Getting your kids eating better with the “Key Principal”


The Key Principal

Let’s begin with an inexorable principal about children: young children, ages 2-5, are fascinated by keys. That is just the way it is, it’s not taught to children, or suggested to them in anyway. Yet the overwhelming majority of children have a seething fascination in their parent’s key-chain. It’s beautifully human, and perhaps the greatest evidence that we are not living in a computer simulation. Something this peculiar and lovely could only be the truth.

Why do young children love keys? Keys are not intrinsically interesting in any particular way. Children have no use for them, no benefit can be had from them. Keys do not behoove children. Yet the keys must be explored.

I believe children are fascinated by keys because keys belong to adults. It sounds overly analogistic to say, but keys are the keys to another world that children are so innately eager to explore.

This is annoying for adults. Children shouldn’t really be playing with keys, they’re not incredibly safe, and it will be very annoying when the child secretly puts the keys under the couch then forgets about it.

Which brings us to the central dynamic, the perpetual motor: kids want keys, parents hide keys, kids want keys more, parents hide keys more elaborately, kids get better at searching, and so on and so on.

Then the parent goes out and buys something like these:

Image a dad coming home with these. He high fives his wife, “the key battle is over!” He proudly exclaims as he slams these toy keys on the counter. “These toy keys will surely satiate our child’s love of keys.”

But this father’s confidence quickly crumbles. When the child wakes up from their nap the parents proudly present them with their new toy: keys! The child does not appreciate the keys, and immediately drops them on the floor. The child doesn’t want toy keys, the child wants the parent’s keys. And this is why every family has a cheesy set of toy keys that no one ever plays with.

Use curiosity, don’t fight it

What is the Key Principal? Children are fascinated by the adult world and are attracted to what is forbidden to them, hence their fascination with keys.

What is the solution? Get a spare set of keys that is identical to your keys and leave it around. Seriously, go to your hardware store and make a spare set of keys, use the same key rings and other paraphernalia that your key set has. Then casually leave it around your home as you would you own keys.

Problem Solved.

Now is this a little dangerous? Yes, extra caution needs to be had. Keys are not ideal toys. Wall sockets need to be covered. You need to key proof your home and make sure there is nothing dangerous for your child to shove a key into. This is very important. Monitor your child’s key time to make sure they’re not destroying anything or hurting themselves, especially at first.

This is the most important part that most parents miss: do not give your children the ringer set of keys or they will not want them. The fact that the children should not have the keys is the crucial ingredient in the allure of the keys.

Wrapping the ‘ringer’ set of keys in a present and giving it to the child on their birthday defeats the whole purpose. These keys cannot be given, only discovered. These keys cannot belong to the child, if they do, the child will not want them.

This is exactly what my family did and it was beautiful. My daughter has spent hours exploring this ‘ringer’ set of keys while the ‘real’ keys stayed safe in my pocket.

Applying the “Key Principle” to food

How do we get our children to eat better? It’s another perennial parenting battle: parent wants child to eat vegetables, child refuses, parent begs, child physically around in the chair, and so on.

Remember the “Key Principal”: children are fascinated by the grown-up world and what is forbidden to them. This paradigm lies dormant in most children like a volcano waiting to erupt. Use the volcano, don’t fight the volcano.

Here is how I use “The Key Principal” with my daughter in regards to food: last night my daughter quickly ate her whole dinner of chicken nuggets and green beans and declared she wanted even more food. Great! My wife and I were eating sausages with baked squash. My wife tried cutting up some squash, while talking about how yummy it was, and put it on my daughter’s plate. My daughter picked up the squash and put it back on my wife’s plate saying she didn’t want it.

Make the dinner like your keys: I silently cut up some sausage and squash on my plate into bit sized pieces, and moved it to the part of my plate closest to my daughter. Then I said to my wife, “She can’t have any of my dinner, this is Daddy’s dinner, and I’m very hungry.”

My daughter immediately reached for my plate, picked up a piece of sausage, which she’d never tried before, and ate it. I reacted in a playful guffaw, “Oh no! I can’t believe you just ate my dinner!” To which she laughed, chewed, and reached for a slice of squash, and quickly ate that too. She ended up eating a whole sausage and couple pieces of squash.

Magic. But all I did was treat my food like my keys: something grown-up, precious, and not for children. Using these principals made my daughter need to have my food.

What would you say?

Parenting is improvisation. We rarely have time to sit down and think about what we should say to our children. So let’s practice! Let’s begin to think of some scenarios and how we might use the “Key Principle” to use our children’s curiosity, not fight against it.


Your child is sick, and you walk into a doctor’s office with her. Your daughter will need to sit in the intimidating patient’s chair.

What do you say?

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