Picky Eaters: 10 Tips for Transformation

When our oldest, who is extremely strong-willed, was about three years old, I remember gearing up for the dinner battle and telling this to my healthy-minded next door neighbor.  Stone-faced she said, “He doesn’t have to eat.”


She had two voracious preteens who could separately eat my husband under the table.  They were not picky eaters.  I admired her at every turn so I inquired further.

“As long as he is hydrated – definitely only give him water and not milk or juice for calories – he can go a week without food.  If he gets hungry enough, he will eat.”

I told this exchange to my husband and together we decided that at dinner that night, our son would eat dinner or go to bed hungry.

Well, he went to bed hungry.  Not only that but somewhere during the tumultuous dinner hour, my husband calmly proclaimed, “if you choose not to eat this, it will be your breakfast tomorrow.”

That was throwing down a gauntlet to a determined preschooler.

He fasted for 24 hours.  Then I caved.  Never will I forget that day, filled with tantrums from a low-blood sugar preschooler.  It was not a fun day for anyone.  I think we went out to dinner that night to our son’s favorite restaurant.  Needless to say, we don’t offer dinner for breakfast anymore.

With three kids and thirteen years as a mother under my belt, decidedly I DO NOT have this gig figured out.  If experience counts for anything, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.  We have had our fair share of food battles.

Selfishly, I don’t want to be a short-order cook preparing separate meals for everyone in the family so I am motivated to win the picky eater battle.  Personality definitely plays into the “how do I get them to eat?” equation but there are also other things to consider.

  1. The biggest piece of the puzzle -for everyone- is hunger.  If a child is truly hungry, they will eat.  Imagine a bloated bellied African refusing a perfectly balanced meal.  Right?  It wouldn’t happen.

That said, I’ve found the key for my children eating well at dinner is not letting them snack hours before we sit down.  Backing up further, they won’t even ask for a snack if I have provided a nutrient dense lunch.

2. Nutrient dense lunch? What does that look like?  I think of nutrient density as foods that are not packaged with lovely marketing in beautiful colors (cookies, chips, crackers, granola bars, etc.). Nutrient dense foods are the ones your great-grandmother would recognize as food. Lunch depends on plenty of healthful fats to stabilize blood sugars.  If we are only eating simple carbs, especially in the absence of fat, our body will burn through that cheap fuel and scream for more.

Ideas for lunch: meat, cheese, olives, avocado, guacamole, nut butters (read the labels & watch for sugar), hard boiled eggs, greek yogurt with fat.

If you feel like you’re constantly watching your teenager rove for snacks, try beefing up the breakfast and lunch offerings to include more nutrient dense foods.  Specifically more fat and protein.  I promise, if your people eat more fat and protein they won’t ask for snacks.  It’s a game changer.  I’m motivated to provide a quality breakfast because I don’t want to be monitoring snack intake.

Speaking of snacks — one way to keep your kids from snacking is just don’t buy snacks.  Don’t put snacks in the grocery cart. Potato chips are a definite treat at our house because I don’t buy them frequently.  I know how much I love potato chips and how little self control I have when there’s an open bag, so I just don’t buy them regularly.

3. Be the parent.  Leonard Sax, MD, PhD writes in his book The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups that picky eaters are a symptom of a greater problem.  Parents want to be friends with their kids instead of the authority.  No child is born knowing right from wrong. Parents must teach and expect their children to do what is right.

Sax writes on page 57 that at six-years old, “parents should command and not ask a child to do something.  At fifteen it is more reasonable to offer explanation.”

4. Educate them on why they should eat a balanced meal.  Some of our kids have struggled to finish their bowls of soup — but that is where the nutrition is, at least in homemade soups.  One day after making bone broth, I took a steak bone outside and hollered for my then 10 year old.  I asked him if he could smoosh the bone between his fingers.  He didn’t think he could when I handed it to him.  His eyes lit up when he was able to smash the bone with minimal effort.  Taking advantage of his attention, “This is why you need to drink the broth in soup.  These animal bones give us minerals to make our bones strong.  I don’t want your bones to crumble like this one day so that’s why we make you finish the broth at dinner.”  His response?

“Do you have any more of these so I can show my friends?”  He ran off with a bowl full of magic tricks for the neighborhood kids.  He has been more willing to drink broth since that day.  Education is an ongoing conversation at our table.  My poor kids have a mother who is obsessed with nutrition!

5. Enforce a thank you portion or a one-bite rule or whatever you want to call it.  Somebody spent time and effort planning, procuring supplies and producing the meal.  One bite isn’t going to kill the child to say thank you to the chef.  It’s a fact that our taste buds regenerate and change over time.  Odds are tastes will change if they keep trying.

Don’t let your child say, “I don’t like that.”  Instead they can say, “It’s not my favorite” or, “I haven’t developed a taste for that yet.”

5. Tell stories of when you didn’t like a certain food and how you over came the dislike.  My husband and I both remember our first juicy hamburger.  You know the one — when you didn’t realize it had tomato, lettuce, and onion on it?  Or you were trying to be cool and not pick everything off the supreme pizza? Only to realize yep, you did like it after all.

I don’t like fish.  I’ve tried all kinds of fish in all kinds of restaurants but I still don’t like it.  I make it at home and we all eat it.  It’s not my favorite; it is good for me so I eat it.

7. Engage Dad.  Man, there is power in a dad willing to do hard things — especially one who will lead the way and try new foods too.

8. If they are truly hungry before dinner, I will offer low-carb food as a hold over.  This peace offering is usually in the form of vegetables or meat — not fruit, milk, bread, crackers or chips.  Just this week, my 5 year old was complaining of hunger at 6:15pm.  I was hungry too.  We usually eat late because our oldest swims competitively and doesn’t get home until closer to seven most nights.  The menu that night was roast and mashed potatoes.  I offered a plate of roast.  He politely declined but ate heartily when the family sat at the dinner table.

9. Sit down for meals.  My kids eat better when I am sitting with them.  I don’t know if it is the increased social interaction (usually in the form of reminders to put a fork in their mouth) or the focus on the single activity at hand but the kids eat better when I am eating with them.  During lunch, I am tempted to stand and attempt to multitask.  When I do, I regret it and usually have to call someone back to finish their plate.  Dinner at our house is the only time when we all look face to face with each other.  It is a sacred hour.  Or twenty minutes.

Leonard Sax, again in his book The Collapse of Parenting, says from 0-7 nights a week, each extra dinner decreases internalizing problems and increases prosocial behavior.  It’s hard to believe, but he says there is a measurable difference at every level – so a family that has 6 night of dinner a week has less problems than someone with five. There is so much good that comes from eating together as a family!


10. Remember parenting is a marathon, not a sprint.  We win some, we loose some.  Keep your eyes on the prize, one bite at a time.

What have I missed?  What tips and tricks work for you?  I can always use more arsenal in winning the picky eater battle!  Parents unite!



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