How to Respond to a Picky Eater (I’ve Been Doing This All Wrong).

A few years ago, when we lived in Atlanta, I was part of this Moms Facebook group. As you can imagine, it was huge. And with a lot of people, came a lot of opinions. I remember this one thread where a mom had asked the other moms how they dealt with picky eaters. And because dinner and food is one crazy controversial topic, people had a lot to say.

Most of the comments were something like this:

“Our children eat what we eat. And if they don’t want it, they go to bed hungry.”

“I could NEVER send my children to bed hungry. I will fix them whatever they want.”

“I’m not a short order cook! We all eat the same thing, but I make it kid-friendly.” 

“My kids eat at 5:00. So I make them dinner of things they like, and then my husband and I eat a separate dinner around 8:00 when they go to bed.”

All these statements seem totally normal to me, but whew! Things got heated up in there. Judgments were flying everywhere. I even think I remember one mom saying that it’s child abuse not to feed your kids what they want. Er, yikes.

At the time, I was a mother of one, and my sweet babe was only four months old. So yeah, my experience level with this conversation was at a zero, and I had no opinion whatsoever. I just kept reading for the entertainment.

Fast forward to present day, and it’s a little bit of a different situation. I have two boys, a one year old who will basically eat anything, and a four year old who would eat peanut butter and honey sandwiches three times a day if I let him. And I’ll be honest with you. His food game has totally stressed me out. As I remember the moms’ arguments of that group I realize that I have been all of them.

Let me just tell you what some of our dinners have looked like.

Scenario #1: It’s 5:00 pm. The kids are going to be hungry soon. I throw together something fast and easy. Something that I know they’ll both eat but that isn’t necessarily healthy (which of course I criticize myself for). During their dinner, I start prepping for my hubs and I. At the most inopportune time of this process, the boys decide they’re finished eating. I help them wash their hands and faces, and throw the dirty dishes in the sink to be rinsed later. I’m rushing from one child to next, then jumping back over to the stove to flip the chicken, lunging at the baby as he’s trying to put something nasty in his mouth, then back to the pot of boiling water (putting that wooden spoon on top so it doesn’t overflow). It’s about this time that I realize that the incessant beeping sound that I have been hearing (but not responding to) is the oven, and the roasted veggies were done two minutes ago. Whoops. My husband walks through the door (YESSSS!), and is greeted with our chaos. By 6:00, our dinner is just about ready, but it’s also time to start baths and bedtime routines, which he usually starts. But either way, the timing for our dinner is all off and even though it’s hot and ready now, we decide to wait and eat when the kids are in bed (which will be 7:00 or 7:30, give or take how heavy the four year old manipulates us to read another book and sing another song). By the time we have finished eating, it’s after 8:00 and we still have a disaster kitchen to clean up.

Scenario #2: It’s 5:00 pm. I make one big meal for everyone. Its healthy, kid friendly enough (not spicy or anything), and it’s all ready by 5:45 when the hubs walks through the door. There’s still chaos because everyone is whiny and hungry, but at least we get to sit down and have dinner as a family. Seems like the better option, right? Well yeah, until we spend the entire meal bribing our four year old to “Just take one bite.” Then we spend a majority of the meal saying things like, “No really, if you try it, I bet you’ll like it!” “Whoever tries everything on their plate gets a cookie!” He resists, we push. He resists harder, we push harder. We keep bringing it up, working it into our conversations, casually stating how delicious broccoli is and how it makes us run really fast. It’s the worst dinner conversation. Eventually our four year old takes three of the tiniest bites you’ve ever seen and still gets a cookie because, you know, he runs the damn show.


I lived Scenario #1 for a ridiculous amount of time. And then one day I threw my hands up and said “Enough is enough!” Scenario #2 kept me from making 75 dinners a week, but the power struggle that we were all participating in became it’s own ball of stress.

So, is there a way to combine both scenarios so every one can chill the eff out? Ahh, yes I think there is.

I wish I could say that I came up with this solution all on my own, but remember, I’m just a clueless mom like everyone else trying to find her way. I pulled most of this from a book I read in graduate school called, “Perfect Parenting and Other Myths.” Its a great read with lots of helpful info. Check ‘er out.

Ok. So here’s our new way of approaching dinner:

  • I cook one meal for the whole family. It’s important to us that we eat healthy a majority of the time, so we try and keep these meals fresh and healthy too. We actually use Hello Fresh’s family meal plan three days a week. It’s worked well!
  • I encourage our four year old to help me make dinner. He’s so much more excited to try stuff when he’s participating.
  • When everything is made, I set everything out buffet style, and then ask him to either make his own plate, or if it’s hard to scoop out, then he can tell me what he wants and how much. This gives him control, which is what we all want anyway.
  • I always offer at least one or two things (healthy options) that I know he will eat that doesn’t require any extra work (like fruit or carrot sticks).
  • We do not bribe him whatsoever. We do not talk to him about the food. We simply leave it alone and we talk about what made us happy that day or what we are thankful for.
  • If he gets to the table and doesn’t want to eat the food he’s put on his plate, I remove his plate from the table and excuse him from being part of meal time.
  • I do not make alternative meals.
  • When he’s a little older I might tell him that if he doesn’t want to eat what we are having then he can make himself something. But he has to clean up everything he uses.

What about desserts?

Desserts are my kryptonite because once I start, I can’t stop. So unless it’s a special occasion, we don’t do a lot of desserts on a regular basis. But here are some things other awesome moms have done that has worked for their family.

  • One mom said she started making small treats part of the meal. She said she would put the treat on the plate with everything else. Her kids started out eating the treat first, and sometimes it was the only thing they ate. Eventually, though, they started saving it til the end and would eat other stuff first.
  • Another mom said that each night they will alternate between a sweet treat, a fruit treat, and no treat. I think this is brilliant. That way the kids know that desserts can be part of the meal, but they don’t expect them every night.


Now, here’s the thing. If you do any of the above scenarios and it works for you, don’t for a second feel like you have to change it. Are you feeding your kids? Perfect. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Nothing is more liberating than sticking to something that works for you even if someone else says they do it differently. Because you know you don’t have the time or the energy to stress about food.

Ur a Mom Now. 

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