06 February 2013

When kids won't eat what's for dinner...but are old enough to cook?

At Amazon: Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, Revised and Updated Edition
At Amazon: Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, Revised and Updated Edition

Will you permit me to hog the mike for a moment and ask for your advice? (One of the unofficial benefits of running a parenting advice blog, eh?)

What do you do when your finicky kids don't like (read: CAN'T STAND) what's being served for dinner and ask if they can instead prepare something else for themselves?

Context: we sit down to dinner together every night. As a rule, we eat good quality food, much (but not all) of it kid-friendly, and the cook (me or my husband) prepares a single meal for the entire family. The expectation is that people will eat what they like from what's being served.

My kids have always been picky and I've come to begrudgingly accept it. I read Child Of Mine by Ellyn Satter years ago and agree with it in principle: it's my job to choose and offer the food, their job to choose what and how much of it to eat.

The thing is now they are old enough (13 and 9) to politely decline the bulk of the meal and, 15 minutes after we clear the dishes, say they're hungry and go into the kitchen to make themselves soup, cereal or whatever other "meal" they want.

This is a problem. It is for me, anyway. It's not great from a nutrition, grocery budget, or taste-widening perspective. Plus, it just feels wrong (and even a little disrespectful and spoiled). And yet, the idea forcing kids to eat food they hate, and then blocking access to the pantry and fridge after dinner seems silly and possibly stupidly short-sighted.

Picky eating is a hot-button issue for me, so I don't always respond rationally or consistently. Can you help? Please leave a comment!

Yes indeed, I've got a parenting book about to hit the shelves and I'm asking for advice! I still have as many parenting questions as the next person, and I love that I can look to you for guidance as much as you look to Parent Hacks. Thanks for indulging me.

More: Tips, ideas, and recipes in the Mealtime archive

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The policy in my house is that if you don't like what mom makes, you are in charge of feeding yourself from what is available in the house. Since I do all of the grocery shopping and cooking, I still have complete control over what is being eaten. Since it is just my husband and my 2 yr old son that I have to please, I haven't had too many complaints. We will see if I change my tune in 10 years.

Nip this in the bud right now. If they don't follow your rules about dinner time I think that's the start of a slippery slope re: not listening to other rules, like bedtimes, friends, dating, etc.

Good luck!

A compromise might be an agreed-upon bedtime snack?

growing up my mom would make one meal. if you didn't like it, you had to fend for yourself. since your kids are old enough to cook... maybe try a compromise. if they don't like dinner they can make something else as long as they eat with the family and what they make follows certain rules like must have a protein and a vegetable or a fruit.

Have the kids prepare a meal once a week. This is easiest on the weekend when there is more time to plan and coach. Start by teaching them how to find recipes and make sure they meet the nutritional requirements for the meal. Have them make a list of what's needed and make a shopping list (to add to your own). The older one can probably look at grocery ads online to see what's on sale if you are trying to follow a budget.

Guide them but don't try too hard to control the process. Observe while they cook but let them make a few mistakes. If they pick something way beyond their ability, still let them try. The first meal might not be very good, but help them feel proud and learn what to do differently next time.

They are old enough to share the responsibility to a certain degree. But they'll value the effort you and your husband put into meal prep if they are part of the process. And you might also get to try something new to eat along the way!

I try to offer what ever I am serving in a "deconstructed" way. My daughter will eat corn, black beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, all separately but not mixed together in a stew or curry or enchiladas. This seems to be a good solution for us.

My kids aren't finicky, but they do have things they don't like, only after at least trying it. I have them make a the dinner schedule and they write it all on the calendar. It has to have all the needed nutritious stuff. One of my daughters has cooked a full meal on several occasions. Over the years of watching me cook and serve up meals, she wanted to try her hand. Cereal is a breakfast food I tell them, unless we're having a breakfast dinner. I do my best to have good snacks on hand, (we get crazy on the weekends, because weekends are made to let your hair down) My Doctor told me something a long time ago, Hunger is a power motivator, I stopped buying pop tarts and the like. Substituted chocolate chip granola, now I don't even have that increased my fruits on hand Oranges, Apples... showed them how to use a knife, skills they need to know before they leave the house, if they is to be an accident, I'd prefer it happen on my watch and not off at college. Not to say accidents don't happen, but ya get the drift. Chop up cauliflower and mix it in with the mash potatoes...they never know ...sorry to be so wordy, it's just I have 3 kids and so much to say :) my 2 cents

My kids are in middle school. Like you I do my best to cook healthy meals that appeal to all eaters at our table. Each child has one or two "yucky meals" that they truly don't like. For my daughter it's seafood. She never eats it. Ever. Not anywhere. But of course my son loves it. Any night we have seafood I allow her to make herself a sandwich or reheat leftovers. Other than a situation like this one everyone is expected to eat what is served. If they don't eat their dinner? That's OK-----we all eat again at the next meal or regular snack times. It has worked well for us and our doctor has always praises my children for a healthy body weight and varied diet.

I also think it is important to stress to children that eating is not always about what you like or don't like. Sometimes it is about making proper choices.

Good luck on your journey! Food issues and sleep issues are often a balancing act and there is never any shortage of opinions.

I forgot one, those with really young ones, train them early, ya can't miss what ya never had.

I feel your pain! My kids aren't super picky, but they all have their moments of rejecting whatever is served. I usually try to plan to have at least one thing that everyone likes or serve meals deconstructed so people can leave out what they don't like. Another approach would require a little advance planning, but how about involving them in meal planning? At a minimum, let them review the week's menu before you shop, and make suggestions for alternatives or variations that you can serve along with meals they aren't crazy about. If you're feeling ambitious, encourage them to plan some meals on their own (maybe even help prepare them). In the process, I would be honest with them that heading to the kitchen for a second meal is wasteful and hard on the food budget, not always a nutritious choice, and it's disrespectful to the cook. If they're still hungry after a meal, together come up with a list of acceptable choices. Good luck! I can't wait to read other people's suggestions!

If I know the kids absolutely do not like what I am making, I try to have one side option available for them, but often they still must have one bite of the "offensive" dish because tastes DO change.

If I'm making a new recipe, they are required to try it. If they are unable to eat a few bites of the new recipe, then they can make a sandwich or bowl of cereal. That's it. But they HAVE to try all food served first. And there aren't going to be rewards for pickiness either.

There are a few foods that I know my kids truly despise (bananas for my son, eggs for my daughter) which would likely result in gagging and I don't want to torture them, so I would never force them to have bites of these items. I wouldn't even make a dish that had these items as an ingredient and try to serve it. No sense in asking for trouble.

But my kids are pretty open to all sorts of food, always have been, because we have insisted on them trying the food since they were babies. Looks are often deceiving and something that they initally sneer their noses at turns out to be a big favorite!

It bugs the heck out of me when we have friends visit and are told, "My child only eats chicken nuggets or pizza." Unless their child has a sensory issue involving certain food textures/tastes, then they have created the monster that will only eat those foods.

Sounds like they need to be more involved in the "official" meal planning and preparation. You remind me of a story when I was a teenager. We had oatmeal and eggs practically every morning, because our budget made more variety untenable.

I actually liked oatmeal and eggs, but the problem was due to the way everyone's schedules worked out, breakfast was always cold by the time we ate it, and I HATE cold oatmeal and eggs. The only way to get it warm was for me to cook it myself, so I took the job, and actually didn't mind.

You could do the same for dinners. Provide a set of guidelines that must be followed, like requiring at least one vegetable for example, then only allow pickiness if they help with the preparation. That way you don't prepare too much food. Sometimes at our house we all eat different meals, but that's okay because we decided it before it was prepared.

Another thing to consider is a fussy eater might not object to the entire meal, only an ingredient. I like food a lot spicier than my wife, so when I cook, I make the family meal mild, and just add the heat to my own. That keeps everyone happy with barely any extra work.

YOU PEOPLE ARE SMART. Please continue. I'm listening. Thank you so, so much for this. You have no idea how comforting this is.

My twins are only 3.5 so bear that in mind as I offer advice...

I've become a fan of Nina Rose who believes that teaching kids good habits should be the parent's objective, rather than just making sure they get the right nutrients. To that end, she suggests allowing your kid to have one back up food that's always in the house. Something that is easy to have on hand, that is nutritious, and that the kid likes and will eat, but (and this is key) does not love. You and your kids can discuss this in advance so that they can help decide what this back up food will be. She offers a list on her website but it's foods like a hard-boiled egg, beans, cottage cheese...

Here's a link to her blog post about back up food: http://www.itsnotaboutnutrition.com/home/2009/9/30/how-cottage-cheese-changed-my-life.html

I haven't had to use back up foods yet but I find her techniques to be enormously helpful. My girls are good eaters so far (knock on wood) and I attribute much of that to the advice I've gotten from her blog.

Just my two cents.

In our house, the alternative was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Only. If, after trying a bite of everything, the meal was something you couldn't stand at all, you could make yourself one sandwich, and sit down and eat with the rest of the family still at the table. Mom figured that was enough to keep us from going hungry until breakfast but she wasn't going to let us poke around the cupboards for something "better." I'm not saying your alternative meal has to be a sandwich, but you get the idea.

I have two suggestions, at least one mentioned already. I start my week by asking each kid to suggest one meal idea and my husband to suggest two. I plan two and for one we wing it. You might boost their involvement to two each.

Second, I made a "menu" for lunch packing. It lists a variety of protein options, carb options, fruit and veggies, etc. If you ask them to replace the dreaded vegetable with a different vegetable from a "veggie like list" and a different protein off their "protein like list" then you can be sure they're still eating healthy and not filling up on breakfast cereal.

On the other hand, I made each of my kids, as toddlers, go hungry once and they never refused a meal again. I was a picky kid myself, but was allowed to peel myself a carrot if I didn't want the food prepared. It was a l-o-n-g time before I came around. (I credit a year of travel in Europe w/extremely tight finances plus a husband who eats anything. I'm still pickier than my kids tho.)

We have one alternative food that the kids are allowed as a sub for the meal and they have to make it themselves. And I would freak if it happened too many times in a row... hummus and pita.

Also, there's no chance of dessert if you don't have "nice dinner, nice manners" at my table.

My kids are not yet old enough to prepare their own food so our dinner rule is pretty simple: This is what we're having. If it doesn't suit for you, you are welcome to avail yourself of fruit or nuts (technically veggies are also a valid alternative but they never select it). So it's not at all unusual to have my 3 YO skip our dinner entirely and eat a banana and peanuts for dinner. I suppose when they are old enough to function in the kitchen I might expand the alternatives a bit to other healthy options. For example if you don't like what I've prepared you are welcome to prepare a healthy fresh salad, eggs, or fresh fruit with yogurt. You are not, however, welcome to go into the kitchen and make whatever you feel like because I'm not going to keep my kitchen so stripped of treats that I can offer that alternative. So fresh salad is OK, honey nut cheerios is not OK.

I have picky eaters too. I will modify the meal for them, as much as it is convenient for me. Ex.: if they don't like the sauce I'm putting on the chicken, I'll set aside some plain chicken for them. I'm not very strict about food, but I'm not going to cook something totally different for them. If they can't find something they like, they can fend for themselves.

I personally like almost everything, but I try to look at it from their perspective. If I went to an Indian restaurant I'd be hard pressed to find something I like. I'd try a bit, and mostly eat naan. I wouldn't want someone to insist that I eat something every night that I don't like. Neither would I be so rude as to demand they cater to me. And that's how I approach it with my kids.

My oldest kid just turned 2, so this is from the perspective of a kid, not parent. I was that kid who always ate cereal after dinner that I didn't like, just because I have a lot of categorical food dislikes (certain textures, all cilantro, all seafood, eggs, etc.). And I didn't starve, turned out fine, and - actually - ate Chex for lunch today. What can I say? - I like cereal. When my kids are big enough, I'll let them make a sandwich or some cereal - real food, not just snacks - which is better than the current thing where my 3 yo will just not eat for dinner and then wakes up hungry at 4:30am. . . but I'm still trying to convince him to like all the different things I cook.

I can't speak from experience as my kids eat most things but I know a family that has one alternate dinner choice (I think it's a bowl of Cheerios) and if you don't like dinner that's your only option. It's enough calories to avoid malnutrition but it's not very exciting so the kids only choose it if they really don't like the dinner. I've also heard of offering veggies and dip as the alternate meal. I think this would be hard to stick to though. Good luck!

Great advice here. I have a 6 and 7 year old, and our rule is similar to Alexis'. My kids must try one bite of everything. On a positive note, they eat most veggies we often serve, so they usually eat that. But, regardless, if they don't eat a satisfactory dinner, they can only have an apple or veggies after dinner.

I would say no. From a habits perspective, I think it's not a good habit to blur mealitimes and foster the idea of eating on demand at all hours of the day. I'd have a bigger issue with them eating *after* the main meal than allowing them to cook for themselves. Maybe a compromise could be to have them assist you in the cooking. Then they could have some control over what goes on the table, but you preserve the integrity of a fixed mealtime.

What about planning menus for the week as a family? That way everyone has input, knows in advance what's being served when and can help in the prep. Maybe even brainstorm some new recipes!

As a mom of 10 kids, I'd go nutty with kids routinely making alternatives. The long version of my food philosophy is here: http://www.owlhaven.net/2012/04/26/raising-fearless-eaters/
Short version: the kids are stuck eating what we eat except in the case of a FEW foods they really hate. Then the alternative, always, is a peanut butter sandwich. Deliberately boring. Keeps them more inclined to try what I offer. FWIW, the plan seems to be working. Most of my kids are great eaters!

We tell her "if you don't like what's for supper, there's always bread and butter." And we make a point of preparing meals that she likes at least as often as the other kind. We also designate the type of meal on particular days, so that she's never very surprised, i.e. Mondays are meatless, Tuesdays are Mexican, Wednesdays are Italian, and so on.

My boys are 3, 6, and 9, and dinner has always been two options: eat it or don't. That said, I have done some of the things previously suggested like leaving some chicken without seasoning/sauce and having the kids help with the meal planning. For a period of time, the older ones picked one meal a week and they were surprisingly good choices!

As an adult who never did grow out of being a "picky eater" (I hate that phrase), I very highly recommend Nina Rose's advice about backup food that HRM posted upthread. My family stumbled onto a similar solution and it was a lifesaver for all of us. Before that, my parents would say things like "you can't leave the table until you eat one green bean," so I'd stay at the table until bedtime. Or they'd say "You can eat what's being served, or nothing at all," and I'd eat nothing at all. It did not make for a happy family. I know not all "picky" children are like me - some of them are just testing boundaries - but for those who are, no amount of cajoling or disciplining is going to help. Some foods just don't register as edible. It's as if you were served a plate of laundry detergent for dinner.

If you have a truly picky child, I recommend reading Stephanie Lucianovic's Suffering Succotash (http://www.amazon.com/Suffering-Succotash-Picky-Eaters-Understand/dp/0399537503). You won't find a list of solutions, but you'll understand your child a lot better.

I doubt I have anything new to offer, but I agree what others have said. If they don't like what you're fixing its time to invite them into the kitchen. They need to learn how to cook anyway. If they like soup, then have a soup with dinner. If they'd rather have that piece of chicken on bread, that's ok.

My 5yr old gets "naked nuggets" a lot when I serve grilled chicken.

Like some other posters, I make my children (5 & 7) eat a modicum of any food served. I've explained to them that their hindbrains, that are right now mistakenly telling them that what's on the table is yucky, need to (several times) have the experience of "I ate that -- and my stomach's happy about it" before it'll reprogram to tell them that it's yummy. In particular, one bean isn't enough, it's got to be a few mouthfuls.

The then-6-year-old bought this rationale, and the younger one went along. They're not ecstatic about it, but they at least understand that I'm not going to take "I don't like this taste [now]" as enough reason to let them eat none of it.

My children (3 & 7) are horribly picky, and I do what many here are saying - I cook one meal. I allow them to choose their breakfast and lunches, but dinner is whatever I have made. I do not cook the things they hate; but if my husband and I want to eat one of those hated meals, I will give them an alternative. I am teaching my daughter that she doesn't have to refuse the entire plate if she doesn't like something in it (ex. pick the peas out of a shepherd's pie). I am also trying to teach her that she needs to learn to be flexible. She will spend her teen years eating at friends' houses, and adult years at business lunches, and must learn to deal with foods she doesn't like in a respectful and polite manner.

I agree with much of what has been said, the biggest being let *them* help with the menu planning. My kids are still little, but we are pretty strict with the "you eat what is served or nothing at all" rule. The ONLY exception is if a dish turns out spicier than I expect and it's too spicy. I'm not going to make them choose between something that hurts or not eating. Then they get a quick sandwich. I've had nights where my 4 year old only eats a few bites for dinner. But those are rare. (Our other rule is you can't have seconds of anything until you finish all your firsts).

I do my best to plan meals that I think they will like. Breakfast is always some variety of baked or crock pot oatmeal that I make Sunday night to eat through the week, with some yogurt. I have 5-6 quick, relatively healthy lunches that my son gets to choose from, but he's only allowed to have each once/per week. Dinner is what ever I make. We have some hits and some misses. But even the misses he eats just enough to not be hungry, even if it's only a few bites.

In our house the only food you can eat no matter the time is raw carrots.

My kids also love to cook and participate in meal planning/prep.

I have kids who are pretty good eaters so its not so much of a problem for us, but in my house if you don't like the dinner then too bad, you need to at least try it and have a few bites. If you dont eat your dinner and then say you are hungry, well, turns out Mum has saved it in the fridge. This probably wont work so well though when they are older though.

The other thing I have heard of people doing is allowing kids to have a list of say 3 items they are allowed to refuse point blank, everything else needs to be at least tried for a few bites.

I basically make steamed broccoli every night. My kids all love it with butter, even the baby.

My rules....

1. Eat your broccoli (or other veg if I'm out).
2. I require a meaningful taste or two of supper.
3. No gross out noises
4. No screens (mum can look at the newspaper)

Then I let them eat out of the fruit bowl within reason, and we have a snack before bed. And they have. Huge after school snack. I don't think they get enough protein, so I do allow dairy. I need to work on incorporating more beans.

When my older son was little, he ate everything. Then he hit school-age and suddenly became so picky! Food couldn't touch, it had to be deconstructed (as another commentor said, he'd eat a cheese burger or sandwich if all the parts were separate but not put together), and some things he just didn't like the look or smell of. After years of trying to get him to at least try new foods and to eat the 'normal' family meal, I finally gave up once he hit his teens. I been teaching him how to make the foods he liked, so at that point, I just let him make his own meal if he didn't want what I was serving As a bonus, sometimes he would make dinner for everyone.

Then when he hit 21-22 years of age, he suddenly wanted to start trying new things! Now he is 26 years old and you'd never know he had once been so picky. There are still some things he doesn't like and won't eat, but I think that is true for most people.

I grew up on a household where you ate the meal. Period. If you didn't eat it at dinner, you would eat it for breakfast or dinner the next night. Snacks were a rarity, if you were hungry between meals, you just had to wait. As a consequence of many of the rules about food in our house growing up, my sister and I both grew up with different eating disorders. Forcing children to eat food they don't like should never be an consideration! Neither should you let them go hungry because they don't like what was made. These sorts of things set up an unhealthy relationship with and attitude towards food.

If having meal time together as a family is the most important goal, then let them do the menu planning with you. If they are expected to eat what is made, then they should have some input into what is made. As adults, would we like it if our boss/company dictated what we ate for lunch and we either ate the planned lunch or went hungry all day? Children, especially once they are old enough to learn to cook, should be a part of the process. Yes it might mean you'll have to eat meals you don't care for much a few times a week, but isn't that what we are asking them to do?

Alternatively, you can always let them prepare their own meals if they don't like the planned meal, with the rule that they have to prepare it themselves and eat with the family and stay until the meal is over for everyone. That way, you all get to eat together and get the family time of it, without it being a negative experience for them. If nutrition is a concern, you can work with them to come up with meal plans they can make that fulfills the nutrition they need. Something as simple as a list of acceptable proteins, carbs, fats, veggies and fruits, dairy, etc and how much of each a meal needs.

No matter how picky they are now, as long as they see you trying new things, and you help them develop a healthy attitude towards food, once they are adults they will probably start to eat more normally. Focus on teaching them the basics of cooking and nutrition, guide them, encourage them, and trust them. Make it a partnership, not a dictatorship and you will all be more likely to enjoy the ride together. (Please note I use you in the general sense, and not a particular one)

I have more, for I also have a six-year-old son with food issues. But this is already long, and his issues are different so I will post it separately.

We used to have a nightly family dinner, but then we moved to Israel and my husband started working in an office instead of at home and traveling a LOT and life fell apart for a while and things got crazy and blah blah, and we are trying to get back into good habits, but I do still have several thoughts/ideas to share:

1. I tend to eat when I am hungry, which sometimes means that when we sit down to dinner, I am picking at a few veggies, and an hour or two later, I make myself something to eat. This also means that I sometimes suddenly realize I am STARVING and shove anything handy into my mouth. I'm working on getting better about this, and one of my resolutions was to "eat regular meals." It's a process.

2. We clean the kitchen at around 6:30pm (by "we" I mean one of my daughters, who are the two oldest kids (12 and 13), and who are nicknamed Cinderella, if you ask them). Anyone who eats anything after the kitchen has been cleaned is responsible for washing his/her own dish/cleaning up.

3. My friend had great success with each family member picking the meal for one night of the week -- but the caveat was you had to eat on all the other nights to be allowed to have your choice. YMMV.

4. As others have suggested, involve your kids in menu planning and in meal prep. AND CLEANUP.

5. No one ever died from eating cereal for dinner. At various times in our lives, we go through stuff. This past year, for our family, was fondly called "The Dark Days." But we came out on the other end, and NO ONE DIED, which was a MAJOR achievement. And there was a LOT of cereal for dinner. There was a lot of cookies for dinner, too, frankly. And there were plenty of nights when I didn't make ANYTHING for ANYONE because I was too overwhelmed. We survived, and we are getting back to our routine.

That's all! Good luck!

These comments have been incredibly helpful! Wow everybody!!!! Like Asha, I am writing a book which includes a lot about parenting, yet I too suddenly stumble upon these fresh parenting challenges. Mothers sharing "what works for them" is a hugely valuable source of inspiration. Whilst I got a lot out of many of the comments above, my favorite has to be Marie who had a picky eater son who grew out of it and when he hit his early 20's suddenly changed and began trying new things. These are the kind of stories I like the very best. Mothers who've been through it and come out the other side knowing that everything turned out ok. I am going to take your approach on board with my 10 and 13 year old. Thank you Marie - and everyone!

I have to say we take a hard line on this, you eat whats on offer or you go hungry – its never come to that though! The POWER OF PUDDING is fantastic. Lets face it most of the picky eating revolves around the main meal and vegetables. "If you're too full to eat that you don't need pudding" is a fantastic motivator. Pudding doesn't have to be complicated, yogurt, biscuits etc all count as pudding :)

Our eldest is 9 and we've also allowed her to make meals, there are kids cookbooks, so if they're interested and ask to, do let them make a meal (even if it's just cheese on toast and salad). I think that's one of the best compromises for picky eaters, getting them to choose and make meals. If nothing else it should help them develop better manners! It's massively insulting to have worked on a meal only to have people refuse to eat it. Doubly so when instead of cooking something you like you've opted for something relatively bland so the kids will eat it!

I'd second other comments above:
You must eat one mouthful properly before declaring "I don't like/want it".
They love helping wash the dishes, both washing and putting away: they pretend to be magic elves making the dishes disappear together with mock shock from parents "where did those dishes go? I just put them down right there!"

I don't think its silly or shortsighted to block access to lazy/junky food, I think this is really one of those issues where kids will push the boundaries as much as you let them. Everybody is free to choose their own battles though :)

I keep carrots and/or celery in the house at all times. If you don't want what is being eaten as the family you can have the carrots and/or celery, plain or topped with peanut butter and/or ranch dip. Sometimes i don't like a meal not made by me and i stick to that for myself as well.

Almost everything I would say has been said. The key is to put in place a structure that works for your family so you are not making it up as you go. As previous commenters said, I advocate using a backup
http://www.itsnotaboutnutrition.com/home/2009/9/30/how-cottage-cheese-changed-my-life.html
but you could also allow your children to prepare something else. These solutions only work if you experience this problem from time to time. If your kids are refusing what you serve on a regular basis you need a different tactic: prepare a meal that includes at least one thing that everyone can be reasonably expected to eat (even if that one thing is rice or bread) and then no eating until the next scheduled meal or snack. No eating on demand. Structure. No pressure. Habits. Working with your kids.

Dina
www.itsnotaboutnutrition.com

I feel like there's something to be said for learning to display courtesy toward someone who has prepared a meal for you. If I take the time to make a dinner, and the kids balk and decide on a pb&j instead, yes, that's reasonably healthy. I'm not worried about malnutrition for either of them. But what happens when they eat at a friend's house, or order something at a restaurant, or get married to someone who likes to cook? I don't want to be too hard-nosed about it and insist on them eating the food I cook, but there's something kind of rude about refusing to eat what someone made for you, and then eating something else. Is it just me? I don't know if it's something people grow out of - there are adults in my life who will turn up their noses at other people's homemade food and it just seems rude, but it could be that I was raised very differently (you eat what you're served and that's the end of it)

"This is the dinner tonight. You can be the chef tomorrow. Make sure your meal meets these requirements (healthy, works around stuff you want/need to avoid...)"
It's a win-win. You don't have to plan/make dinner and the kids realize the effort it takes AND possibly how it feels if their siblings complain after all the work they did.

I was (still am, really) the picky eater in my family. Like BKC, mom let me make a PB&J sandwich if whatever she'd made was something I didn't like. Helping plan and make meals didn't do much for me - I'll chop all the onions and tomatoes and green peppers you think we'll need, but I'm not going to eat them. I wish it had worked, though, as I'm still a pretty picky eater now as a "grown up." I'm used to it, though, and I'm pretty comfortable eating what I can when I'm at friends' houses. If I don't eat much, no biggie. The next meal isn't that far away.

A friend of mine from childhood and I were talking about this same sort of issue a few years back and her mother instituted "thank you bites" at mealtime. I think they were expected to eat more than one bite, but she was very interested that they eat what they were served whenever they were out and about. It was showing respect for the cook, good hospitality, etc. Health concerns like food allergies were legite reasons to pardon oneself, but my friend shared that it had served her so well as an adult. We've been at gatherings where one or two cooks had worked extremely hard to make a lovely meal that accommodated eatin restrictions and allergies to have numerous guest turn down quite a bit of food because it 'wasn't something they liked'- wouldn't even try it! Very disheartening to see. But sometimes a simple place to start practicing empathy is at the table, ya know?
I LOVED the suggestion above about getting the kids to be in charge of one meal a week! I think that's brilliant and a smart way to gently walk them the direction they should go!

My 4YO eats most things and will try anything once. My 2YO is picky. Will refuse to try almost everything, and will only eat one of 15 or 16 items (very few of which are in their original form, or even close to it, and almost no protein). It is making me absolutely crazy. CRAZY. He is causing the 4YO to be much more picky herself. The kitchen is open all the time, even in the car and I'm over it.

My current approach: If dinner is unsatisfactory, then the child may have cottage cheese instead. That is all. No other substitutions. No more multiple meals. The idea is to give them enough food to sleep through the night (still struggling with that as well). I am also starting to phase out some of the staple "snack" foods the 2YO cries for all day long (Z Bars). We are 3 days in and are down to 3 tantrums per day on that topic. I'm taking notes on what to do 3 and 4 years down the road...

Ditto Nina Rose's approach. If the kids (8 and 6) don't eat dinner, they can help themselves to a plain, nutritious alternative: usually cottage cheese, and if I don't have that it's yogurt or a slice of wheat bread toast.

I've found it very helpful to set out a simple plate of plain veggies for nibbling before dinner, without any announcement: As I'm preparing dinner, the kids often help themselves the veggies — the same ones they would refuse to eat if they were on their dinner plates. I LOVE this trick: I don't prod or say a word, and they eat without any fuss. I wrote a little about it here: http://goo.gl/D0m8.

We also had "last call" about 45 minutes before bedtime, at which point the kids could help themselves to an easy-to-eat piece of fruit, like a clementine or apple. We're eating dinner later and have eliminated that, but it helped solve the "I'm hungry!" wailing at bedtime.

Our pediatrician smartly told us to never make food an issue. So with a picky eater I tried to encourage him to eat different foods, but never punished him for not eating. She also said, he will eat eventually, and he did.

We always had a few foods he liked that were good for him just in case he wasn't game for what we were eating.

He liked to help when he was little and he now will try new food. He now cooks and is happy to go out to dinner with us (he's 20).

Discipline was reserved for the big issues, not food.

All of these comments are somoving...perhaps it's just the glimpse into your family lives (and your own childhoods). I think that nourishing our kids is such an elemental part of parenting that it really gets to our emotional guts, you know?

This is such reasonable, kind advice. It's really helping me gain perspective on the "problem." Especially those of you who were "picky" as kids (pardon the term because I'm sure you're sick of it)...it helps to get an adult perspective on that because I ate everything as a kid (and still do today).

My kids are 4.5, 2.5 and 7 months. Life is kind of crazy right now with the baby and my husband is a chef who works at night so dinner--for now--is just the kids at the table while I fix/serve and refill/etc. They are fairly good eaters and I make what I know they will like. The kitchen is open when I am cooking and during mealtime but when dinner is over, the kitchen is closed. I always ask before if anyone would like anything else (and this is sometimes during dinner, if everyone has a full plate) then I close the kitchen so I can sit down with them and talk. Very, very rarely do I allow them to have a snack before bedtime--usually for extremely unusual circumstances like sickness/travel issues or something totally crazy and out of the ordinary.

Lately my 2.5 YO has been refusing to eat a few of his favorites and I've offered him some fruit and a bowl of cheerios instead or yogurt and Coco-pop (kind of like a rice cake but thinner and tastier). He has accepted the alternative multiple times and been happy with that. As long as he is eating something healthy, I'm not too bothered by it. It's easy now because they are young and I can be in total control of the quality of food they eat.

Go figure though that tonight, after I served him the yogurt and Coco-Pop, he saw the quesadilla I made for my daughter and announced he wanted one too. After refusing it the last 5 times I've made them! I was happy he wanted it and in reality, he was probably hungry from not eating much the past few days because he ate everything, plus the banana-strawberry smoothie I made him for his fruit.

I know that mealtimes will always be a little different because my husband won't be home for them 90% of the time. When I was growing up, we always--ALWAYS--sat down to family dinner and I plan on keeping that a part of life as I raise my kids. It's important to me.

This comment is for the outliers (who are probably the only parents who will read this far in comments anyway).

If you actively worry that your skinny kid isn't getting enough food- much less nutrients- there may be larger issues. They can be sensory issues or, as is the case with my child, physiological ones.

If your child is actually frightened by any food outside of their dozen or so loyal standbys (truly terrified) and dinners have gotten to the point where you can hardly remain in the room without wanting to scream or cry (or both), it might be time to start looking toward professional help.

Part of our family's struggle with a profoundly picky eater is here: http://babytoolkit.blogspot.com/2012/09/profoundly-picky-eaters-professional.html

This situation won't apply to most of the parents reading this post, but I hated not having any idea where to turn for so many years.

My son is now 24 and was really picky. He was about eleven when I started having him cook supper two nights a week. We came up with about a dozen different meals that I kept the ingrediants on hand for that I felt I could teach him and he created a menu. He would present the menu to my husband and myself and we would pick the meal and he (with my guidance) would cook it and serve it. He got a real kick out of it and ate really well those nights. On other nights, he had a handful of healthy options that he could pick if he didn't want what we were having. Cold veggies & dip, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cheese sandwich, those individual pizza bread crusts with any toppings, fresh fruit, etc. If he didn't want what we had, at least he had something semi-decent to pick from and eat. The rule was that he had to try it first, and if he didn't like it - he could pick from the alternatives.

Now, he's got a fiance and a 5 yr old son and he's the primary cook in the house. He's still a pretty picky eater, but since he does all the cooking, it's working out quite well for him. And his taste buds have just now started to expand as he tries to find good healthy vegetables to get his son to eat - he's learning that they aren't all as bad as he had thought.

I was a picky child. I still remember being forced to sit at the dinner table until I ate my peas. It was until I was in my 30s that I started trying and liking a lot of new foods. But I still won't eat peas. My vote is to let them feed themselves as long as it's reasonably healthy - cereal not candy. Or have them help choose and prepare the meals - getting them involved in the process may make them more likely to enjoy the result.

We do a lot of deconstructed meals...my husband and I will layer black beans, cilantro rice, pico de gallo, guacamole, chicken, grated cheese, sour cream...it's amazing. My 4yo prefers beans, plain rice, sour cream, & cheese...separated by generous margins so they don't touch. The 3yotwo likes beans, rice, sour cream, & avocado. The 20mo loves it all. This tye of meal allows for everyone to eat well & happily.

Otherwise, we focus on not fussing or whining about what is on your plate, trying everything, & we all sit & talk until everyone is done (giving everyone an opportunity to rethink their stance on eating whatever they're doubtful about).

I will give my 4yo a few hardboiled eggs if we're having quiche...the texture truly bugs him & he has tried it multiple times. Otherwise, I don't offer alternatives & dinner leftovers are the only option until bedtime, when you can have fruit & milk as a bedtime snack.

This is what I do with my 4 year old so I know it won't necessarily work with older kids. When she doesn't really eat much at dinner, we put her plate in the fridge for her to eat later. The next time she decides she's hungry, she gets the plate back. No dessert either when we do this. If she eats a reasonable amount, but not all of it, we don't save it. I don't like rules like eating everything on your plate, but I'm also not okay with her not touching dinner and then asking for ice cream right after she clears her plate. Ya know?

Our son is 8 (tomorrow)- we eat very simple meals and lots of deconstructed meals. We focus on food and meals for our family as fuel/nutrition for our bodies. All meals should be look like a rainbow and have at least one carb, one protein, one fruit, one veggie. I am the one in the family that is particular (not picky!) - mainly due to the fact that I am allergic to tree nuts, shellfish, lactose intolerant (and cilantro tastes like soap!), and am counting points on weight watchers. Make your own burritos and/or taco salads. Asian night is udon noodles, brown rice, tofu and broccoli. Husband eats it all mixed together in a bowl with lots of hot sauce. Kid likes it as a soup. I eat it in a bowl with a little soy sauce. 'Snacky dinner' with whole wheat crackers, carrot sticks, pear slices and turkey pastrami is perfectly acceptable for all of us. We are all eating together, talking about our day. Part of it is that at this point in my life I would rather spend time and energy on other things (running, reading and doing homework with my son, building a lego set) than cooking and cleaning up a big weeknight meal. I will incorporate having the kid help cook more and plan one meal a week.

I think anything that is a hot button issue, you really need to step waaaaay back.

Do not make food an issue of control. Do not do not do not. My almost five-year-old is pretty open to stuff - broccoli is her favorite vegetable - but I bought cereal self-dispensers so she can get herself cereal when she doesn't like what we are having.

Your kids are mostly good about eating, right? Declare victory and move on. There are worse things than raising picky eaters, like raising a kid with an eating disorder, you know?

I do like the suggestions about them cooking dinner once a week.

I just want to echo what all the adult "picky eaters" and the parents of now-grown picky eaters have said: a lot of kids do "grow out of it". I was very picky as a kid, to the point where I only ate a few foods: Gerber baby oatmeal, Yoplait custard-style banana yogurt, Spaghetti-o's (I know), and canned peas (and yes, I was that specific about those brands/flavors). I even became "a vegetarian" at age 5 because I figured out that meant I would never be forced to eat a whole group of foods I didn't like. Now, I eat pretty much every kind of ethnic food, exotic spices, flavor combinations. The one thing I will not eat? Canned tuna. My dad made me sit in front of a tuna fish sandwich for a whole afternoon one time as a kid, and now I can't even be in the same room as someone eating canned tuna! I remember my pickiness being a huge "issue" my parents were always trying to work on with me, but now my favorite dishes are all things that my mom won't even try.

"I grew up on a household where you ate the meal. Period. If you didn't eat it at dinner, you would eat it for breakfast or dinner the next night. Snacks were a rarity, if you were hungry between meals, you just had to wait."

This was my home growing up and I am forever thankful to my parents. I will eat/try anything and have been able to enjoy so many new things that "picky" eaters never will. Other than legitimate allergy/sensory issues, I don't see any reason to indulge a child's food whims.

That said, I dont have a problem with deconstructiing meals (my 8 year old doesnt always like combos of things and thats fine with me)

We also watch cooking shows (Top Chef etc) and she loves being the "judge" for my dinners (which is also totally fine with me)

Finally, she loves to help cook whatever and if she's involved, she's sure to eat it.

You have to do what feels right for your family but I can tell you that nothing annoys me more than when my sister's 7 year old comes over and she prepares a completely separate meal for him every night cause he only eats plain chicken, broccoli and rice.

I have a very picky daughter; she's the second-pickiest kid I've ever met. And these are the rules:
1) Nobody has to eat anything that makes them gag or throw up (she has texture issues with some foods, and sometimes it's the taste).
2) You WILL eat a nutritionally balanced diet. (My kids are 8 & 9, easily old enough to understand the basics here.)

With that said, we don't eat much variety. There's a long list of stuff I can't eat (digestive issues), so I don't even try to make one thing for everyone. The stuff I like and can eat is easy enough to make in portions for me but would make me crazy to make enough for everyone. So I do some catering to what my husband and kids like, but it has to be easy for me, and then I make my own food.

I have a friend who, when her kids wouldn't/won't eat dinner, said ok you can have an apple. It'll keep you from starving, but not reward you for being picky. I don't know if that was enough for a teenager though. It certainly wouldn't have been for me.

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