How to deal with food tantrums

Aug 25, 2010 by

Every middle of the night, Tina’s dog woke her up to get a treat. She complained about it, but the dog didn’t speak that language. He understood what she did better than what she said. He listened to the language of the treat. She was giving him what he wanted, and that’s why he kept doing it. He probably thought she liked being woken up in the night. Why else would she give him a treat for doing so? That dog had her well trained.

Along come Tina’s kids. All day, any time they want something she doesn’t want them to have, they scream. If they want candy, they scream. So she gives it to them. She says, “I wish my kids would quit that screaming. I hate that screaming.” But whenever they scream, she scrambles to give them exactly what they want in order to stop their screaming. She’s the only one suffering here, once again. Her words say she hates it, but her actions say she loves it.

It’s not that kids are like dogs, unless we teach them to be. But Tina is rewarding her dog and her kids for doing disagreeable things. She is reinforcing the behavior instead of turning the unpleasantness back on them.

Three Principles to Put a Stop to Food Tantrums

No. 1

Food tantrums are a special breed of tantrum.  The key thing to know about them is that you will prevent maybe half of all potential tantrums by never asking a child to eat anything. Kids never need to be asked to eat anything. That’s what their appetites are for. The parents’ job is merely to prevent them from eating the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they will eat the right thing at the right time. If prevented from bad eating, a child has no alternative (other than starvation) but to eat well. If you are trying to directly force her to eat things she doesn’t want, I can hardly blame her for throwing a fit. Wouldn’t you throw a fit if someone were trying to force feed you? Besides, pressing food on someone only serves to create resistance. Don’t try to make them eat, and there won’t be anything to fight about.

So the only food tantrums you should have to face are when a child wants to eat something you do not want him to have, for example his little sister’s mashed potatoes, more dessert or some junk food you have hidden away somewhere.

It’s part of the parent’s job to limit junk food. Firmly say no and do not give in. You kids need to know you mean what you say. It’s OK if they cry and act miserable.

Suffering consequences for bad behavior is upsetting for children. It’s difficult and disagreeable for them, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for them. It’s good for them, and for you and for everybody in their lives, now and in the future. It doesn’t make you a good parent that you suffer from your kids’ bad behavior while sparing them the pain.

No. 2

Never give them what they want in response to a tantrum. Refuse to negotiate with screamers, tantrum throwers, or whiners. Never reinforce those undesirable behaviors by giving them what they’re trying to get. Don’t make tantrums or demanding crying effective for your children. Let your children know that whatever it is they are trying to get by throwing a fit or screaming, they will never get it that way. Be consistent in foiling the purpose of the tantrum. They’ll quit as soon as they figure out it doesn’t work. If it works, they may never quit.

Say, for example:

  • “You are whining. You will not get what you ask for if you whine. Use your big boy voice and I will listen.”
  • “You are screaming, so the answer is no. The answer is always going to be no when you scream.”
  • “Crying for what you want will get you nowhere.”

No. 3

Stop tantrums even more effectively by adding an unpleasant consequence. As with Tina’s dog, ignoring him when he wakes her up would be better than giving him the treat, but adding a smack on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper goes one better.  That’s language the dog understands. So with children, causing the tantrum to fail in its aims combined with a demotivator will accelerate results.

For example:

  • Give a choice: “You can throw your fit in your room or you can accept what I have said and stay here at the table with us.”
  • If that doesn’t work, the next time just send them to their room as soon as they throw a fit. No second chances.
  • Make them go to bed right away.
  • Take away a privilege (TV, video games, an outing, or something else they really want).

Some children respond well to a light touch,so start with that. Others need stronger action. The more drastic the consequences, the quicker the results.

Once again, it’s tough for them, but not bad for them.


Coming soon:

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Dessert

Related posts:

Leveraging dessert to get kids to eat dinner every night

Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain

Six ways to insure kids eat dinner whether there’s dessert or not

Eating power struggles with kids: Why they’re useless and how to end them

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Dear Foodie, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I guess I'll start with the point about teaching kids not to whine. I don't think putting a name on what they're doing and making them aware of what is going on and insisting on not hearing it from them is cruel. Whining, or throwing a fit or screaming are all tools kids use to get what they want. Other times they may be expressing honest and irrepressible emotions, but whining is not something they can't stop, very easily. It's a bad habit that needs to be rooted out, with love and no sarcasm, of course. I think that is the difference. I would be straightforward: we do not want you to whine like that. I think it's less cruel to explain what you're doing than simply ignoring them and pretending they are not even speaking to you when they whine. Kids need to be trained. I don't think letting kids know they are whining is going to traumatize anyone. Being completely ignored, when they are capable of understanding reason, I believe would feel worse and drag the whole process out unnecessarily. Kids are going to throw tantrums, but they can be taught not to, and pretty quickly when all is clear and expectations and reasons are communicated calmly and lovingly. However, I can see your point about how if you say the answer is no because they're screaming that they might think they are going to get something. It would be pretty mean to still say no once they ask in a calm manner! I agree that we Americans eat WAY too much sugar and junk. It's best not to have food around that you can't allow children to eat to their hearts' content. Did you read my other posts about dessert? Yes, I think kids will be addicted to sugar eating it every day. I know parents who use dessert to get their kids to eat dinner--every day! I am quite anti-sugar, but if people want a dessert, and we have one about twice a month (other than lots of fruit and homemade yogurt) ourselves, there are better and worse ways to go about it. I don't recommend trying to make food "fun" very often. I think generally kids should get good and hungry, really pay attention to what they're eating AS FOOD, and learn to enjoy it, not be distracted from food as food. Eating good food is fun in its own right. I'm against trying to get kids to forget that they're eating and that it's food: Thanks for your comments! I'd love to hear more of your ideas.


I agree that kids should never be forced to eat anything. Also agree that kids shouldn't be asked to eat anything or for the parent to make it sound like "eat this" like its a chore or that they shouldn't make it sound like theres "healthy boring foods" and that then theres "yummy foods"-eg:when parents say eat your dinner and then you'll get to have dessert.This can impress in the mind a negative association/attitude towards healthy foods. Dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain,and i dont get why Americans are so big on HAVING to have desserts after a meal-this isn't commonplace in many other countries. I agree that junk food should be limited and parents should never give into to tantrums-give in once and the person has set up a pattern & also taught the children unhealthy character qualities that we can get what we wish by throwing tantrums/making peoples live difficult and this also may affect their dealings in later life(just maybe or maybe not). However,i DONT agree with saying "“You are whining. You will not get what you ask for if you whine. Use your big boy voice and I will listen.”" and that is cruelty. That appears no better then the types of parents who say to their children "keep crying and i'll really give you something to cry about". These sorts of words are cruelty and can instill terror into sensitive children,also it is the children that are told things like this that later become the cruel adults that tell other adults harsh words like "grow up" "put your big boy boots on" "go cry me a river" "boohoo" etc. The issue should not be about manipulating the child into not crying,or resisting their crying/tantrums,control or powerstruggles etc-children are going to throw tantrums,its just part of life-the tantrum should simply be patiently and "nonchalantly" ignored-once they see it is having no effect on the parent,the child get the message inside that this isn't going to work and the tantrum will stop as they see it is having no effect. Another problem with your examples of what to say, eg:"the answer is always going to be no when your screaming", is that it gives the impression that your going to say yes(or have possibility of yes) if the child asked in a more "behaved" tone.The answer should be no regardless of whether they ask in pleasant tone or in tantrum form.It should be no because it is bad for their health. Its good for families not to have junkfood in their homes alltogether. Theres nothing saying that we HAVE to have junkfood.Sometimes its better not to have it in the house altogether-that way both parents and children get used to this and a healthier way of living. Also removing other factors that could influence childrens feelings/behaviours should be taken away from the families food plan.Eg:cordials or other sugar laden things that some claim can affect kids negatively. Sometimes,if a child is hyper or poorly behavoured it could be due to an extrinsic factor such as certain food or drink influencing their actions negatively and not be under the child's control. At the same time,it wouldn't be fair on children if the meals really were boring tasting as some people make vegetables bland and boring and then expect kids to eat it. Theres books out there about making meals kid friendly and fun. Mealtimes can be pleasant time and food can be turned into funny faces or healthy nuggets if need be. Kids,if old enough, can be allowed to be involved in the kitchen/baking process and it can be fun for them but this could be stressful sometimes for parent. Theres sugar substitutes like palm sugar or coconut palm sugar or brown sugar which may be healthier for children but this should be discussed with medical doctor. Im not from US,personally i dont go for the idea of dessert. I prefer no dessert but just giving kids healthy snacks/treats when need be. If kids are eating desserts everynight wont they get like sugar addiction? Theres healthy-or relatively healthy-treat recipes out there like watermelon popsicles,apple and honey cake,orange cake,gelato Heres some websites if that helps any.,163,151172-249201,00.html Can substitute for healthy lollies if wish