Module 4: Promoting Mental Health in Early Childhood


Independence and Healthy Choices

Food is an area in which young children frequently express their newly independent views, especially their likes and dislikes.

Questions to Ask

  • How would you describe your child’s eating habits?
  • Which foods does your child eat? Are there any foods he doesn’t like?
  • What does your child do when you offer him new foods?
  • Does your child ever throw tantrums over food? If so, how do you handle this?
  • Which meals does your child eat with the family?

Provider Tips

  • Parents may be more concerned about their child’s eating if they are worried about the child’s health, are being pressured by relatives, or have a personal history of eating disorders or obesity. Monitor the child’s growth and physical health and provide feedback to parents.
  • Using the guidance listed below, describe ways that parents can help their child develop healthy eating habits and avoid struggles over food.

Guidance for Parents

  • Even if you’re busy, try to eat most meals as a family with your child sitting at the table. He will learn healthy eating behaviors by sitting with you and watching what you eat. He might even want to try the food on your plate and learn to eat new and different foods.
  • Keep family mealtimes relaxed and pleasant. Give everyone in your family a chance to talk about their day or other topics they are interested in. Avoid expressing anger and criticizing during meals.
  • Your child’s eating habits are likely to be quite changeable. One day he will eat everything on his plate, and the next he will barely eat anything at all. This is typical eating behavior at this age. Continue to offer him a variety of healthy foods. He will eat when he is hungry and his dietary needs will be met over a period of time.
  • It is common for very young children to be picky eaters. Serve your child small portions that he can feed himself. Let him decide what and how much to eat. Don’t force him to eat foods he doesn’t like or use food as a bribe, reward, or punishment.
Resources for Providers and Families

For the Provider

Area of Concern: Difficult Behavior at Mealtime more information

If a child demonstrates difficult behavior at mealtime, ask about:

  • Parental expectations regarding behavior and eating
  • What is going on during mealtimes (TV is on, children are included in conversations)
  • General behavioral problems

A child who displays difficult behavior can be removed for the remainder of the meal but should be offered healthy foods a half hour to an hour later.

Area of Concern: Gorging, Begging for Food, Refusing Food more information

Gorging, begging for food, and refusing food can be signs of underlying family conflict or other psychosocial, developmental, or neurological problems. After evaluating the child for possible medical causes, assess for family difficulties, and consider referral to a mental health professional.

For the Family

Lansky V. 1994. Feed Me! I’m Yours. Deephaven, MN: Meadowbrook Press.

Satter E. 2000. Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. 3rd Ed., Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Co.

Copyright Georgetown University Georgtown University Early Childhood