How to get kids to eat at the table? The Push & Pull Principle

Apr 14, 2010 by

Two totally true stories moms recently told me illustrate a key principle in getting kids to come to the table, behave, and eat what you want them to eat.

Marlena’s kids are very narrow in what they will eat. They’re afraid of new foods. The dinner table is a battlefield of pressuring and resistance. Her overweight four-year-old, Walker, survives on bean-and-cheese tacos, filling up on juice to make it through the day to avoid other foods.

When her children won’t eat dinner, she feeds them whatever they are willing to eat, right before bed, in order to keep them asleep (so they don’t scream during the night).

One evening the whole family was doing the chicken dance after each bite Walker took, because that’s what got him to eat. She also considered it an improvement the other day when he allowed her to spoon chicken and rice into his mouth while he played video games. At least he ate something besides a bean-and-cheese taco.

Marlena’s husband sometimes wears earplugs to the table to muffle the screaming and fussing. They can’t invite anyone but Grandma over for dinner.

Marlena is convinced that without her constantly pushing them to eat, they wouldn’t eat anything nutritious at all.

The other mom, Sharon, told me how her daughter, Megan, persisted in “eating like a pig” at the table and acting rude one night, so they made her leave the table without finishing her dinner. Megan cried and said she was starving, but Sharon held her ground and explained that it wasn’t acceptable to behave that way and that other people were not going to put up with it from her, and neither were they, who love her.

Sharon wasn’t worried about Megan starving to death. She let her drink a glass of water to quiet her hunger until she got to sleep, and promised a nice big breakfast in the morning. Sharon said she figured out years ago you just can’t control someone’s eating.  She does control the environment, though. Instead of pushing food, she limits it, pulls it away if necessary to keep order in the house. Eating isn’t a problem. Neither is behavior.

Quite a contrast. It’s the Push & Pull Principle in action.

Marlena’s pushing where she should be pulling. Force feeding naturally leads to revulsion and dread of eating. The parents’ fear of kids being hungry means they allow unacceptable behavior such as screaming while going to great lengths to get the food down the kids’ throats. Marlena’s kids aren’t eating or behaving very well.

Sharon, on the other hand, is not afraid to limit her kids’ access to food. Instead of pressuring her kids to eat, she knows they’re going to want to eat, but she’s imposing some structure on them that enforces both better behavior and better eating. They’re allowed to eat but required to behave. The atmosphere frees the children to want to come to the table and to eat.

Related post:

How to Get Kids to Come to the Dinner Table, Part III

How to Use “Negative Reverse Selling” Techniques at the Dinner Table

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

You bet you can set boundaries. I often think of untrained dogs I've encountered. They haven't been taught how to behave, so no one wants them around. They jump up on people, slobber in their faces, bark their heads off. Though it's harder short-term than doing nothing, the caring owner will teach them to behave so they can enjoy and be enjoyed long-term. Untrained kids are the same. Kids ARE born knowing how to eat, so when we try to make them eat, it's force feeding and it only backfires. They aren't born knowing how to behave, though, and they count on us to set limits and teach them how to be agreeable to everybody else. I've seen many parents afraid to "control" their kids' behavior in any way and seen just as many being controlling to the max about what their kids put in their mouths. It's all reversed. Controlling the behavior and leaving the eating alone seems to be the most effective on both counts. I appreciate your comment! Thanks!


Absolutely lovely post! I love the second mom's approach for sure, and it's comforting to know that you can really set boundaries for your kids without getting criticized a ton. Thanks again!