The “Eat What We Eat” Rule? Talk amongst yourselves.

I'm 1/2 Indian and 1/2 Jewish. If that's not a genetic setup for food appreciation, I don't know what is. I grew up eating and liking almost everything my parents put in front of me, whether it was my Dad's curries, spicy Hunan food, salads of all colors, or anything else. I liked it all, and I still do.

My kids, not so much.

Despite my (dwindling) enthusiasm for food and cooking, they turn their noses up at all but the blandest stuff. I've followed the reasonable advice Ellyn Satter gives in her excellent book, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. I've never (okay, hardly ever) prepared special meals for the kids while my husband and I eat "grownup" food. I insist on respect for the cook and table manners. We occasionally eat desserts or snacks after dinner. And yet, my kids still loudly protest many foods, and would rather forgo an entire a meal than take a single bite of something they find unappealing. I'm talking entire categories of food: salads, soups, stews, most sauces, casseroles…you see where I'm going with this.

For these situations, Jay follows the Peanut Butter Sandwich Rule. (Many of his readers do, too; read the comments on his post.) I try to include in our meal some plain component, such as rice or pasta. Some require finicky kids take a "no thank you" bite.

How do you manage mealtime with picky eaters?

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  1. mamaloo, the doula says

    My son is allowed to be a picky eater the minute he can afford to buy his own groceries, actually buys them and then cooks them. Until that day, the rule is our house: “You can choose to not eat what’s on your plate, but there are consequences, including no desserts, juices, snacks or candy treats or dvd watching for the rest of the day.”

    My Doctor Who obsessed son usually relents.

    All in all, we’ve been lucky, however. Of course, I am a firm believer in feeding kids table food instead of that pbland jarred stuff or nutritionally void cereal, from the get go. Kieran was eating Middle Eastern and Indian food from about 9 months onward.

    I also think that you must lead by example. neither myself nor my husband are allowed to turn our noses up at anything, lest we influence Kieran to do the same. As well, if you want your kids to be adventurous eaters, you have to give them adventurous foods every day.

  2. Sara in Austin says

    Have you tried getting your kids to help cook? Maybe try something only slightly challenging, get them to help you put it together (tasting the individual ingredients might help), then heap praise on them as you sit down to eat.

    One idea for this — since you mention casseroles as a rejected category — are enchiladas or an enchilada casserole. The basic ingedients are probably on the “ok foods” list — chicken, tortillas, lots of cheese — plus the fun of either rolling or tearing tortillas up. (Sauce could be risky — maybe use plain old tomato paste? Or skip it?)

    The other thing I’ve read is to use peer pressure — do they cousins or friends who are adventurous eaters? Can you get them invited over (without you) and see how they do? And then leverage the recipes of whatever worked at so-and-so’s house?

    Let’s see what other ideas I can come up with…. How about book themed meals? Green Eggs and Ham? Whatever comes up in whatever books you are reading? Doesn’t Eloise order room service at the Plaza? Engage the imagination — get dressed up, serve them breakfast in bed, have a campout, in order to make it more about the experience than about the food.

  3. Sara in Austin says

    One other trick: Ranch Dressing! Where other kids eat ketchup with everything, the kids in my extended family always wanted Ranch with *everything*. Ranch as an incentive to each fresh veggies definitely worked on us.

    (You can make a super healthy version of ranch dip by mixing dry ranch dressing mix with some of the really good Fage Drained Nonfat Yogurt.)

  4. Jennifer says

    I try and balance things I know my daughter likes with things I or my husband like. Both in a meal and through the week. My husband has very different tastes from me so we follow Ellyn Satter’s advice that everyone gets a turn at their favorites. I don’t claim to be any good at it, but I try.

    If I can, I separate out the pieces of a hot dish or stir fry for my daughter. She’s still suspicious of combined foods. Or I might serve a sauce on the side so she can eat the food plain. And I try and have bread, crackers or rice at the table as an alternative. Getting an entire balanced meal on the table is enough work for me that even something as easy sounding as nukeing some nuggets sounds like too much work. My response to any special requests is: “This is what’s for dinner tonight. What would you like on your plate?”

    We’ve got a CSA subscription and the rule for the grownups is we try everything once, no complaints. But I promised my husband I’d cook no brussel sprouts or stewed tomatoes and I truely can’t stand cantaloupe, so I’m not inclined to create a rule like mamaloo’s. If something we don’t like is at the table, we simply don’t take any of it and keep quiet.

  5. rachel says

    The rule in our house is, if it isn’t eaten at meal time, then it will be the next thing you eat. In other words, if dinner is refused, it’s heated up for breakfast the next day. If it is refused then, the child isn’t allowed any food or juice, only water, until she finally eats it. Eventually she gets hungry enough and relents.

    We do this within reason, of course. If there is something I know she has a hard time with, I’ll only give her a little bit for dinner – a two bite “no thank you” helping. And I make sure not to overload her plate so that she doesn’t have too much – so that I know she isn’t full, but only trying to be in charge of the situaiton. But, she must eat what I give her. Also, I make sure at least one of the foods for dinner is something she really likes, and not to make it all things she hates.

    My daughter is five, but we’ve only had to do this with her about 4 or 5 times, because after the first couple, she knew she didn’t have a choice and didn’t even try. She knows now that it will be eaten at some point, and would rather do it when it’s fresh. She may moan and complain while eating it, but she eats it.

    Another thing we do to help her eat it quickly and not over the course of two hours (which she has done) is set a timer. Give her 20 minutes (or whatever is reasonable) and give her consequences for not finishing it before it goes off. This has worked really well.

  6. Meena says

    I need to get that book.

    We’ve been very laid back about the whole food thing. My 3 year old has been a very picky eater for a while now. Old standbys that used to work (i.e., mac & cheese) no longer interest him. His diet mostly revolves around “little pizzas” (microwavable small round pizzas), grilled cheese sandwiches, and chicken nuggets. I’m feeling a bit guilty that he’s not eating many veggies, although does the tomato sauce in the pizza count? :-) He does seem to eat better at daycare.

    But I realize I probably should make some changes now. Maybe the one bite rule would help (which I believe daycare uses too).

  7. Kai Jones says

    Eh, I’m a picky eater. My husband’s worse. If we get to eat what we like, why shouldn’t the kids? Once they were teens, they could eat what I made or make their own–I always had lots of easy-to-fix options and taught them to make the things they liked.

    Before that it was “prison food” available any time of the day or night: a glass of plain milk, a piece of plain fruit, or a piece of plain bread. We also had one night a week per kid “you pick dinner and I’ll make it” until they were old enough to cook.

  8. Jamie says

    What we prepare is all that’s available at mealtimes. If my daughter doesn’t eat it or only eats a little, then there’s no eating until the next meal unless it’s healthy (fruit, carrots, etc.) or we reheat what was originally served up.

    Kids aren’t going to starve themselves to death. They’ll eat when they get hungry enough.

    I’m also not concerned with her clearing her plate. When she says she’s had enough, I believe her. I’d rather my daughter learned to stop eating when satiated.

  9. Jennifer says

    By the way, “Child of Mine” is fabulous and chock full of good information and advice. For the “Reader’s Digest” version, try Ellyn’s “Secrets of Feeding A Healthy Family.” It includes shorter descriptions of her methods and a three-week cycle menu with recipes and instructions on how to create your own cycle menu. She also discusses common dietary concerns in children. This book is my standard baby shower gift. Once you’ve absorbed the information in “Secrets” check out “Child of Mine” for the details.

  10. margaret says

    If we’re planning to have something our daughter doesn’t like, then we make her something she does. After all, as adults, we get to choose our food, and certainly none of use would intentionally make something we didn’t like! She has her likes and dislikes–as do we–and as long as they are within reason, we try to respect them.

    I’d like to second the person, who suggested having your child help cook. Our daughter (7) chooses and makes (with some supervision) one of our dinners a week. Usually, its mac-and-cheese, but that meal she always eats!

  11. Jill says

    I made a list of all the dishes that we eat that have components that my kids will eat (and be healthy), so I’m usually starting with something reasonably acceptable. While I do have a rule that you must eat your age in bites of salad/veggies to get desert (I know, I know- you aren’t supposed to use sweets that way) my picky eater is proving the rule that if you offer it often enough, they will come around.

    I joined a farm CSA this summer and the surprise produce that shows up each week in our box leads to creative cooking on my part to get it eaten. My trick has been adding familiar ingredients to new foods. I put familiar pasta sauce on spaghetti squash, used lots of cheese and sour cream in a squash casserole, and treated a soup like a pasta sauce to get a taste into them. They’ve both done great, but my self proclaimed “pasta-tarian” has really amazed me. He’s added a half dozen new vegetables to his list of OK foods. If allowed, he’d become one of those kids who eats nothing but white food. I was a picky eater myself, and I’ve grown out of it. I hope my good example will keep them from being as bad as I was. (My mom is so proud!)

  12. Meena says

    Jill – what is a “farm CSA”? It sounds interesting.

    Kai – I think that’s the same reason we feed as we do in our household – many evenings dh & I each choose something different for ourselves to eat. So often we all eat something different!

  13. Jill says

    Meena, CSA or Consumer Supported Agriculture is a way to help out local farmers. You agree before the planting season to purchase a share of someone’s crop. Each week you get a box of whatever is fresh, but you don’t get to pick and choose. Some farmers need cash up front, others may let you pay weekly or monthly. This is the first time I’ve done it and it has really been a fun adventure. We’ve had to freeze some surplus, and I admit to giving away my okra (I live in the south but I CANNOT be that southern!) but we’ve had to “Fridge Google” many recipes this summer for new foods. I really am pleased with my kids. My son was told that the Japanese believe that you add five years to your life when you try a new food. He bought into it and has been very bravely tasting new foods all summer.

  14. Jill says

    Another picky eater trick. I plan menus weekly. I choose two, my DH two, and each child (age 2 and 5) choses one (one is usually on the fly or takeout). The chosing process makes them more interested in what I cook.

  15. Shannon Bonnes says

    Mine is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you allow your child to become a picky eater.

    My youngest sister at the age of eight decided that she did not like 90% of the foods we cooked and would proceed to make herself a packet of noodles or other unhealthy quickie alternative.

    At the time if I had my way she would have gone to bed with nothing and be faced with the meal again in the morning.

    She is now 19 and overweight. She still will not eat many vegetables, any seafood and anything spicy. To this day she still makes a unhealthy quickie meal for the majority of her meals.

    Now whenever I try to get her to change by mentioning she would lose weight, an argument ensues where I am accussed of being “the pot that called the kettle black”.

    While I am a little overweight (not to the point it is unhealthy and I am gradually losing weight), it is because I eat too much of my food most of which is healthy in smaller quantitys.

    So think carefully about allowing a child to make thier own alternative to a meal rather than making them go without.

  16. klev says

    what’s worked? changing it up, more or less. The latest invention of inducing appetite is letting them plan (and shop) for the meal. My mother-in-law swears that her son began cooking at the age of 7 -so the apple falls… So far, we’ve been close to a month of having my 6 year old and my 7 year old plan dinner and shop for it with me. They will also prep and cook (monitored of course)the meal. The result so far has been camaraderie between 2 opposing siblings and actual “thank you, this is good” at the dinner table when the other has cooked. They’ve taken pride in their creation and the other has supported (because they know they’re up next??). Daddy is proud. And mom loves the break.

  17. Brian says

    We have three kids…a 13 y/o boy (who eats everything in sight that is not moving!), and twin 7 y/o girls. One of the twins, Faith, is just adventurous and tries everything…and this trait extends into her eating habits. She tries everything and likes most things she tries.

    The other of the twins, Hannah, is less adventurous. She often will try something if her sister has already tried it. We have thus named the adventurous twin “crash test dummy.” :-)

    Hannah is much more picky about eating. The only real rule we have is if it’s something new, just try it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, that’s OK too. Over time, the kids have seen that we really mean it–we’re not going to force feed them liver and onions–so they all are more open-minded.

    I think in reality, we all have some things we like and some we don’t. No one wants to be forced to eat something…and the forcing will turn dinner into a battle.

    Last week we had corned beef and cabbage for the first time ever. All we asked is that everyone try it. After dinner all we heard was “when are we gonna have that again?!”

  18. Heather says

    I highly recommend Child of Mine. It is a very straight-forward resource. It saved our family from meal-time struggles.

  19. Dot says

    We believe in the ‘you eat what we eat’ rule, but ours is only 15 months, so we’ve been tempering that somewhat. If we’re having steak and veggies for dinner, he may get frozen meatballs or a veggie burger instead of the steak (but still have the same rest of the meal), since that’s kinda hard for him to eat. I’ve also shied away from things like the very spicy thai curry we had the other night, and instead took the meat and veggies out and made him an ‘egg foo yung’ out of them (he’ll eat green peppers and onions in an omelet moreso than by themselves.)

    My question would be what age is really reasonable to expect the kid to be able to eat anything (raw veggies, steaks, very spicy, etc) we are eating?

  20. mamaloo says

    OH, I absolutely support getting the kids involved in meal prep.

    My 3 yo wouldn’t touch brown beans and I was in the mood for “bangers, mash and beans”. I asked my son to help me “cook” them in the microwave by showing which buttons to push to program and start it.

    Guess who eats beans now?

    Every time I need to heat stuff in the microwave, my 3 yo helps and then feels a connection to the food “he made”. My husband and I coo about it to enhance the self pride angle.

  21. hedra says

    BTDT notes:

    1) Sometimes they don’t eat for a reason. If you’re seeing panic instead of calm refusal, or if there’s a steadily reducing intake over time (not just items, but quantity as well), see a specialist – that’s a sign of a bigger underlying problem. In our oldest son’s case, a feeding disorder sprung from overlapping oral traumas including undiagnosed silent reflux.

    2) Forcing the issue can cause further problems later. Feeding disorders of a more serious nature often track back to being *made* to eat things that taste BAD, or being shamed, humiliated, required to be too-neat-for-age, etc. Be compassionate. They’re kids. Picky eating tends to vanish after 5-6 years old, without resorting to cruelty. Encourage, don’t punish.

    3) Stay calm. Even the pickiest eaters usually get enough calories in, and while Gabe was clinically diagnosed, his 11-food-items diet was only short on vitamin A, and only short enough that a chewable every-other day was enough to cover it. Most picky kids eat 12 or so foods. Most normal kids eat about 17, IIRC. The difference is pretty small. Stressing out just makes everything more stressful, and also gives them a big old stick to beat you with, or a way to make your face turn colors and your eyes bug out. ;)

    My advice from the trenches of the SCARY picky eating, which generally apply to others as well:

    A) Stay calm.

    B) Always have at least one item they’ll eat in the family meal. This is not a separate backup item, but something that everyone likes. If that’s carrot sticks, or applesauce, or bread, fine. The point is that you indicate that ‘we all share food at the meal’, even if that’s just one item of overlap. (ours is usually carrot sticks or cucumber slices.)

    C) Acclimate them to the foods you eat. That ‘no thank you’ portion goes on their plate not so they have to taste it, but so they become comfortable with how it looks and smells. Eventually it will be familiar enough to try.

    D) Have them taste new items regularly, but know what a ‘taste’ is. A taste is taking a small portion and holding it in the mouth long enough for it to touch the tongue for more than a second (3 is pretty good, but something foul won’t make it that long). Tasting food is important for acclimating. EATING it is not. If they find it disgusting, the feeding clinic advised allowing them to remove it from their mouth calmly and politely (no spitting or gagging drama), and be done with that food for the day. One of the lines between ‘picky but will grow out of it on their own so don’t panic’ and ‘call the feeding clinic’ is whether they will taste a food, if they know they won’t be forced to eat it if they find it disgusting.

    E) Best not to use distraction and reward systems (dessert, etc.) without a professional helping you. You can really blow it and either reinforce the aversion or just continue a problem much longer than necessary.

    F) ALWAYS check for a health problem first, if you see a pattern (not just ‘dislikes broccoli or cassaroles’ but ‘will only eat X/Y/Z’). Reflux may recur later in childhood, without symptoms, and if they’re listening to their bodies well, they’ll start refusing anything that coincided with reflux in the past. Food allergies, and things like oral allergy syndrome (when pollens in the mouth cause itching when combined with certain foods, like apples, banana, walnuts), also may be playing a role. So can sensory integration issues, celiac disease (especially with weight changes up or down), etc. You can’t fix the food behavior until the medical issue is handled. Granted, most of the time, picky eating by 3-5 year olds is normal! But don’t exclude medical, either. Trust me, it hurts to know your child has been in pain at every meal for six years, and considered that normal, while you’ve been trying to force them to eat, and they’ve been feeling like a bad child because they know they SHOULD eat more things and they can’t make themselves want to. It SUCKS.

    G) Same rules apply to grownups as kids. No-thank-you portions of broccoli go on Daddy’s plate, too.

    H) Don’t play tricks. It just sets up distrust and stress.

    Also, from my own experience, ask what the food is like for them – it may not be the same as what it is like for you. I was SO frustrated with my son’s absolute refusal of anything ‘toasted’ (this after he was ‘recovered’ through feeding therapy), until he said that anything browned (crusts included) tasted like my mom’s French Roast coffee smelled. His taste buds are very sensitive, the flavor is overwhelming and harsh, and just because it tastes okay to me doesn’t mean it tastes okay to him.

    Another idea to try, too: My mom’s house rule was that you had to try each food item once a year. She said that there were some things that we just weren’t old enough to like yet (this made it seem ‘cool and grownup’ to learn to like something), and she also noted that there were some foods that some people never got old enough to like. That was okay, but you just keep trying them, all your life, once a year, to see if you like them now.

    Good luck! Food issues are a big huge deal in many cultures. And our reactions to them usually just make things worse. There’s some fun research coming out that indicates that the more parents allow the child to manage their own feeding behavior (not choices available, but when, how much, what of the choices they take), the more the child maintains normal weight later. This is from infancy on. Bonus, if you let it be their ‘problem’ mealtimes are a lot less stressful. Having learned our lessons the hard way, we’ve found that our other kids know when they’re hungry, are un-stressed about trying things, have distinct likes and dislikes, but balance their diet pretty well over the course of a week.

    Sorry that was so long, I don’t have time to edit for length today…

  22. Tricyclist says

    I have the same question as Dot. At what age do you really expect your kids to eat the same things you eat?

    My three year old is fairly picky. Asking him to try one bite of something new results in tears and resolute refusal, so we don’t push it. I thought maybe on his 4th birthday we would institute a “try it” rule, and try to make it a celebration of being a big boy. I don’t know. I guess I should look into this book everyone is recommending.

    I grew up VERY picky and have grown out of it. I’ll now try almost anything.

    Has anyone witnessed their children grow out of pickiness? At what age?

  23. RedMolly says

    Our only rule is: two bites of everything.

    My older son will eat just about anything (except cooked spinach… which I don’t even try on him). My younger son is a bit more timid, but still an excellent eater–they both like casseroles, spicy food, foods from different cultures/ethnicities.

    I agree that getting kids involved in food prep is a wonderful way to get them to try and enjoy new things. Plus, if you start early enough, they can actually be kinda helpful by the time they hit six or seven!

  24. hedra says

    Tricyclist, at 5, most kids start trying things on their own. Even Gabe, with the feeding disorder still undiagnosed, started trying things then.

    IMHO, food behavior is like all other behavior. It takes time to shape toward adult-normal behavior. We don’t freak if they want to wear only red clothes for a month, but if they’re eating cereal twice in a day, we get scared that they’ll starve or have a dietary lack that will stunt their brains, or get angry that they’re rejecting our efforts to get them to be part of the family meal.

    The long list I gave of ‘how to help’ stuff may seem like a lot of ‘pressing them’ but most of it is very easy to do as a ‘moving them towards’ process rather than a ‘must do all of it perfectly this instant’ issue.

    They’ve got time. Just knowing that even most clinically significant picky eaters eat enough calories and almost enough vitamins (a simple multi vitamin makes up the difference) is a huge relief to most of the parents I know. I was shocked when the nutritionist analysis of Gabe’s diet said he was getting enough calories (How? I was overestimating how much he needed), and very nearly enough vitmains (How? I am not a nutritionist and didn’t know how much was in what foods.).

    Which takes me back to my first bit of advice. Stay calm. It’s not as much of a panic as most people think.

  25. Jill says

    Dot, at 15 months you don’t need to insist if you think it is hard to chew or spicy. Use reason. Mine still had carrots cooked instead of raw until they were about two, and if something is spicy or hard to chew I make it better or swap it out for something easier. If you have something different he may want to taste your’s.

    I make salads for the adults, and quietly leave the peppers off mine. Each kid gets their age in salad items, but everyone has a different salad plate.

    I don’t cook the same now that I have children as I did before. I try to choose meals with components they can and will eat.

  26. deezydubya says

    Dot: my son is 14 months, and while we restrict the hard-to-chew, we let him try the spicy. We started this right from the time he started eating food. He prefers spicy food now. He usually gets a bland thing with it – like rice, noodles or potatoes – but he’ll eat all but the most spicy items as is, no mixing.

    On Monday he had szechuan pork & veggies. And one of his faves is lamb vindaloo, extra spicy.

    We both grew up with “picky” parents and are now adventurous eaters in spite of it. We wanted him to try as many things as he could while he’s little, so that he’d start out with a lot of foods that he likes and then when he restricts down his diet at 2 or 3 (I know this is inevitable!) he will hopefully still have a lot more things he likes than he would if he had only been introduced to a handful of foods like hubby and I were as kids.

  27. Shannon - PHAT Mommy says

    In my opinion, if you offer healthy meals and snacks in your home then everyone should be able to choose to eat whatever they want. Aren’t there foods that you eat, but your spouse doesn’t? Why should your children be treated differently? I let my children help plan meals each week before grocery shopping. If there is something Dad & I like and the kids don’t, they can choose another healthy alternative. Forcing a child to eat something they don’t want sets the stage for major food issues down the line.

  28. Betsy says

    Our two-year-old is served what we eat. Sometimes he doesn’t eat much of it. But there’s always fresh fruit on offer if he eats nothing else. I figure one light meal every three or so is no big deal. He likes Indian food, Thai food, pasta, chicken, rice, etc. We eat so many ‘mixed’ foods that he doesn’t really have an option to separate them. At least, not yet.

    I don’t believe in forcing a kid to sit at the table long after a meal is over – I spent too many evenings force-feeding myself liver or brussels sprouts or lima beans, or hiding them in my milk cup. Fortunately I’m now an adventurous eater with no food or weight problems. I think as he/if he gets pickier we’ll try to be relaxed about it – I like the idea to always have something on offer that the child will eat -for us, it will likely be fruit since even plain bread is not really appealing to him.

    If he says he’s ‘all done’ before dinner is over, we tell him calmly that he doesn’t have to eat any more, but dinner isn’t over and he needs to sit with us. He crabs, then accepts it, then he usually eats some more.

  29. Mel says

    At our house, when dinner is served the options are all on the table. If we’re having something that the kids haven’t liked in the past, we make sure there are things on the table they do like as side dishes … raw veggies, biscuits, or something like that. And they are given the choice to have rice or noodles pre-sauce.

    I’m not a fan of the “clear your plate” or “eat this much” rules, having been a victim of these as a child myself! And when they say they’re done, that’s fine. I’d like to allow them to keep their ability to listen to their bodies and regulate their own foor intake.

    Two books I recommend on the topic are “Winning the Food Fight” by Dr. Joey Schulman and “Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health” by Susan B. Roberts and Melvin B. Heyman.

  30. angel funk says

    i checked out “child of mine” from the library, and she does have some really good info. but i found the information on weaning to be really inappropriate considering the world health organization recommends two years of nursing if possible, and her advice on “sleep training” seemed out of place in a nutrition book. just my .02!

  31. Piove says

    The question at what age do you expect them to eat the same things you do? In our case, as soon as he started on solid foods. Raiden, now 9 months has always wanted to try everything that we do. Almost always, he likes it. This includes spicy foods, including curries, and things such as gherkins and olives. He helps cook, smells and tastes all the ingredients, and loves cooking and dinner time. There should be a hack appearing soon