Herbivorous insects exploit many different plants and plant parts and often adopt different feeding strategies throughout their life cycle. The conceptual framework for investigating insect–plant interactions relies heavily on explanations invoking plant chemistry, neglecting a suite of competing and interacting pressures that may also limit herbivory. In the present paper, the methods by which ontogeny, feeding strategies and morphological characters inhibit herbivory by mandibulate holometabolous insects are examined. The emphasis on mechanical disruption of plant cells in the insect digestive strategy changes the relative importance of plant ‘defences’, increasing the importance of leaf structure in inhibiting herbivory. Coupled with the implications of substantial morphological and behavioural changes in ontogeny, herbivores adopt a range of approaches to herbivory that are independent of plant chemistry alone. Many insect herbivores exhibit substantial ontogenetic character displacement in mandibular morphology. This is tightly correlated with changes in feeding strategy, with changes to the cutting edges of mandibles increasing the efficiency of feeding. The changes in feeding strategy are also characterized by changes in feeding behaviour, with many larvae feeding gregariously in early instars. Non-nutritive hypotheses considering the importance of natural enemies, shelter-building and thermoregulation may also be invoked to explain the ontogenetic consequences of changes to feeding behaviour. There is a need to integrate these factors into a framework considering the gamut of potential explanations of insect herbivory, recognizing that ontogenetic constraints are not only viable explanations but a logical starting point. The interrelations between ontogeny, size, morphology and behaviour highlight the complexity of insect–plant relationships. Given the many methods used by insect herbivores to overcome the challenges of consuming foliage, the need for species-specific and stage- specific research investigating ontogeny and host use by insect herbivores is critical for developing general theories of insect–plant interactions.