I'm sure some of you have either said or heard something like this before:

"If you don't finish your dinner, you can have it for breakfast the next morning"

We used to have problems (and still occasionally do, but less often) with our now 4-year-old son eating only a single bite (or less) of his dinner - even if it was something he requested or we know he likes. We don't do this when introducing new foods (I remember bad experiences with this as a child) or if we know he's had a late snack (don't want to force him to overeat). When we pull this line out, it usually ends up being eaten as lunch the next day (after he refuses it for breakfast)

My question is how appropriate is this strategy of getting children to eat? - we know it works (and it seems to affect his behavior), but when we use it, it feels like a power struggle and I sometimes feel bad afterwards.

4 Answers 4


This is actually the method we consistently use with our daughter - with a few slight tweaks and it has worked well and doesn't feel "bad" at all.

When using any form of discipline (this is not synonymous with punishment) it is really important to set things up to be predictable. Predictability sets you up for success. A statement made out of frustration like, "okay you can have it for breakfast then." often doesn't work because it doesn't include consistency and predictability. It makes the consequence about your emotions rather than about the child's choices (and life lessons). These kinds of things often lead to the power struggle you describe in your question.

First of all we ask for eating in balance. We watched what our child ate and if she had fairly equal amounts of everything served we didn't worry about it any further (sometimes they really just aren't hungry). The AAP recommends that parents choose what foods are available, where food is eaten, and when meal times are, providing access to healthy foods at least every 2 to 4 hours. Children choose whether to eat, and how much.

Secondly, at our home, when we serve the first plate of food she only got about the number of bites of each item as years of life she has had - three years old meant three bites of everything, four meant four etc. Sometimes staring at a full plate can overwhelm kids and they don't even know where to begin. By giving small amounts like this, it is likely the child will eat what is on the plate and want seconds. We are not aiming for a "clean plate" kid here, but the rule that she had to finish most of what was on her plate before getting seconds was applied (we were flexible if there was only about a bite left of something). Then, she could get as many or as few seconds of her favorite parts of the meal as she desired. We knew she had sufficiently at least tried each of the foods presented.

Thirdly, we included the procedure for new foods too. If you don't, you lose consistency. However, we did not insist she try anything really spicy or rich in flavor as young children do better with milder tastes anyway (we simply didn't serve it to her - if she asked for some we gave her one bite to try - if she wanted more, we gave her more). Seeing the food at breakfast became a predictable outcome or consequence she actually would come to feel she had control over.

We don't threaten, cajole or discuss. She eats a "balanced" amount of food or she doesn't and we don't make a big deal about it at dinner. It may sound harsh not to give "warnings," but we generally avoid even this (minus one warning each night for the first week the method is used). The next morning we simply get out the "offending" left-over, place it in front of her and reiterate the importance of a "balanced diet." We restate the idea that since she didn't eat anything green the day before, she'll need to start her day with something green today.

The two most important keys are the consistency part and not getting emotional over it. If she eats the offending food - that is her choice; if she wants to wait and eat it as a left-over for breakfast, that is also her choice - she is the one that suffers the consequence (not me by being upset and worried over it).

Now, my daughter will even throw in extra bites of stuff she doesn't like when she knows we will be going to a party or something. At a wedding we recently attended, she approached me when it was time for cake and said, "Mom, I had 15 green beans, 5 bites of salad (obviously she is older now) a slice of roast beef and a roll. Will I still be balanced if I have some cake?" I laughed and said she could eat the slice of cake - I hadn't even intended on keeping track while at the wedding.

Now that she has things down pretty well, I can choose to be a lot more lax about it (like at events such as a wedding), but I did have to be a bit strict about things for the first little while to make she she really got the drill. I also adjusted for things like the late snacks you mentioned, or if she was ill or something and kept an eye out for possible allergic reactions to things. I really tried to make sure that first month I was as regular and routine about her eating schedule as was humanly possible in order to try to maintain that consistency I mentioned.

  • This matches a lot of what we did - and a benefit as they get older is that they often want chili for breakfast the day after, so we never have wastage :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 20:53
  • 2
    I agree with a lot of what you've said. I do something similar, though haven't been as nuanced about exact portion size (and perhaps ought to). I avoid making it a power struggle by just treating the food at the next meal as an accomplished fact. If my son has made an effort to eat and has eaten some of everything, then there is no holdover--the issue is, as you say, rejecting food that he even likes in favor of dessert or some activity he is excited about. Ironically, he has asked many times for his leftover dinner to be his morning snack. I feel good about helping not be a picky eater. Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 1:52
  • @ReadyToLearn we are a lot less specific about exact portions these days too. The expectation is fully in place, so we don't generally have to be. Plus, we now expect her to dish up her own foods so it mostly about encouraging her to take appropriate sized proportions now. This means she is learning about having a smaller amount of meat than veggies for example in order to keep things "balanced." We work on "plate fractions" now. Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 20:48

You should avoid turning eating into a power struggle. If you recycle the food for the next meal, don't threaten to do it; just do it. Sometimes children aren't hungry, which is fine-- you do not want to interrupt the normal functioning of the appestat, which may lead to eating problems later, by forcing a child to overeat. Take all the usual measures to ensure a normal appetite at meals (i.e. strictly control snacking) and don't worry if a child isn't hungry some of the time at meals. Absent some eating disorder, constipation, etc., this is a problem that sorts itself out.

(ETA: I'm going to leave this part as is for readers that may follow later, even though I understand that you don't use the technique with a new food.) With a new food, you should stay constantly aware of a few things. First, food allergies and sensory processing issues may be manifested in ways that don't set off red flags: a child takes a stab at eating something, but only eats a little. For an allergic child or one with processing issues, to be forced to eat the wrong foods can be tantamount to torture, even if lovingly intended. Also, even for completely normal children with no food-related issues, an unfamiliar taste or texture may take many exposures before the palate expands. To best cultivate an eclectic palate, introduce new foods in conjunction with old ones, don't turn any meal into a power struggle, and if children consistently over time show avoidance of certain foods consider bringing it up with a doctor.

If your child holds in poop or otherwise has bowel problems, you should be consulting a doctor and using Miralax or some other recommended method to keep the child going regularly. Sometimes potty training, worries about losing a part of the self, etc. can cause children to hold it in, or it may happen for completely natural causes. Then one of two things can happen: either the child simply isn't full because he or she is backed up, in which case that's the primary problem to resolve instead of forcing food into the child, or the child is afraid of pooping so doesn't want to eat though hungry. These problems can never be resolved by power struggles in attempts to force or cajole children to eat, so see your doctor if this might be part of it.

Eating disorders where a child will starve himself or herself are extremely, extremely rare, and not a reason to insist that a child eat without information supporting such a disorder.

Even after introducing a food 7-10 times or more to a child, a perfectly normal child may simply not enjoy a certain food. I wouldn't avoid serving such foods during a meal, but I would take measures to include some foods in each meal that everyone will enjoy eating. If you relax and let the child's hunger work for you, and sensitively address possible constipation, food allergies, and other problems as indicated, you should be all right in the end. This will pass.

  • I was following the answer until it started talking about poop and going regularly... the first paragraph - especially the "don't threaten to do it; just do it" - is good. The 'new food' bits also seem a bit out of place to me (as I mentioned during the question we specifically don't use this for new food).
    – Krease
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 22:51
  • Feces can actually back up in impacted children to the extent that they put pressure on, or even backfill into, the stomach. Some parents don't realize that their kids are constipated and may chalk up refusal to eat to stubbornness or some other cause. It's actually not uncommon. Sorry for forgetting your statement about not using it with new foods. I'll modify the answer slightly. The main point is to let the child's hunger bring him back to eating; problem solved in almost all cases, with a minimum of fuss.
    – Iucounu
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 23:52

I agree with lucounu's response, especially that if your goal is to create healthy eating habits for life, any power struggles related to food run the risk of having a much larger negative effect than the particular foods being eaten. Short term, it is highly unlikely that a child will choose a diet so unbalanced as to cause health problems.

I think it is important to conciously know what it is that you, the adult, are hoping to accomplish when you attempt to exert your influence. This is not an idle question as the underlying motivation determines what is an acceptable outcome. Some possible reasons:

  • You want your son to eat healthy foods; in this case you wouldn't care if he refuses a food - if he doesn't want macaroni he can go get a carrot.

  • You want your son to learn that he can't just eat a few favorites all the time (for instance, for economic reasons if it is meat or a boxed food); he's probably too young for this lesson yet - he doesn't understand economics or scarcity yet, only that you provide all he needs. If his preferred food is in the house he may not understand why he can't have it instead of what is in front of him.

  • You feel that since his parents did work to prepare a meal, he should show gratitude by eating it; In this case you should realize that the missing element is choice - we as adults don't prepare foods we don't like, or if one partner likes it and the other doesn't, it is understood they will not partake equally. It is unfair to expect him to eat some of each food at a meal if you would not expect the same of your spouse or a guest.

Knowing explicitly what value you are trying to uphold (and making sure that you are on the same page as your spouse) may lead you to realize that there are more possibilities for conflict resolution than you first assumed.

  • It's more that he decides he just doesn't want to eat and would rather go play, or that dessert is preferable (even if there is none). His not eating isn't tied to food he doesn't like - he'll do it with his favourite dinners too, which is usually when we get him to have it for breakfast.
    – Krease
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 22:57
  • Is the problem then that he doesn't come back, and you're worried about him eating enough, or that he asks for food later and you find it inappropriate to pass up a meal and then ask for food before the next one? Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 0:26
  • It ends up being more of the second one - he'll decide playing is more important than eating whatever is for dinner, and he'd rather have dessert/snack later, or wait until breakfast (he usually has cereal) for something different. Part of our reasoning with putting the same food in front of him is to get better balance (not just breakfast cereal and PBJ sandwiches), and he can't just "skip" a meal to get something different later...
    – Krease
    Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 7:44

Just stumbled on this post, some time after the original post! I wonder how the little ones mentioned here got on later with their eating.

Experience with my own children and granddaughter, as well as in professional scenarios, indicates strongly that eating should be fun varied and interesting. With regularity, and routine that can be flexible. There should be a relaxed atmosphere. Not forcing and complicating the delight of eating with 'mind games" such as recycling uneaten food at another mealtime, even on another day. This cannot be healthy for little ones slightly more that babies to school age, The here and now us what they are ideally and healthily preoccupied with. There doesn't need to be a power struggle. Relax! If a child doesn't like something, try something different. Present it in a fun way - picky eaters may be more inclined to eat fruit in the shape of a face! We all like different things. We don't want to encourage long term hang-ups. Even eating disorders. Use imagination! Too many rules and regulations can make a child unhappy and run down. Be mindful of an underweight child. Something may be amiss. And keep in mind it is a long time from tea time to lunchtime next day. Suppers and breakfasts are great!

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