Food Fights: How to Handle Picky Eaters

Food Fights

“I don’t like cheese.”

“No, no.  I only eat the yogurt in the red containers.  I’m afraid to even try another kind.”

“Corn?  No thanks!”

“Not a fan of cilantro.”

These may sound like typical responses from the picky eaters at your house.  And they are things I’ve overheard at mealtime.

But from adults.

And I can totally relate.  Personally, I don’t like seafood.  I’ve tried to be a good sport about it and I do sample it from time to time, but I honestly don’t enjoy it.  I just don’t.  A nice bout of food poisoning seems to be all I’ve ever gained for my noble efforts!

My husband has his own quirks.  I know not to put fresh tomatoes on his salad or sandwich (though pico de gallo is no problem?).  And if one of the kids leaves a half-eaten banana on the counter while I’m out of town, it could very well be waiting for me when I get back because the man hates that fruit so much he’ll hardly even touch one without some sort of barrier between his hand and the offensive produce.

So how do two picky eaters stand a chance of raising nutritionally well-rounded kids?

Having had my own food issues beyond the pickiness, I’ve come to learn some important facts about food.  One is that your body needs it, obviously.  Another is that our systems need the appropriate balance of nutrients from it, clearly.  And perhaps most importantly, that as humans we need to feel in control of some of our food choices.

THAT’s the one that maybe isn’t so well-known.

Humans have a desire for autonomy and control and there are few places where that control is more native than with eating.  In fact, many eating disorders are driven more by issues with control than with body image.

There’s a funny thing that happens when we adults try to exert too much control in an area where the control innately belongs to the child.  They push back.  And eating is one area where it’s easy to push back.  You really can’t force a child to eat.  (Not unless we’re talking feeding tubes.)  And so parents and children lock horns in a passionate power struggle.

Setting aside the deeper topic of control, there’s an inkling of hypocrisy knowing that I can pass on the seafood and my husband can eschew the cheese but we expect our kids to eat whatever we put in front of them.

So given my own past issues with food, and what my husband and I both understand about human development (coupled with our own peculiar pickiness), we may appear to be a bit lax about mealtimes, because we’re rather anti-force at the dinner table.  But I think there’s sound reason behind it.

So, based on what we know, here’s where we’ve landed on this issue in our home.

Try It

We encourage our kids to try new foods.  They know they don’t have to eat something they don’t like, but they also know that we feel strongly that they have to taste something before declaring that they don’t like it.  I try to model this as well, taking small bites of fish (which my kids all love, ironically) when it comes up on the menu.

Kids are more likely to try a small taste, when they know they don’t have to eat it all.  The power struggle is reduced when the boundary is set (try it first) and the choice is given (eat it if you like it, but not if you don’t).

(More on choice and boundaries!)

My Job/ Your Job

So what if they choose not to eat what you’ve made for dinner?

Well, that’s where we clarify the job descriptions with our kids.  I say, “My job is to make a healthy dinner for you, and I’ve done that.  This is what’s for dinner.  Your job is to be polite, make sure you get enough to eat so you’re not hungry, and to choose healthy foods so you’re taking care of your body.”

Our kids are welcome to have something else for dinner.  But that’s their responsibility. 

They have become rather self-sufficient, serving up their own yogurt, cereal, sandwiches, etc.  We don’t force our kids to eat specific foods, but we ask them to be balanced.  “You need some grains, some protein, and some fruits or vegetables.”  We set the boundaries, they make the choices.

In the process, our kids have learned more about nutrition than they would have from simply telling them, “Eat your dinner.  It’s healthy.”  They’re  getting pretty good at knowing which foods are protein sources and why their bodies need it.  And when I see my son choosing to eat a whole, raw carrot instead of the cooked ones soaking in butter and sugar, I have to admit that some of his preferences are much more healthy than my own!

Deconstructed Dinner

Another tactic we’ve found that helps with dinner decisions is to deconstruct dinner.  Essentially, that means that when there are pieces and parts to put together, I often leave them separate and let my diners decide how to put it all together.  (Again, reminding them of the nutritional parts they need, not the specific foods they have to have.)

When we have salad for example, one son will load up on spinach while another will go heavy on the carrots.  And my husband doesn’t even have to touch the tomatoes.  (Which really just leaves more for me!)

Tacos, sandwiches, dinner salads, and homemade pizzas are great opportunities to deconstruct dinner and let the kids take ownership.

So what are food fights like at your house?  How do YOU resolve the power struggle? 

(And what ironic food dislikes/likes do you share with your kids?  Are they all enjoying salmon while you try to sit upwind, like I do?)






Filed under Snack Time, Uncategorized

13 Responses to Food Fights: How to Handle Picky Eaters

  1. Hi Amanda. When our older child was in Grade 2 they did a nutrition project at school. They invited nutrition professionals for an interview, they cooked, they analysed industrial food ingredients and advertisements, they watched videos and played games. Not only regarding taste, but also the other senses that can be nourished: sight, smell, touch, hear… They did all this with a tremendous interest because it was a service learning project. The final goal was to create banners for an ONG working against malnutrition in communitary canteens where food was served for free to children of their same age. They thought of a sloganalong synthesising their nutritional recommendations, they compiled all what they had learned and created two different banners to decorate the comunitary canteens : abstract images using kitchen tools and a painted white plate using the Yin-Yang simbol as background. Each child did one plate and in pairs they did the abstract composition. One of the slogans they came up with was: “let’s become artists, let’s serve at least three colors in our plates”. Now our child is almost 12 years old, so 5 years have passed by. Still today, when we are seving dinner, he (or his brothers who learned this from him) say: let´s count how many colors do we have here. This is a very simple way to include a well balanced meal with protein (dark brown, dark red, white, yellow), vegetables (orange, pink, red, green) and cereals in a same food (soft brown and white)! I will upload some images of the banners and come back to you with the link, I think you might like them. Love, Fernanda

  2. I was lucky enough to raise a very adventurous and diverse eater, she doesn’t like “bitter” but neither do I so it doesn’t really come up much — I try to cook bitter vegetables in a way that “helps them along…”
    However, every single child in our daycare/play group is a picky eater! Some are a bit more diverse, but we have all reactions, to throwing food on the ground, crying at the sight of certain foods on their plate, or just plain not touching it. This has been a huge struggle for me, as witnessing these picky eaters has had my daughter leave items on her plate more often now, and while the children have lots of nutritious snacks, I’m hesitant to send them to nap without providing an alternate meal. I never have an idea what will be an issue — we got tears for pizza last week!
    With my own daughter, my tactic would personally be to let her wait until the next meal, but since I can’t do that for the other children, I don’t feel comfortable treating her differently.

  3. Robin

    Hi Amanda – I agree with every single point in your article. One should avoid power struggles with kids over food (however difficult it might be at times). It is not helpful and can lead to serious eating issues later in life. Your article provides so many helpful ideas on how to keep the conflict in check. I wanted to comment, though, on something you didn’t mention in your article. Eating is a really, really complex activity – something most people, I think, take for granted. Eating requires the coordination of more muscles than any other activity humans perform, and is also the only activity where every sense is involved. In saying that, parents should be aware that while some pickiness is normal, if you notice your child avoiding or strongly preferring a certain type of food, such as of a certain texture (e.g., crunchy foods), doesn’t tolerate mixed consistencies (i.e., chunks in their yogurt, soup, pasta with sauce), likes food with strong flavors, or their pickiness is a problem in social situations, the child may struggle with processing some of the inputs they are receiving from food. These children are not “picky eaters”. They are seriously struggling to deal with all the inputs they are receiving while they eat and might benefit from the help of a speech pathologist or occupational therapist. The following website has a questionnaire for parents to help them asses if their child’s picky eating is normal: The website can also help parents locate resources in their community that might help them.

  4. Pingback: There’s Kids Art for Dinner. A sucessful nutrition service-learning project. | amararama

  5. We have also come around to similar philosophies, but you do have some new ideas for me there!
    In undergrad I took a nutrition class and when it talked about nutrition and kids the advice was: parents decide “what” and “when”, kids decide “if” and “how much”. Sometimes it’s hard, but we try to stick to it and generally don’t have the power struggles. If they don’t eat, that’s fine, since we usually have 3 meals and 2 snacks in between. It also is helpful that they are not very pick eaters, and so it reinforces what I am trying to do positively :) When dessert is involved (which isn’t every night, but does happen), I get a little more involved and usually have them eat at least a few bites of the dinner before moving on to dessert. I also came to a point where I realized that dinner was another opportunity to connect with my kids instead of choosing power struggles. In general, I actually enjoy having dinner with my kids (and with my husband in internship year of residency it is often just me and them) and more so for having let go of focusing on the exact amount of food they are or aren’t eating. I am looking forward to trying the deconstructing idea. I’ll be honest in that I am not terribly excited about letting my oldest make his own food- but it does sound like it is worth trying because of the discussion and learning potential. So I’ll mull it over some more :)

  6. Truscaveczka

    No no no. Kids don’t taste, because thereis a slight possibility of not being perfectly tasty. And the food might be of a wrong texture too, you never know. And the color is unacceptable – come on – a green soup? Really?

  7. Melissa

    These are good points to think about. I was taught to eat what’s on your plate & say thank you. Although I was allowed to pick out onions, tomatoes & mushrooms. But I always ate pretty much everything else. So I struggle with the thought of “eat it & be happy!” My house is not a restaurant, I am not a short order cook. So I don’t know how to apply this fully cause I feel like allowing them to not eat what I made is disrespectful & doesn’t teach them manners. because what’s going to happen when they go to a friends house & they ask for something else because they don’t like their food? My step daughter is picky & she actually told a blind neighbor she didn’t like the chicken he made cause it was dry… Seriously embarrassing. So I feel skeptical of letting them choose. Going to take a while.

  8. These are some really great points about food choices and control. I was raised in the generation when you were told to “clean your plate” before you could get up from the table, but we have never taken that route with our kids and I’m happy to say that they are both good eaters. However, they have both had their share of picky stages (and peer interaction is definitely a contributing factor), but if you’ve built a solid foundation at home in regards to being flexible and trying new foods, they WILL come back out of the picky-ness!).

    Some of the ways we handle dinner at home include: 1) not putting too much of anything on their plate, so they don’t feel overwhelmed and the food doesn’t get wasted if they don’t like it, 2) encouraging them to try everything but not forcing them to eat anything, 3) reminding them if they don’t like something, a simple “No, thank you” or not saying anything will do, 4) not making alternatives if they don’t like what’s served–we usually have a good variety on the plate that they find something they like, 5) never giving up on having them try something–and then really positively reinforcing them for the change and reminding them (i.e. “Remember when you hated Brussels sprouts and then you tried them again and now you love them!”)
    Speaking of Brussels sprouts: my youngest literally vomited when we asked him to try one once, so we didn’t make him eat them any more. Then one day, while we were cleaning them for dinner, he snatched one of the leaves off the counter and ate it…and then grabbed for some more. He didn’t realize they were Brussels sprouts–thought they were some other leafy green–and we discovered he liked Brussels sprouts as long as they were served raw. So, never give up!
    Lastly, now that my kids are older (5 and 7), I include them in meal planning. My seven year-old just planned our whole week of meals–less work for me and it’s healthy choices they are happy with. It’s a win-win!

  9. Pingback: 5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Eat Their Dinner! | Not Just Cute

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