Updated: Feb 21
Here to learn how to get your child to eat when they refuse? Eek.
I learned early on in parenting that there are two things you can't make a kid do. Sleep and eat. The two things we are SO desperate for our kids to do.
And yet, I am a sleep coach. And I truly believe we can help all kids sleep very well.
The picky eating part? Eh, I feel a little less confident about helping picky eaters eat. But that is probably because I am not an occupational therapist. And I don't know that right tools.
But what I do know is this.
I have a 9-year-old who was a great eater until the age of 5. And then he decided he wanted to eat basically nothing.
I will spare you details of meltdowns at dinner.
I am thrilled to share that, over the years, we have had many small wins. And those small wins compound and turn into bigger wins. And more consistent wins.
Sharing with you my 9 favorite strategies for helping your child eat when they refuse.
Fingers crossed the lead you to some small (or big!) wins.
1 - Meal Plan
I like cooking. I HATE meal planning.
Before kids I was (what I thought) a pretty adventurous cook. I would make a new-to-us meal at least once a week.
Then we had kids. I used Blue Apron for many years. The closest to meal planning I ever got. During this time, I would ask my son what day of the week he wanted which meal, and he seemed content with that level of input.
Fast forward, and I went back to my old ways of choosing what I would make just hours before the meal.
Let me tell you, a very picky child + not knowing what is for dinner until getting off the bus after a long day at school = no bueno.
Surly, meal planning alone is helpful.
Exactly how we are doing the meal planning, however, is what has been a game changer for us.
2 - Kids Choose What To Make For Dinner
Ready for the big game changer?
I asked the kids to do the meal planning for me. Woop woop!
Before we made these changes, I felt I was doing a decent job serving foods that my kids would enjoy. But sometimes, for some kids, this is not enough. And that's ok. We learn what works and what doesn't, and we adjust.
How The Kids Used To Meal Plan
Kid's pick night two nights a week (see below).
I always serve meals with at least one or two foods my kids like.
Research shows that too many choices at mealtimes leads to more picky eating and poor nutrition in kids (1,2). That is a hard balance to find.
How The Kids Meal Plan Now
I decided that maybe my kids need to feel more represented at the dinner table.
Maybe they need to be served more meals where every food on their plate is a food that they like (and chose), not just one or two.
New world of meal planning in the Ramirez house?
On Sunday, the kids pull out the cookbooks, flip through, and choose a meal they want our family to eat during the week. Veronica (age 5) picks a meal. Roberto (age 7) picks a meal. Mommy (age bleep!) picks a meal.
KEY STEP, be in the presence of each other during this process.
Be sure your picky eater knows what everyone else has picked for their dinner.
There will be no surprises in our new world. Surprises are bad.
One good surprise that has come out of this, however, is that my picky eater has been open to everyone else's choices, whether he prefers them or not. I did not expect that.
And it makes me want to dance around with a big smile on my face like a crazy lady.
One more thing that is critical in order for this process to HELP with picky eating.
My kids are picking healthful, balanced meals. These meals are very different from our "pick nights" (see below).
3 - Kids Schedule Meals for the Week
Then! I ask my 7-year-old picky eater which day he wants his meal to be served.
His sister doesn't care, so thankfully there is no arguing over who gets what day.
Planning out the days of the week helps my picky eater know when to expect each meal.
Mentally prepared ahead of time = bueno.
Plus, the more choices he makes around dinner, especially when they are choices that really don't matter, the more buy in we get.
Once he chooses his day of the week, I ask his sister what night she wants.
I get whatever remains.
We write the schedule down on our white board calendar that sits in the kitchen. Boom. Meal planning done.
It gets better. Can you believe it? Keep reading.
4 - Kids Cook Dinner
Don't think people are putting in orders in my kitchen without helping prepare the meals. Just kidding. I wouldn't mind cooking the meals alone.
However, I wanted the kids to feel special about the their dinner choice. They pick the meal. They pick the day it is served. They also help make the meal and set the table.
So much to feel proud of!
Pro tip: get your kids an apron and a chefs hat. Everything is better when in costume.
Suggestions for age appropriate tasks in the kitchen:
Ways for Younger Kids to Help in the Kitchen
Picking herbs from the garden (one of my fav parts of having a garden this year!)
Pouring premeasured ingredients into bowls
Setting a timer
Taking orders for drinks
Setting the table
Tell everyone all about your meal including ingredients, how you made it, how delicious it is, repeat, repeat, repeat
Clear the table
Clean the dishes
Ways for Older Kids to Help in the Kitchen
Everything the younger kids do, plus...
Chopping (get a mezzaluna!!!! = best kid friendly addition to our kitchen
Turning on the stove
Cooking on the stove
Taking things in and out of the oven
Plating the food
5- Serve Family Style
Okay, this is not new for us, but one of those small wins we have found over the past year.
Instead of plating my picky eater's food, I have been serving it family style and allowing him to plate his own food.
It is just one more thing that gives him a tad more control.
One more way he is feeling less put-on during a situation that feels stressful to him.
6 - Pick Nights
Tuesday nights for us have been a no-cook night for a while.
I needed to not cook every day during the week.
And it made sense to just let the kids pick whatever they wanted for dinner this night.
Anything reasonable is fair game.
Cereal, yep. Spaghettio's, sure. Pigs in a blanket, a fav for my kids. Yogurt and fruit, win. Grilled cheese. Cheese and crackers. Peanut butter banana. Chicken nuggets.
We also added Friday night as a second pick night in the recent years. My husband and I typically order out on Fridays. Kids can either order out with us, or pick whatever from home.
Doing this alone did not solve any picky eating problems.
Actually, we were already doing this when the picky eating began, so?
I think it is nice to have a couple low stress meals where the kids can pick whatever they want. They don't need to try anything new during these meals. They don't need to manage any emotions about what is being served at dinner. It can just be dinner.
7 - How To Respond When Your Child Refuses a Food
There is very consistent research (3,4) that shows no pressure is best when it comes to foods your kiddo does not prefer.
How To Respond When Your Child Refuses a Food
"No worries, you don't have to eat it."
"You don't have to have everything on your plate. Just pick what you want."
"You only want to eat the rice? That's fine!"
"You don't like anything that is being served? No worries, you can have a big breakfast in the morning."
8 - Deconstruct
Not everyone likes their food cooked the same way, adults included. It is OK serve the components of your meal deconstructed to your child.
How To Deconstruct Food
An ingredient you serve can be given in any form to your child
Ex: Cheese: melted, shredded, cheese stick, slice of cheese, flavor of cheese, combined with other food, separate from other food
Ex: Tomatoes: tomato sauce, tomato slices, whole cherry tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes, only a certain color cherry tomatoes, cooked tomatoes, raw tomatoes, tomatoes combined with other food, tomatoes separate from other food
It is fine to serve a component of the meal in a slightly different form to your child... if cheese is part of the meal but he doesn't like how it is served... allow your kiddo to pick what form of cheese he wants.
Keep ingredients separate as you are making the food
Ex: Casserole: keep portion of rice/noodles separate, keep sauce separate, keep protein separate, keep veggies separate
take a portion of each food and put it serving bowls for the kids to plate from
then combine ingredients to complete the dish
kids have the opportunity to choose either deconstructed or combined foods
Separate ingredients after making the food
Ex: Chili: beans in a bowl, meat in a bowl, cooked tomatoes in a bowl, shredded cheese in a bowl
Add spicy seasoning after removing your child's portion
9 - Be Flexible, But Plan Ahead
If you are cooking a food you know your child doesn't like. Has never liked. Probably will never like. Consider being flexible.
The KEY to this is to compromise ahead of time.
Avoid letting your child negotiate as you are sitting down for the table every night.
This will become exhausting and never ending.
Does your kiddo hate pesto, but loves tomato sauce? Are you okay with substituting the pesto for the tomato sauce? If so, put a bowl of tomato sauce on the table and let him choose which sauce he wants to put on his pasta.
This allows you to control the compromise.
Instead of engaging in a long negotiation or allowing him to think that fussing, throwing a fit, or being exhaustingly persistent will lead to a compromise, you can give it to him happily as a sweet gesture.
Ways To Plan a Compromise at The Dinner Table
Serve a different sauce (tomato, pesto, cheese, butter, olive oil)
Cook a different way (grill, bake, pan sear, microwave)
Offer a fun dip (ketchup, hummus, yogurt, nut butter)
Add yumminess on top
Cheese on veggies
Sugar on veggies (brown sugar on acorn squash, yum!)
Marshmallows on veggies (my kids fav from a local restaurant is the carrot casserole with lots of marshmallows on top)
Fingers crossed, this is just what your kiddo needed too! Let me know if it works!
1 - Hennessey, E., et al. Permissive Parental Feeding Behavior Is Associated with an Increase in Intake of LowNutrient-Dense Foods among American Children Living in Rural Communities. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:142-148.
2 - Cole, N. C., et al. Home feeding environment and picky eating behavior in preschool-aged children: A prospective analysis. Eating Behaviors 30 (2018) 76–82.
3 - Moroshko, I., & Brennan, L. (2013). Maternal controlling feeding behaviors and child eating in preschool-aged children. Nutrition and Dietetics, 70(1) 49–53.
4 - van der Horst. (2012). Overcoming picky eating. Eating enjoyment as a central aspect of children’s eating behaviors. Appetite, 58(2), 567-574.
Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC
Born Happy, Owner and Coach
Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and Coach for parents of babies and toddlers. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies and toddlers as owner and coach for Born Happy.
Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 7), and Veronica (age 5). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.
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