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Teaching Your Picky Eater to Eat Well; Even When They Really Don’t Want to.

Do your kids happily eat what you serve with grateful hearts, or is dinner time a time of cajoling, and bartering, and bickering? We have struggled with a picky eater in our home for a few years now, and it can be incredibly challenging to know how to handle your picky eater in a way that helps them grow and keeps them healthy.

Family dinner


It’s 5:00pm. I’m in the kitchen prepping for dinner. Making something beautiful. A perfect chicken piccata. I can smell the butter and white wine even now. This is one of my husband’s favorite’s and I love it too! I smile as I start chopping vegetables for the salad and picture everyone’s joy as they sit down to a beautiful meal after a long day. The table is set and candles laid out and prepared to be lit. 

All of a sudden I hear footsteps on the steps. My son pops through the basement door and screams, “What is that terrible smell!” and so begins the dinner I had been dreaming about all day. 

You see, I should have known. This child of mine likes almost nothing. I don’t know where he came from honestly. I have 4 children and we are a family who loves good food. I mean we love it! We love to plan meals and make meals and eat meals. But this sweet boy would be happy if I would let him live on nachos and pizza. Plain cheese nachos of course and plain cheese pizza. 

As his momma, of course, I can not in good conscience let him subsist solely on those two things so we work very hard and I mean very hard to get him to eat a varied diet. 

Trial and Error

We have gone through so much trial and error with figuring out the balance between forcing food down his throat and letting him eat whatever he wants. 

watermelon face

This child is such a joy. He is joyful and compassionate and kind, but when it comes to eating he just really struggles. 

Picky Eating is Not Personal

One of the biggest changes I have to make when struggling to solve this or any child-rearing issue really, is to stop taking it personally. When I take his picky eating personally it becomes me against him and the problem is impossible to solve that way. 

Our children need to know we are on their team. That doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences or that we always give them what we want, but we have to do this from a place of wanting what is best for them. We can’t discipline effectively from a place of being offended or frustrated. 

I think having this heart change is the first step in dealing with a picky eater. It can be seen as a personal affront. It also isn’t willful rebelliousness on his part. I really do think it is a weakness.  It can’t be seen as a battle to win or a fight to fight. 

So after I decided to stop becoming so offended by my picky eater’s rejection of my delicious food, we could move forward as a TEAM. It always feels better to be on the same side and attacking the problem together.  Eating can not be enjoyed by anyone when it is an oppositional activity. 

One of my favorite books on the subject has been by Karen Le Billon. She says this about the tug of war of getting your child to eat:

“Opposition to food can’t persist if there is no opponent. In the face of a child’s refusal to eat, the best parental response is serene indifference. Parents should remind themselves: ‘I know this will pass. My child will not continue refusing to eat if I simply refuse to react.”

Karen Le Billon
family meal

Snack Attack

One of the things that Le Billon suggests in her great book French Kids Eat Everything, is cutting out snacks. This is a huge undertaking if your kids are anything like mine. I think snacking is their all-time favorite activity! I have seasons where I am better at regulating this and seasons where I am more distracted answer get back in the habit of grabbing quick snacks often. As expected, all my children eat better when I am not allowing snacking. My husband and I eat better too!

Don’t offer separate meals to your picky eater.

I have done a lot of reading on this topic and one major thing that most experts agree on is this. Do not become a short-order cook. Do not always offer a PB and J to satiate your picky eater’s hunger. It is okay for them to be hungry. It really is. 

“In most places, for most of history, children’s food has not existed as a separate category after the age of weaning.”

Bee Wilson

There are nights that my son goes to bed having eaten little to no dinner at all. That is his decision. He gets to participate by deciding if he wants to eat what is being served or not. This puts the decision in his court and makes it so that I am not the one making him eat or forcing him to eat. 

Food as adventure

We encourage adventurous eating for all of our children and he is slowly getting in on it. While for my girls it might mean eating a new spicy curry, for him it is more like nibbling a baked kale chip, but I still see him trying to branch out and I encourage this loudly! 

baby feeding dad

Dina Rose, the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli, suggests calling our children food explorers. I love that terminology. It brings them into creative discovery with us instead of us being an enforcer of all things yucky

She also suggests small amounts of new foods so your child is not overwhelmed by the thought of trying to get through a large helping of something new or something they do not care for. 

Make it interesting. Be willing to try new things your own self so that you are modeling how to be adventurous in eating. 

Our one big dinner table rule.

One thing we do not allow in our home is complaining about the food that was made. We want our children to grow up with hearts of gratitude and to be considerate of others’ feelings. So you are not allowed to say “gross” or “Why did you make that?” or “I hate spaghetti!” 

You are allowed to say, “Thank you for cooking this mom, but I have tasted it and I don’t care for any more. You can say, “No thank you.” But you may not come to the table with a complaining or ungrateful heart. 

Speak kindly.

I don’t want my kids growing up thinking they can speak unkindly to people at all, much less the people they love. I want to teach them that you do not have to speak out loud every thought that you think. I want them to know that there are plenty of times that it is just fine to keep your opinion to yourself. I think these are life long lessons that are great for them to learn in the context of their loving home instead of having to learn it from the wider world later. 

Getting my kids in the kitchen has been an important, but difficult one for me. My girls love jumping into whatever I am doing in the kitchen, but my son, the picky eater, is not as interested. I am still working on this one. I have read this more times than I can count, and I really do believe it would benefit him, but it will take a little more effort on my part. 

mom and daughters cooking

Another great thing I have tried is to let my kiddos look through cookbooks and pick something out that they would like to cook together. My girls love this and even my husband likes to jump in sometimes (at least to the choosing the recipe part) but I have yet to find a recipe that draws my picky eater into the party. He had a pretty immediate negative reaction to most of the food pictures, so we are still trying with this. I am hoping to find something that grabs his attention one of these days. 

In it for the long run.

I have really had to play the long game with this parenting issue. I have looked high and low for a quick and easy solution and there does not seem to be one. 

I love parenting this child. Even with his picky eating! I have been so encouraged by the steps he has taken forward, but we still have dinners that are hard and lunch boxes returned with veggies uneaten. 

Don’t give up! Most progress in life is made by small steps forward. Celebrate the small victories and keep trying. Your kiddo (most likely) won’t grow up on nachos alone but will become a healthy adult able to make great food choices. Check out this article to get ideas on creating other healthy habits in your home!

Hang in there and happy food adventures to you!

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