Guest Post: Top 10 Feeding Mistakes Parents Make

This is a guest post from Maryann Jacobsen and Jill Castle, authors of Fearless Feeding.

Fearless Feeding book

As child and family nutrition experts, and co-authors of the new book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, we help parents learn what to expect in terms of feeding children based on child development. For example, every parent of a baby should know they are in the honeymoon phase of feeding, a time when baby is open to almost any food, making it an important time to introduce variety before kids get more picky around two years of age. In most cases, selective eating at this time is normal as growth slows and cognitive changes occur.

To show you how this information translates to everyday feeding practices, here are 10 common mistakes parents make at each stage of development (including adulthood!):

Infant & Young Toddler (6 – 24 months)

1) Keep on Puree too Long: Babies have a steep learning curve when it comes to eating during the first two years.  Around eight months, most are developmentally ready to pick up small pieces of food and self-feed.  Parents often keep baby on puree too long because they either don’t know this, or they like the control they have with spoon-feeding (and don’t like mess!).  Yet self-feeding aids children’s self- regulation of food and increases the variety they are able to eat.  So give children the opportunity to self-feed early in the game and allow them to learn at their own pace.

2) Don’t Bring Baby to the Family Table: Babies learn to eat by watching others.  Yet it’s not uncommon for babies to be fed separate meals all by their lonesome.  This often translates to little ones getting the same food over and over, instead of a larger variety.  It’s important for parents to know that between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, children are the most open to new food.  Serve them the regular meals you’ll want them to eat later — sandwiches, omelets and stir fries — and eat together as often as you can.

Toddler & Preschooler (2 -5 years)

3) Filling Little Bellies: As babies turn into toddlers things change quickly — language blooms, growth slows and children become more susceptible to environmental cues around food.  Parents often make the mistake of giving into requests for juice, milk and snack foods, which fill up little bellies (the size of a fist) so they don’t eat well at mealtime.  To avoid this mistake, feed on a structure at a designated place (3 meals and 2 -3 snacks) every 2-3 hours.  Keep milk to about 2 cups and juice to only 4-6 ounces per day, with meals.  Keep water the drink of choice between meals.

4) Get Off Track with Picky Eating: In toddlerhood, children become skeptical of new food and previously accepted items (especially veggies).  Most parents don’t understand that picky eating is a normal part of development and they may begin to bribe children with dessert, insist they eat a certain amount, or cater and only provide foods they know their child will eat.  All of these things make picky eating worse and negatively affect self-regulation.  We recommend the Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility where parents decide the what, when and where of feeding and children decide the whether and how much of eating.  It melts away the battles, keeps eating enjoyable for all, and makes children feel more confident with eating.

School Age (6 – 12 years)

5) Banning Bad Foods: Your child will see all sorts of “bad foods” as he enters the broader world of school and community. When children don’t have access to treats or other nutrition-poor items they may become over-sensitized to them when they go out in the world. Having moderate exposure to sweets, for example, in the home allows your child to balance them in the real world. Don’t make foods “off limits,” rather have them as special treats for special occasions or manage them in a way that creates moderate exposure.

6) No Boundaries in the Kitchen: If the kitchen is open all day and night, your child will not understand that eating happens on a structure, with intervals between meals and snacks for other activities. He may also graze, overeat and lose his sense of appetite regulation. Create a boundary between meals and snacks by stating, “The kitchen is closed until dinner. It’ll be open again at 6 pm,” for example. Be sure to make meals and snacks nourishing and satisfying!

Teens (13-18 years)

7) Letting Go of the Feeding Job too Early: One of the hallmarks of adolescence is an increasing independence, and this may occur with food. Sometimes, parents relinquish the job of feeding to embrace this newfound freedom. Unfortunately, teens can miss the mark on healthy choices and food balance in this situation. Don’t give up on feeding your teen until he is officially out of the house—he has a lot to learn about nutrition as he prepares for adulthood.

8) Avoiding Conversation About Tough Topics: Topics like problematic eating—too much or too little or the wrong types of food—can be uncomfortable for parents to address. The problem is teens often address problematic eating with problematic solutions, such as dieting, fasting, or avoiding important food groups. So don’t be afraid to talk with your teen about your concerns. You can open conversation with “I noticed you’re hungry all the time. Is this something I could help you with?” or “I see that you’re unhappy with your weight—how can I help you?” Your teen may not open up at first, but if you are loving and understanding, with repeated attempts, she likely will.


9) Not Taking Care of Yourself: Parents are typically so focused on their kids’ activities and health needs, they often forget about themselves.  Yet research tells us that parents are powerful role models in terms of the health and well being of their children.  Even when they try to hide things like dieting, unbalanced eating, or disliking their body, kids catch on because they are intuitive creatures and they learn by watching.  So make sure you are included in the to-do list and model the same behaviors you want your child to emulate.

10) Not Planning Meals: When parents fail to plan weekly meals, it increases stress at the dinner time hour and inadvertently decreases variety.  Try planning meals on the weekend by looking at the schedule and deciding what’s best on certain days.  If you have a late sports practice one day, consider making something in the slow cooker so the meal is ready when you get home.  Or you can spend some time on the weekend making meals and freezing them for easy weekday dinners.  The key is to keep trying until you find a system that works for you and your family.

Please feel free to share your feeding tips with us in the comments below!

Maryann Jacobsen
Maryann Jacobsen
Jill Castle
Jill Castle

Maryann Jacobsen is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health blogger and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a family nutrition blog.  Jill Castle is a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert, writer, speaker and founder of Just the Right Byte, a child nutrition blog.  They combined their experience and passion about feeding kids to write the bible on child nutrition: Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

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116 thoughts on “Guest Post: Top 10 Feeding Mistakes Parents Make”

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  1. I don’t believe and planned meals either. I believe in planned shopping.I raised five children and they all love good food because I never used processed food and everything was from scratch.however I love to cook and I taught myself to cook well. Not everyone loves cooking. So these guidelines about how to feed your children are wonderful and can be used by anyone, from a wonderful home chef to a simple struggling home chef. Parents just have to have guidelines for their children. Letting kids rummage through the pantry snack whenever they want to eat whatever they want have cookies or soda shortly before dinner – all these things ruin appetites. Print out those guidelines and put them on your fridge

  2. My 14 month old is a great eater. My question is how do I know how much to feed him? I’ve read that babies this age are good at knowing when to stop eating when they are full, but I want to make sure I encourage healthy eating habits (stopping when full). Is that something to worry about at this age?

  3. Can you expand on the “whether”? Any tips on getting our toddler to eat better meals are welcome!

    “We recommend the Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility where parents decide the what, when and where of feeding and children decide the whether and how much of eating.”

    1. The way I understood it is that parents control what food is being served and what time and in what location, while the children get to decide whether they are going to eat what is served and how much. Personally, I would make sure that they at least tried everything on their plate, but if after that they decided they didn’t want anymore then I would let it go with the understanding that there would be no more food served until the next set time for eating. I think that is the general idea behind that principle.

      1. Lindsey, I can personally testify you can bring a kid to the food, but you can’t make him eat it. As hard as I have tried and as many “consequences” as 1 of my 4 children has been given, I can’t force him to eat anything he doesn’t want. I love that you get your children to try everything on the plate, but my son has texture issues and he will literally gag and throw up sometimes. But I agree with your interpretation of that comment. You provide it, they choose whether to eat it and how much. Although, I will also say that my 8-year-old daughter sometimes has to be told to stop eating because I know she will feel too full later. She’s as skinny as a rail and sometimes will eat as much as I do!!! Of course, then she complains about how full she is and will say, “But that was soooooo good I just couldn’t stop eating it!!! :)

      2. The “whether” part does not apply to all kids. When your child is already small, and ‘chooses’ not to eat for a week, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to get food into that child. The flippant remark that children won’t starve themselves is simply untrue and is hurtful to good parents who are desperate to avoid feeding tubes and hospitalizations. Knowing that sometimes it crosses the line between normal development into disordered feeding is important for parents. It’s not your fault, you aren’t crazy or overreacting – you need real help.

  4. Foods take varying paths of metabolism within the body, according to their diversity. They can occasion very different effects on hormones, hunger and the number of calories an individual burns.

  5. Lara, dessert has never been a regular part of our dinners, and I’ve really never understood the thinking that every dinner must conclude with dessert. That said, if you do serve dessert and your kids refuse dinner and you give them dessert anyway, all they’ve learned is that if they can have dessert instead of dinner whenever they want. Personally I think many fussy eaters are fussy because they CAN be. They’ve simply learned that they can fuss their way to whatever they want. Kids won’t starve if they miss a meal, and it’s amazing how a little hunger can lessen the fussiness…. eventually they decide they are hungry enough to eat whatever it is that wasn’t what they wanted. A lot of parents just give up because it’s easier though.

  6. hi

    Just interested to know with 3 fussy eaters under 6 if kids refuse to eat their dinner do you still give dessert or if there is no dessert do they just go hungry to the next meal? Tips please!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Lara. First off, remember that being picky is pretty normal for their age, though I am sure you have your hands full.:) Next, dessert should be an occasional offering and certainly should not replace a meal. I don’t think they need to “go hungry” but they may tend to be a little less picky when their bellies are hungry. ~AMY

    2. My kids have gone hungry due to skipping meals, and they know it’s their own choice. Even when they were 3 years old, they figured out quickly that they do not really want to miss that meal. I always tried to have at least 1 thing available at mealtimes that they liked and would eat (although it’s sometimes difficult with 4 children ages 3 to 14, and 1 is a VERY picky eater), and I always offer them a tiny bite of everything we have. I don’t know how many times my current 3-year-old has refused the small bite of mashed potatoes on his plate, but the other night he decided to try them (at no suggestion from me – I just put them there). He said, “Whoa, mom, these are good!!!”

  7. I have mixed feelings about meal planning. I grew up in a house where mom and dad worked full time and mom always cooked dinner. She never planned. She tought me that you should always keep certain staples in the house and from that you could create anything you felt like. She would come home, and within 30-45 minutes we had a nice full dinner on the table. No weekly prep, no pre cut veggies or pre cooked food. Everything from scratch because we always kept the staples in the house. For example. I always have a variety of pastas, sauces, meats and seafoods at home along with frozen veggies. I buy fresh fruits and veggies each week but I buy my staples monthly, portion and freeze them. Then when I get home I can quickly whip up whatever I and my husband want. The staples provide an endless combination of meals with minimal thought.

    1. Sandy,

      Thank you for putting into words my feelings about meal planning! I was raised the same way as you and have always cooked meals based on the staples I keep in the cupboards & freezer, and the fresh veggies/fruits I get at the store each week. Lately, it seems like almost every cooking site I go to on the internet says we should have a meal plan. I feel like I am doing something wrong because I don’t spend an hour or two each week putting meals down on paper.

      1. What you have both described sounds like meal planning to me! : )It sounds like you have planned to always have certain staples in the house, which is a struggle for many people that I work with. They purchase random items in isolation and then do not know how to put them together. I don’t always write up a specific menu, but having those staples on hand are definitely part of my overall plan! Between work, kid’s sports, husband’s commute, etc. having some meals prepped/cooked beforehand, some frozen or defrosting and some simple meals(white beans with artichoke hearts, spinach, & tomato sauce with or without shrimp)at hand is quintessential in our house.

    2. Loved your thoughts. I definitely do this because I like the freedom it provides. But I do think it takes some experience cooking to be able to throw things together well on the fly with whatever basics you have on hand. I get a CSA box so I like to just cook whatever I’m given with pantry staples. :)

  8. I am about to start my 6 month old on solids and thinking I will take the Baby Led Weaning approach. I know you started real food after your girls were past this stage, but do you have any information or resources regarding the BLW process? I could be rememberig incorrectly, but I think the first time I ever heard anything about BLW it was on your site! Thanks!

  9. Hi Lisa, I am very you shared this info. on your site…but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the ad off to the left of your page for “the little green pouch”. How in the world is that stuff “real food”?…and even worse, how is feeding your kid from a pouch helping them learn the fine motor skills they need for eating. I think a picture of one of these pouches should be posted under “Top 10 Feeding Mistakes Parents Make”. No disrespect Lisa, I really love your site and recommend it to many of my clients…I just would never feed my kid from a processed food package.

    1. The little green pouch is just a reusable pouch, not a food – it can be filled with things like homemade smoothies, yogurt, applesauce, etc. ad put in lunchboxes or diaper bags or taken to sports games for a snack on the go. It can be helpful for some to transition away from some of the more processed packaged items, just like the silicone popsicle molds or other items Lisa mentions on the blog. Obviously Lisa and her kids have the fine motor skills necessary to use plates and utensils or even eat whole pieces of fruit- it is just one item that is advertising on their site.

  10. I am in the process of switching out the processed snacks (Goldfish, animal crackers, cheerios) in our church nursery for “real food”. Ages affected would be 6 mo – 3 years old. Do you have any advice and/or ideas on what I could swap these out for? Thank you so much for all your ideas and insight!

  11. My “feeding tip” is – stop calling it feeding and change your mentality to match.
    I ‘feed’ the dog, I don’t ‘feed’ my child.
    Maybe if yall stopped treating you children like animals to be controlled you’d have less ‘feeding’ problems.

  12. A lot of great points here, though I tend to disagree with number 5. I am devoted to feeding my family a gluten-free, organic, locally grown, mostly raw diet free of refined sugars and chemicals. I refuse to buy sodas, chips, candies or any other processed foods to give to my children on occasion simply because they exist in society and my children may come across a vending machine filled with garbage and be tempted to find out just what it is they haven’t been allowed to consume. Just as cigarettes exist in the real world, most parents (or at least, I would think) prohibit their children from smoking and being around second and 3rd hand smoke, and teach them why cigarettes aren’t good for them and the consequences they could have on their health, should they decide to try them in the future. My mother taught me and my siblings about the risk and consequences of cigarettes as young children and not one of 6 have ever been tempted to try a cigarette, my mom however did not teach me about the risks of drinking soda and eating a high gluten diet, mostly because she didn’t know better as long as I was still eating my fruits and veggies, etc. When I walk by a vending machine, my 2 year old says “yuck, that hurts my tummies!” I think we should prohibit our children from certain things, as long as they are being taught why it is they are not allowed to consume those products. When they become adults, if they decide they want to try chemical-laden “foods,” so be it, but I will be greatly comforted knowing that I kept there immune and digestive systems in the best shape possible, so their bodies are prepared to take all that stuff for what it really is: toxic waste. Teaching is key! :-)

    Unless that isn’t what you meant about prohibiting foods?

    1. ETA: *had my mom taught me about the consequences of candies and processed foods as she had with smoking, I definitely wouldn’t have consumed them so much in my teens and early adulthood, if at all!
      *and my 2 year old says the foods in vending machines hurts his tummy (or would hurt his tummy) because I have taught him that consumption of those things will damage his system, but in a way that he could best understand at his age. :-)

    2. I tend to disagree on this statement. My parents taught me the dangers of smoking explicitly and I still smoked. By putting too stringent of rules on your children they will eventually rebel. That is what kids do and they will find a way to do it including food. Focusing too much on food could also cause an unhealthy obsession. I agree with the statement on teaching children about treats and that it is ok in moderation. Moderation is key!

      1. I am amazed at how early my child has learnt how he feels when he gets sugar. A lesson I feel has been learnt by mainly by me not having any sugar, white refined carbs etc. I too feed him on organic, gluten free, veg and fruit
        . However when he goes to a birthday party or at Halloween he is allowed to eat cake or/and treats like the other children and he will often comment afterwards how bad it makes him feel. He has now at the age of five learnt by himself to limit the birthday treats and cake and often will go without from his own choice.. He is the kid going for the fruit when everyone else is delving in to cake!! I am glad he has learnt this skill :-)