  It majorly impacted my life; I couldn’t even shower before eating in the morning without passing out.  This lessened once I used more fats in my diet, but really didn’t completely go away until I ran through the GAPS intro and forced my body to figure out how to switch over to burning fat for energy.  I can easily skip meals now, not that that’s a goal, but it’s nice to be able to live life without having to have food available all the time.

** No, oatmeal is not allowed on GAPS, see how we ended our GAPS journey here.

*** I feed my infants on demand, then at a year they started eating 3 meals a day with me and nursing gradually less. I think they would nurse about 3 times a day and then on demand at night, and then I night weaned my children at 2 and 2-1/2. I stopped demand nursing around 12-14 months as they were eating a substantial amount of solid food.

**** When starting GAPS, especially intro GAPS, you and your children may legitimately be more hungry. My little one ate like crazy for about 6 weeks and then calmed down, this post is more about kids who just pick at their food and don’t ever eat substantial meals, not about those who are legitimately hungry.

I know this is a kind of ‘radical’ idea for modern America, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and experiences down below in the comment section.  

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  1. says

    Love it! I have instituted a no snacks in the morning and one snack at 4pm rule here. We eat breakfast much later than you do and the stretch between lunch and dinner tends to be a long one so a snack at 4 seems to help. They very quickly stopped asking for snacks. It is only hard when we are away from home and everyone else is snacking. Then they want one too so I tend to pack something really small for those times so that they can participate in the social aspect of it but their bodies don’t get used to a large serving of food at those times (and they will then eat the meal that is coming up next).
    I discovered that when I fed my kids enough fat and protein for breakfast they wouldn’t even ask for snacks. My kids can really put away a lot though. My 8 year old can eat 4 eggs and 4 slices of thick cut bacon at a sitting when she is really hungry. I also eat that much for breakfast every day and often skip lunch or eat a very light lunch. I’m just not hungry and trying to teach my body to not expect food all the time. It is healthier for me too. :)

  2. Jennifer says

    I think this sounds great. I just wish I knew how to get my 8 year old son to eat. He likes carrots (cold only – and it’s the only vege he’ll eat), apples & grapes (the only fruits he’ll eat), & *occasionally* brown organic rice. He’ll eat dairy foods & meat IF he’s in the mood, and he likes bread (I do homemade whole wheat fresh ground with natural homemade yeast when possible). I’ve honestly tried everything. EVERYTHING. Every tactic, every bribe, every idea, etc… Even consistency doesn’t work. He shows slight signs of every single symptom of Asperger’s syndrome there is, & he’s SUPER sensitive to texture, taste, & noise. So I don’t know if that has something to do with it or not. If I were to even attempt gaps diet, he would literally eat almost nothing. He would literally rather starve himself than eat most foods. I’m so lost. I’ve spent many tears & nights on my knees praying for help. We’ve received answers to a lot of things concerning our health & nutrition this past year, but this is not one of them. At least yet. Maybe some day…..

    • Cara says

      Hi Jennifer, that’s a great question that I get all the time, I’m going to try to do another post this week on it, yes, it’s much more difficult with kids with sensory issues.

    • says

      You need to read the book “The Fabric of Autism.” The eating issues often stem from the trigeminal nerve being very sensitive, as well as the inner ear. It’s an amazing book, and I also saw a HANDLE practitioner in our state, and I’m doing some activities with my son daily. You can get more info on

    • liz says

      Hey Jennifer! Several of my friends have children who have struggled with the same thing! They were both referred to a feeding therapist, and it has helped tremendously! One of the kiddos had a physical problem solving and has seen a feeding therapist weekly to strengthen her tongue and throat muscles. It might be worthwhile checking into!

    • Laura says

      Hi Jennifer. I just realized your post is old but I’ll respond anyway just in case it helps you or someone else. My child doesn’t have Asperger’s but has Down Syndrome and we are about to start a parent training video by neurodevelopmentalists (and a team of others??) for parents of children with hurt brains (all kinds). In the intro video I watched they talked a lot about autism spectrum and sensory issues. I remember him talking about smelling 5 things 5 times a day for 5 days (and the child starts eating those foods happily, something like that). Anyway, it’s called Your Thriving Child and it’s by The Family Hope Center (director Matthew Newell). They are in PA (?) and, if you can afford it, hold a 3 day conference and then you can have your child evaluated and start a more specific program for your child. The whole team of drs and neuro therapists and ?? meet and tell you what YOU can do to help your child. It sounds incredible and I think I’ll being using some of this for my typical children also (one has started army crawling to build a certain part of her brain). We were seriously trying to figure out a way to raise money to do the conference when we found out they had it on dvd. We won’t get the evaluation for now but may see a local neurodevelopmentalist. They say parents come to them frustrated and feeling very hopeless after trying so many different therapies and finally hear about them. Their website has a lot of video testimonies interviewing families about their experience. So many saw results in days or weeks. Anyway, great post Cara! I kinda got off topic but I’m so excited about neurodevelopment therapy!

  3. Jennifer says

    I, personally, have nursed my children on demand and believe it to be important in their development of self regulation. Just as I believe it to be important, I have continued to let them self regulate with regards to food. Yes we, have meal times, but if they are hungry they are allowed to eat. We don’t have anything they shouldn’t eat, therefore, they can eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. I don’t make special meals and they pretty much never object to what we eating. I don’t feel a lot of stress about food, at least at this point, because I do believe that their bodies will tell them what they need and have allowed to them to trust what their body needs. As well, i have nursed them full term and know that if they were missing something that it will be allright as they are nursing. Sometimes, when I know my daughter has eaten a few pieces of fruit and isn’t satiated I suggest some foods with protein and fat and she picks one. My kids are only almost 5 and 2 , so I know that there could be harder times…but,so far this has really worked for us,

  4. says

    I just finished reading this book. It’s awesome. I also bought my own copy of “Bringing up Bebe” after checking it out from the library. She has the same suggestions about food, and many other ideas that the French use for child raising that I think would be very useful for North Americans. Glad to hear it’s working for you. My kids are older, but I’d like to try a version of this.

  5. Anne-Marie says

    Hi there. I’m a French mom who nursed on demand until my daughter was 2 (which is very un-French!) and who put her on GAPS 6 months ago (also very un-French – going carb-free is considered madness here). I didn’t read the book but I’ve heard the author on the radio debating French and US habits. I do agree about the “No snacks” rule, it’s quite standard here. And I think once you start bribing and giving sugary snacks to babies, then it’s the open door to fussiness at toddlerhood. However not everybody is as strict as that in France, there’s plenty of fussy kids here too (mine was a bit before GAPS) – childrearing is definitely a bit too strict here I think, and parents/paediatricians would benefit from relaxing a bit. But food-wise, it is true that mealtimes and homemade food is key – another difference I can think of here is nursery meals, they’re sooo healthy and balanced. You won’t see anything unhealthy, and no snacks. Same at school later. So even if the families aren’t eating healthy at home, the kids will learn basic rules from a very young age at nursery and overcome their fussiness, which is great.

    • MG Misanthrope says

      I remember the 4pm snack at my school in SW France was baguette with sweetened condensed milk spread on it. At my high school in Brittany, after-school snack was always crepes with Nutella. All of the lunches were fantastic and varied, though. That was the first (and last ;-) time I ever had beef tongue… there was one vegetarian girl in our school and her eating habits were considered VERY strange, almost unfathomable to everyone else.

  6. Rachel says

    I so agree with this. We do basically the same thing and it works well. We have meals at 7:30, 11:30, and 5:30, with a small snack at three. I do have apples available if someone really thinks they need something, or they can drink whole raw milk.

  7. Hannah says

    Interesting! I’m not sure I could go 5 hours without food myself (at least not in the past 5+ years of being pregnant and/or nursing, often both) and enjoy snacks, so everyone snacks. I can see the appeal of not having to prepare and clean up as many times though!
    But as the kids get older (like, 3-4 years old) I do encourage them to actually finish their breakfast so they’re not hungry 2 hours later, etc.
    I’m thankful that my kids so far have not been picky eaters like I was as a kid (even though my parents offered a variety of healthy foods). They get excited about “vunch-tables” and have eaten snails :).

  8. Nancy says

    YES! In the last year, I finally got rid of morning snack for my recently turned 9 year old daughter. She is up between 7am and 7:30am. She gets a prescription probiotic that needs to be mixed into a few spoonfulls of applesauce (we are dairy free). And an hour later, around 8:30am is breakfast, usually consisting of 2 sunny side up eggs made in coconut oil (can’t even do ghee). I also offer her veggies, if she wants, to get the carbs. And sometimes “pancakes” either made with squash, squash and nutbutter, or for a treat banana pancakes made with banana/egg and sometimes nutbutter when I have enough on hand. We have recently found a farmer that makes pastured sausages with NO junk!!! So sometimes breakfast is the breakfast sausage and one of the pancakes varieties mentioned. Sometimes we do mini frittatas in a muffin tin. There is also a farmer that sometimes has pastured bacon available (made with raw honey and sea salt) and I recently found a brand of bacon at the store that is “Paleo” made with just honey and sea salt (although the meat isn’t “as good” as the direct from the farm stuff). However, she would also often just pick at her breakfast, more than likely waiting for snack time that would be coming around the corner.

    There used to be a mid morning snack in there, and my daughter would then barely eat lunch (usually some time between noon and 1pm). But then an hour or two later be “starving” again and want more snacks.

    I finally realized that I needed to get rid of the morning snack. After a couple of weeks of “testing” me with it and complaining, she got used to no morning snack. She usually eats a great lunch now. Breakfast is often better because she knows that there will be no snack and that is her chance to eat!

    Funny thing is she still eats the same amount of snack items, with her afternoon snack just being larger and the same things she would normally get for morning snack AND afternoon snack. Which is fine, because she still eats a HUGE dinner, even with that larger afternoon snack. So I haven’t taken away food, but just rearranged the timing.

    My biggest problem is struggling with getting enough fat into her. Without dairy fat (including ghee), I worry about some meals being too low in fat. She does NOT care for coconut oil or meat based oils (tallow, lard, etc) to be spread on coconut flour bread. She likes plain vegetables more than salad. She will always eat plain vegetables but will only eat salad (with olive oil based dressings) sometimes. And she is not a big fan of avocado (I’ve taken to adding it to treats like cacao popsicles or grasshopper coconut cacao bars). I’m not a big fan of “hiding” foods from kids, so she knows that the avocado is in there. But she doesn’t care much for just eating avocado and is hit or miss with eating it when it’s turned into various guacamoles. I wish she could do dairy because she loved butter, yogurt, and sour cream. She even leaves the layer of fat on top of the broth in her cup. So if anybody has ideas on how to get more fats incorporated into her meals, would love ideas!

    • Sue says

      I wonder if your daughter might not feel good when she eats most fats. Consider offering her beets on a daily basis for a while to help the liver and gallbladder detox and produce plenty of bile acids. Then add small amounts of fat working up to a “normal” amount in a few months. When I tried to go from a low fat diet to a generous fat diet, it hurt! I was nauseous and had pain on my right side occasionally. By eating beets, I helped my body to “get used to” fat because I was producing more bile to break it down. Go slowly and add just a drop or two of meat fats to whatever she is eating. So with eggs in the morning, add a drop of bacon fat (great source of vitamin D!) to the coconut oil. In a few days, add two drops, etc.; same with avocado, tiny amount working up to a serving. When I changed to a GAPS diet, I became acutely aware of rancid fats. I marvel that anyone can eat fries or chips commercially produced, the flavor now reeks of rancidity to me. She may be that sensitive too. Low (amounts) and slow (introduction over time) are the keys for those who are overcoming difficulties!

  9. Bebe says

    I do not know how this country got in to asking children what they wanted to eat. When I raised my children and I was raised we ate what was put on the table. We never thought to question what it was or heaven forbid, say we would not eat it.
    Our parents ate everything also. There was never any conversation that implied other wise. We were hearty,well fed and being at the table was a good experience.
    We were children and not expected to know what was good for us. That was my parents role. They were
    adults and knew all manner of things we did not. Being an adult was a bit mystical.

    One other thing-we did not ge,t snacks except for after school. no sweet juice, no Kool Aid garbage, no soda. It would ruin our suppers. A very wise thing that.

    It seems to me if the adults started out in control from birth their lives and the children lives would be easier, healthier and everyone less stressed. It had been that way for hundreds of years. this “KIDS CONTROL”
    is new only from the 70’s and it needs to be revised.

    • Bev in Texas says

      Very well spoken Bebe! If our kids say anything disparaging about the food at the table they are excused from the table with nothing to eat until the next meal.


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