Help! My Child Won’t Eat What I Serve!

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Feeding a picky eater

Ah, everyone’s favorite parenting struggle…the picky eater. If you are have trouble getting your kid to eat something other than peanut butter sandwiches and chicken nuggets, I am here to tell you there are ways to get your kids to eat what you make.

Photo by: David Goehring

And you don’t have to make a separate meal.

How can I get my kid to eat their dinner?

In case you haven’t read about it, there is a wonderful concept by Ellyn Satter called the division of responsibility in feeding. The following is an excerpt from her website, which I encourage you to read more about by following the previous link:

Your jobs with feeding are to . . .
  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Step-by-step, show your child by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Not let your child have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let your child grow into the body that is right for him.
Part of your feeding job is to trust your child to . . .
  • Eat the amount he needs.

  • Learn to eat the food you eat.

  • Grow predictably in the way that is right for him.

  • Learn to behave well at mealtime.


Kids can help in the kitchen

Getting your young kids to pick up their toys or to keep the water in the tub at bath time really aren’t their favorite ways of helping. Am I right?

But, what little kids love to help with is cooking. From chopping, to stirring, to adding spices; cooking is where it’s at.

Toddler cutting with wavy chopper
2 year old Will, preparing a meal with a wavy chopper.

When a child helps prepare their own meal, it gives them a sense of pride and ownership over the process. No longer are they being served a dinner they had no hand in preparing; they are helping to prepare a meal to serve the whole family! What a special feeling!

Not only that, but there are many ingredients that simply taste better raw and fresh. Cooking with your child might be the ticket to getting them to try something new!

Also, involving your child in the grocery shopping can help a lot, too!

If you don’t like a food, don’t tell your kid

Young children are impressionable little things. I remember refusing mayonnaise on my sandwiches for many years after hearing my older sister day, “Ugh. I hate mayonnaise!“. Up until that point, I had probably consumed mayonnaise in all sorts of dishes without having an opinion on it.

I have a friend who’s daughter is basically on the South Beach Diet because that’s what she has heard her mother say; certain things are bad and certain things are good.

I am guilty of this as well. Since my second pregnancy, I do not like spicy foods. Without realizing it, I’ve passed this “dislike” onto my oldest child.

Is it bad to bribe a child to eat?

“If you eat your dinner, you can get a treat.”

I’m not talking about that level of bribery, per se. I’m simply suggesting that it’s perfectly ok, and sometimes completely necessary to doll-up a dish that may not be super appealing to your child. Whether it’s adding one of their favorite foods to the plate, topping the dish with cheese, or making the dish a little more colorful with some yummy bell peppers or strawberries, the child will likely eat more than they would otherwise have.

Think of it as something to draw your child to the dish you have made!

Picky child or sensory issues?

You may think you have a picky eater on your hands, when you actually have a child with an aversion to certain textures, tastes, or smells.

Kids with sensory issues sometimes have difficulty responding in a normal way to certain stimuli, such as with foods with different textures.

Some of these children may gag if they try to eat food with the problematic texture, and they will probably end up refusing it altogether if they can. Some of the textures that trigger these aversions are usually slimy or near-liquid.

One way to cook a single meal for the whole family, keeping your texture-averse child in mind is to separate some of the ingredients. For example, if your child has an aversion to sauces or slimy-textured food, you could put the sauce on a side dish and allow your child to dip their food in it if they like.

Photo by: Alexander Lyubavin

Will snacking mess up meal time?

Barring sensory or eating issues, most children will eat when they are hungry, whether their favorite meal is being served or not. Snacking within a couple hours of a meal is going to interfere with that hunger.

We encourage family mealtimes in our house, though it is difficult with schedules sometimes. What we typically end up doing is letting our children eat when they are hungry. If we all sit down for a meal and one of the kids says they are full, and it probably isn’t actually the case, we simply leave it on the table or put it in the refrigerator for when they feel hungry. This is the technique most used for our 2 year old.

I firmly believe that children of different ages and maturity levels require different care and intervention when it comes to mealtimes.

Is it ok to offer a glass of milk if my child doesn’t eat dinner?

A glass of milk before bed if little or no dinner has been eaten is always an option in my house. However, in my nearly 5 years of parenting and 3 children, I have only resorted to this one single time.


I really do stand by the techniques I suggest in this article. These methods are gentle and respectful, but not permissive.

Here’s to full bellies without the belly-aching!

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