5 Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters

My kids were ridiculously picky. Like, they would come through a buffet at a church picnic and only have a roll and shredded cheese on their plate #truestory . It was embarrassing, it was frustrating, and I felt overwhelmed on how to help them. Having picky eaters is one of the most common challenges I hear from parents who want their kids to eat better. If you can barely get your kids to eat anything besides chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, changing to a more narrow palate like Paleo or gluten-free and dairy-free can seem incredibly daunting.

What we tried and failed at

Oh how we have run the gammit of parenting ideas with getting our kids to eat their meals. We have done the “eat as many bites as you are old” route. We have made them take at least ____ number of “thank you” bites first to make sure they at least tried it. We have made them eat the small amounts they put on their plates. We have let them eat whatever, they just had to be able to make it themselves (yeah, that wasn’t a winner!).

And if they didn’t? We have made them stay at the table until they do. This once resulted in my second son literally, I kid you not, chew a piece of chicken for over 30 minutes. I had no idea that was possible?! It has also resulted in multiple times of my children throwing up after they ate their forced bites. My 4th son is convinced he is “allergic” to brussel sprouts after one especially dramatic incident. We have made it so they weren’t allowed to eat anything after dinner unless they ate their bites. We have bribed with various desserts, particularly all fruit popsicles for those who at their bites.

None of it gave my kids a good relationship with food and all of it made dinner a battle. “How many bites do I have to have?” “Have I eaten enough to get dessert?” It was exhausting and an ongoing power struggle.

Division of Responsibility – Control only what you ACTUALLY have control over 

In college, our nutrition professor taught us the work of Ellyn Satter and I keep coming back to it. She teaches a lot of the things I have learned the hard way and shared on here about limiting snacking between meals, not offering multiple dinner options, etc.

This is her teachings on the “Division of Responsibility” at a meal. Parents, our job is to dictate what, where, and when to feed. The child’s job is to chose how much to eat or whether to eat from what the parents offer. Though I learned this before I ever had children, I was intimated to try it. What if they didn’t eat anything??

Having tried so many other methods, I decided why not try Ellyn Satter’s method? I have had multiple physicians tell me that a child will not starve themselves. I loved that her method took the pressure off of me for things I couldn’t really control – how much my kids ate.

Make sure your kids are coming to meals hungry

Keep in mind, I make sure my kids come to dinner hungry.  My children are school age and get home by 3pm. Go here to learn more about what those snacks look like. Snacks are only available until 3:30, and then I cut off the grazing before dinner. Kitchen is CLOSED between snack and dinner. Yes, that might sound daunting, but like anything with parenting, if you are consistent on the rules, kids adjust. Be a parent and consistently enforce it for a week or two, and you might be surprised!

Keep offering foods and be consistent

At dinner, I always offer something familiar when I offer something new. All foods are passed around and I encourage them verbally to try it. I was encouraged to read various statistics that is can take up to 15-30 exposures to a food before a child will try it. I bite my tongue and do not condone my child if their plate is sparse that night (trust me, this is hard sometimes!).

Regardless of whether or not they choose to try something, there is no battle or forced bites anymore. That’s THEIR job at the dinner table. When dinner is done, so is eating for the night – period. Meaning, will I send my kids to bed hungry? Also yes. There will be another meal waiting for them at breakfast, they will survive and learn. Again, consistency! Consistency is one of the hardest things to do as a parent, but one of the most crucial in making changes effective.

Involve your Kids in the Process

My kids regularly help in the kitchen and occasionally help with the meal planning. This helps them connect to the food. When it’s THEIR creation and choice, they have felt more empowered and likely to eat the finished product. I don’t always have the patience for this, especially when dinner needs to get on the table fast, but I try to do it at least a few times a week.

Don’t empower their pickiness

For years I thought I was making my life easier by having “kid” options at dinner. If I made soup, an “adult” food that I didn’t think my kids would like, I made a “kid” option – grilled cheeses or quesadillas. I did so more often then I would like to admit. Because I was a picky eater, it was hard for me to not sometimes feel bad putting food on the table I “knew” my kids wouldn’t like.

This just empowered their pickiness. It gave them permission to not try new things, because the familiar favorites were always available. I did this to avoid a battle and keep my kids from getting malnourished. Really, I just gave them a free pass on branching out and was shooting myself in the food. Don’t make two meals, don’t give them flat out encouragement to be picky!

You CAN do this. Promise.

In summary, control the things you truly have control over, make sure your kids are consistently coming to meals hungry, don’t give up on offering new foods over and over again, and involve your kids in the food process. It’s a relief to focus on MY job and give them permission to do theirs. And ITS WORKED! Now, it’s not an immediate magic wand…but nine months later my kids have all significantly (waaay more so than 14 years of the forced bites method!) expanded their palates and no one has starved 😉.