Picky Picky

A question from Heather:

How do you get your kids to eat what you make? Mine are 6 & 3 and used to eat anything I make but now will pretty much only eat chicken fingers, pasta, grilled cheese, that kind of thing. It makes shopping and meal planning a nightmare and mealtimes miserable. I want to stop making 2 meals and get them to broaden their horizons. Any tips? Thanks!

This is such a hot topic I am reluctant to voice my opinion. When I had two children I was much more lenient during meal time. I would usually make food I knew my kids would like, or I would cook up a bowl of macaroni and cheese for my picky one. Then my family exploded. Meal time was no longer dh and I with two toddlers. We had a table full of kids all with different likes, dislikes, and a couple of really picky eaters.

I had no option, but to get tough about eating. Usually when I make a meal that I know one child does not like I try to prepare a side that they do like. For example I have one child who really dislikes shepherd’s pie.  On the nights I serve this dish I make sure to have a bowl of fruit and a veggie that this child really loves. While they do have to try a small piece of pie they can fill up on the other healthy options at the table.

What about the child that dislikes everything? I had one of those. In the beginning I catered to this child and only made him eat a handful of items. After a while this became unacceptable to me, plus I was tired of making two different meals at dinner. We finally had to just make them eat a little bit of everything at the table. The exception to this is if there are two fruit or vegetables being served. The child has a choice of eating one or both. If we are serving green beans and salad the child can choose between the two or have some of both, but they must eat at least one.

When training my kids to eat what was served I started slow. For example, I would give them one green bean or one piece of broccoli. The next time it was served they would get a larger portion. If a child truly dislikes something then they are given just a small amount to eat, a bite or two.

The interesting thing is that over time my kids have learned to like a lot of food they thought they disliked. Usually they never really disliked it, they would just refuse to try new things. With my littlest ones they are always given a small amount of everything on the table, even as babies they tend to eat what I fix, just mashed up. The exception to this would be spicy foods or things that are not recommended before the age of 1.

What if the child refuses to eat? I am not one for a battle of the wills with my kids. If you don’t eat what is on your plate you don’t get seconds of anything else on the table. There is no arguing or debating. I know my children will not starve to death if they refuse to eat a full plate of food at one meal. This situation usually occurs during dinner, so I make sure that if the child is not going to try everything on their plate, the next morning’s breakfast will not be a favorite dish. Eventually they realize they need to eat at each meal and not wait for something better to come along.

Lest any of you think I am the Wicked Witch of the West, my children have a lot of say in our menu each week. The fact that pizza is a weekly meal is proof of that fact. While menu planning I almost always ask my kids for input and usually two to three meals a week are picked by them. I also try to include a few new meals a month to help broaden their tastes and introduce them to new and different foods.

As for Heather and her question, if you decide to get tough I can promise you things will get worse before they get better. My recommendation would be to stick to your guns. You will have tears and your kids might cry too. Some days will look like this…

But eventually there will be more days like this…

Teaching your children to like a variety of food is one of the best things you can do for them as a mom. Persevere and the rewards will be great.


  1. Thank you! My kids rarely touch a veggie but they do have fruit with every meal. They will usually eat the bread. It is so hard not to give in but you’re right – they will not starve. I will try to be tough!

  2. My 4 year old is not only a picky eater, he doesn’t eat. He may take a few bites of things throughout the day but nothing that amounts to much. I know he won’t starve but it is hard to see him so thin and knowing he is not getting nourishment. We are starting to supplement him with boost shakes before bed if he has not eaten anything. My 18 month old eats anything, I mean anything so I know it is not what I did rather different personalities.

  3. I tell my children that it’s my job to provide a healthy meal – it’s their job to eat it. That being said, we’ve had lots of battles- tears and screaming – not just on my part. I also try to have a side of fruit or a veggie they’ll eat. And I keep in mind – if they are really hungry – they’ll eat. The good news is as they get older, they eat better – and quit crying as much!

  4. This is exactly how we do it in my house. We go one step further and allow Big Brother to pick only the things he wants in his salad (if he only wants cucumbers and carrots that’s fine – he just has to pick something). He really has a huge selection of things he likes. He loves black bean soup and bean burritos. Although, he doe snot love chicken (unless it is fried :)). Oh well, we make sure there are sides he likes and he does just fine.

  5. Amen!

    I take a very simular approach and i even laughed when i read that you make sure breakfast is not a favorite if they don’t eat the dinner well. i do that too. i have even threatened to serve the complained about vegetable for breakfast and have only had to do it once to make my daughter a believer!

  6. We struggled with this when my oldest (now 6) was around 2… I finally hit upon some rules that we now follow. I decide WHAT and WHEN we’re eating, the kids decide IF and HOW MUCH. I offer a healthy snack between meals. I serve our meals “family style” and they can take what they choose. It seems to balance itself out over time… almost all bread one meal, but then another day I’m nuking more peas or brocolli becuase they’ve eaten all and want more! AND they warm up to things and try them after seeing them on the table serveral times. My oldest has become so adventurous in the last 9 months! and my 2nd child (age 4) is even occassionally asking to try new things! They each have their favorites (oldest used to like anything with a dipping sauce, but as I said, is getting adventurous; 4 year old loves the carbs; 3 year old is our meat-eater.) When making a meal, I try to make sure something on the table will be liked by each family member, and there’s no dessert if you don’t eat a good dinner. It has been stressful at times! But these rules work. OH! 1 more rule: no saying “ew!” or “Yuck!” If you don’t like something, you may politely decline to have more, or say “I’m not keen on that”. SOOO much nicer to hear after I’ve shopped, cooked and served a meal!

  7. This is so true Toni. The only time I will let them choose what they want to eat is for lunch. Breakfast and dinner are way too important to let them skate by on a meal. It’s too hard, too much work and you are so right… it will just get worse. Great post!

  8. So well said! And here’s a tip – use peer pressure. If you know a friend of theirs will try anything, invite them over for dinner and try something new. Your child may just be a little more adventurous to impress a friend. When kids get home from camp it’s amazing how many new things they’ve tried and liked.

  9. Thanks for the advice. My 3 year old has decided that she doesn’t like anything, even stuff that she once loved. Now I know that I just have to get through this time period!

  10. I only have 2 kids, but it’s still amazing how they have developed their list of likes and dislikes. We do something similar to what you do. If they don’t like it and refuse to eat, we may have them eat a few bits and then they just go hungry. It’s their choice and more often than not, they will eat rather than go without. 🙂

  11. Great ideas…I guess I have been lucky, and my kids eat pretty much everything. But we’ve never allowed them to be picky — it’s sort of like, “Are you hungry? Then eat. Nothing else will appear on the table magically.”
    We are homeschoolers too..just found your blog…and we are ALSO doing the Dave Ramsey program.

  12. Julie Krukemeyer says:

    Well said! We basically do the same thing in our house. I LOVE the idea of them not getting a favorite breakfast in the morning! I’ve even arranged my cabinet where the snacks come from so they know the things they are allowed for breakfast and morning snack. These are more whole grain items, nuts, sunflower seeds, etc. The pretzels and other snacky stuff are in the top of the pantry and reserved for afternoon snack. I’ve tried to also have a refrigerator shelf of healthy snacks, some apples, yogurt, cut up cheese, hard boiled eggs. With lots of kids (9, 8, 6 and 4 with one on the way) things get put back in the wrong place but we work through it. I want them to have choices for their snacks and breakfasts so they have to make decisions but I want them to be choosing among stuff that I know is good. Keep up the good work!

  13. With dd and ds, we have them try at least a bite of everything and like you we don’t let them have seconds if they don’t finish.

  14. Katherine says:

    Thank you so much for addressing this question!! I have a VERY PICKY 4 year old, and a 2 year old who will eat almost anything. It has been very frustrating and caused much tension in the family. I have tried catering to him and also making him eat what is being served. But, I just wasn’t willing to do it consistently. You have couple of rules that we are going to incorporate that will work with our recently adapted “eat what is served” stance. Thanks so much!!

  15. I haven’t read the responses, but wanted to post mine really quick 🙂

    If you are the Wicked Witch, I am worse. 😉

    I was raised to eat what you are given, even if you hate it. The reason being respect.

    It shows a LOT of disrespect towards the preparer not to eat what you have been given. It takes time and effort to cook good meals, and children need to know that their mother (or father) worked hard to get this food on their plate.

    I know it is over said, but there REALLY ARE children in the world who are starving.

    The reason most moms do not get respect is because they don’t demand it, imo.

    this is one area where people don’t seem to care that their kids are being disrespectful. I know of people who would not accept dinner invitations because their children would not eat, and they did not want their children to be disrespectful of the people who’d invited them over. (And also embarrass them as parents)

    What they seemed to have missed is that their kids were disrespecting THEM first!

    Am I the only person who sees it this way?

    I agree with your post 100% Children need respect too, allowing them to help plan the meals is a great way to give it to them.

    And most kids aren’t as picky as their parents think they are.

    I am babysitting a little boy right now and he eats everything I give him. His mom is in awe that he eats chicken, mashed potatoes, and veggies at my house.

    This just proves my point, imo… 😉

    Sorry this is long!! I will come back and read the rest in a little while and see if I have embarrassed myself by talking too much as is sometimes the case 😉

  16. Somebody's Mimi says:

    My kids had a choice… eat or don’t eat. Although I only raised 2 children I always made one meal for all of us. The kids didn’t have to eat everything on their plate BUT they did have to taste everything on their plate. They sometimes took the token bites and they were done, but they knew they wouldn’t get anything else to eat until the next meal (no snacks). They are now grown and have children of their own… I think both families have good eating guidlines and all our grandchildren seem to be healthy, happy, and great eaters!!

  17. Wow, this is such a touchy subject at my house. My mom kept my kids while I worked up until 2007. By that point they were already used to eating whatever they want. Now they are 5 and 3 and I end up cooking/making three different dinners on some nights. You’ve encouraged me to get a little tougher, but at the same time let them help me when I’m planning our menu. Great advice!

  18. I’ll agree with others, great post! I am studying to be a dietitan and this is always a concern to me. I think a lot of moms fall into the “media pitfall” too. We see so many products advertised and we think our kids MUST have those to be satisfied, nourished, etc. The mommy-guilt is laid on thick. It is so easy to be lured into thinking something is healthy just because the packaging says “100% Vitamin C”, etc. Well, an orange and broccoli are packed with vitamin C and you don’t have to pay extra for packaging. Sorry to go on… I am so passionate about this. Really, a lifetime of eating habits are formed within the first 5 years of a child’s life. If all you serve is chicken nuggets and fries, that is all your child will want and expect.
    So after allt that….dinner at my house is one meal (I have 2 kids). My 4yo eats anything but we had a struggle for about a year and now he is eating raw mushrooms, spinach, etc…without me asking. My dd is 1 and she is a mess. lol Her tastebuds change daily and I’m just remembering it’s a phase. The important thing is to keep re-introducing the foods they turn away. It takes at least 10 exposures of a new food before a child will decide if they like it or not. So persevere!!! I have found that dd will also wait for snack and not eat her meal….so we limit snacks.

    Sorry for the book. 🙂

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