Frustrated when your child refuses to eat what you made for dinner? Learn what to do (and not do!) to avoid power struggles and get kids to finally eat.
I had cooked orzo pasta for dinner—usually a family favorite—except this particular meal happened to have artichokes.
My five-year-old crinkled his nose. “I don’t want to eat it,” he said, without so much as taking a single bite.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked, hoping his hunger would drive him to at least try one spoonful.
“I am,” he responded, “but I want something else to eat.” And when I told him there was nothing else to eat but that, he proceeded to whine and collapse in his dining room chair.
It’s the dilemma every parent faces at one point or another: What do you do when your child refuses to eat?
Sometimes it’s not even the odd artichoke or mushroom that turns them away. Kids can even refuse typical favorites like spaghetti or chicken nuggets because all they want day in and day out is a PB&J. And forget about healthy fare like fruit and vegetables.
Your child may have even been a great eater in the past, but now refuses food you know she’s had before and actually liked. Instead, she’ll only eat certain food, despite you having tried everything to get her to eat new things.
What to do when your child refuses to eat
This dilemma wouldn’t be nearly so difficult if we didn’t feel so hypocritical at times. After all, we adults don’t eat food we don’t like. Until now, I hardly if ever cook meals with eggplant, simply because I haven’t grown to like it.
Maybe you even don’t like certain foods because your parents made you eat them when you were a child. You don’t want the same thing to happen to yours, but you also don’t want her to expect a PB&J for every meal.
And so, the sudden picky eating is driving you nuts, especially since you never expected this to happen, not now. Even day care or other child care providers are finding it difficult to convince your child to eat, much less finish, her lunch.
In short, you just want a happy dinner time with kids who actually eat what you set in front of them.
I can relate all too well. I’ve had my fair share of tantrums (both my kids’ and mine, admittedly) all because they wouldn’t eat a burrito or soup that I had just spent a lot of time cooking.
But for the most part, I’ve relied on several tactics to make dinner time more peaceful. I still might hear a few groans when they see a mushroom (no matter how small I chop them!), but I’ve learned over the years exactly what to do when a child refuses to eat.
I’m confident it’ll help with your dinner time as well:
1. Alternate with a favorite food
Does your child insist on only eating a certain food, or would he rather skip straight to the fruit instead of eating soup first?
In my home, we typically eat a main meal followed with fruit. And more often than not, the fruit is the treat for eating most of the main meal (or at least giving it a try). But sometimes, I can’t even get them to eat it at all, for one reason or another.
So, one tactic that works nearly every time is I have them alternate bites between the two. For every bite of salad, for instance, they can take a bite of fruit. This makes eating the main meal easier since they don’t have to think about finishing the entire thing before getting to the fruit.
2. “Take five bites”
As much as I love goat cheese, I also know that not everyone does. That’s why when my kids complained about the goat cheese in their pasta salad, I had to remind myself that everyone has their own preferences. I know I wouldn’t want someone to force me to finish off a plate I found too spicy or bland.
That said, I also know that the only way to get kids to take to new flavors is to offer it over and over. Plus, I’m not exactly keen on my kids saying “no” to a meal they haven’t even tried, simply because they assume they won’t like it.
That’s why I also apply the “five bites” rule: if they absolutely don’t want to finish a meal, that’s fine—they can still have their fruit. But they should at least take five bites. I find that it’s a fair compromise, one where they’re not forced to finish their meal, but that they should at least give it a chance.
And guess what: I did this often enough that now my kids love (yes, love!) goat cheese and actually ask for it.
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3. Offer a “close enough” food
Do you want your child to eat anything other than grilled cheese sandwiches? One trick is to offer a food “close enough” to her favorite—something similar but with a slight change.
For instance, you might offer a new type of cheese in her sandwich, or use a different type of bread. Perhaps you’ll keep her regular cheddar on white combination, but add spinach as well. Or you could make quesadillas using the same cheddar but trying it on a tortilla instead of a sandwich slice.
Any time I offer my kids something strange, I try to relate it to a meal they like or at least ate before. When I made a vegetarian shepherd’s pie (with mushrooms, no less), I reminded them that they loved the other shepherd’s pie they ate a few weeks ago, and that this was something similar.
Sure, they may not have devoured it this time around, but by tying it to something they remember and love, the power struggles are fewer and the resistance much less.
4. Give your child autonomy
“Hands on either side of the plate.”
“Sit down correctly, please.”
“Eat over the bowl so your food doesn’t fall on the ground.”
If you’re like me, you’ve said these phrases (and a whole lot more) over the course of a meal. After all, this is when kids can practice manners, holding utensils, and not making a huge mess.
But if you find your child resisting a meal, avoid giving too many directions on how to eat it. Instead, do the opposite: give him the autonomy to decide how to eat the meal (within reason, of course).
For instance, don’t fuss that he took the sandwich apart and is eating it layer by layer. Never mind that he’s holding the fork with his right hand and the knife on the left if he’s eating fish for the first time.
And if you’re worried about the mess, practice preventative measures: use a place mat on the table and a splat mat on the ground (plus lots of napkins and rags).
That way, his attention is simply on trying new foods without constant corrections tainting the experience.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Autonomy is the power and the opportunity to decide for oneself how to do something. No micromanaging, luring with rewards or threatening to do things a certain way.
It’s letting kids determine for themselves how they want to do it. Figuring out what works, and what doesn’t. Letting it go if they don’t do it exactly the way we’d have done it, even if it means they make mistakes.
Mistakes are, after all, our best teachers.”
5. Encourage your child to participate
Just this week, I got all three kids to eat couscous with roasted vegetables, all without a fight. How?
I had them cook the meal with me.
One was the “main chef” who chopped and poured, while his twin brother was the “fetcher” and would grab the ingredients from the refrigerator and wash them as needed. Meanwhile, their older brother set the table, complete with napkins and water cups.
A meal that might have been met with resistance was suddenly a feast eaten with gusto.
Besides cooking, your child can also participate through shopping at the farmers’ market, planting vegetables in the garden, or even helping you plan meals for the week. Even my pickiest child will eat just about anything he himself suggested we cook.
What to do if your child still refuses to eat
As we all know, there isn’t a magic wand we wave that morphs kids into willing eaters overnight. Instead, the tips above are ongoing habits we do over time that eventually sets the stage for eating a variety of food.
In the meantime, what do you do when you’re still in that standstill, where your child doesn’t want to eat the meal in front of her? Take a look at these tips:
- Don’t make a different meal. If your child refuses to eat the spaghetti you made and that everyone else is eating, then that’s her choice. In fact, making a separate meal just for her only confirms her suspicions and fears that she shouldn’t eat what everyone else is eating, and sets the stage for more of the same down the line.
- Have your child continue to sit at the table. Sometimes, a child refuses to eat because she’d rather do something else, or go back to the activity she’d been doing before you called her for dinner. Fair enough, but make it a rule that she has to continue sitting at the table until everyone is finished with dinner. That way, she knows there’s a time to eat and a time to play. Plus, she just might take a bite or two if all she can do is sit in front of it.
- Save your child’s dinner and re-offer it if she’s hungry. If she decides not to eat dinner, don’t toss her food just yet. Instead, save it in case she decides she’s hungry between now and bedtime. In fact, let her know: “I’ll leave your bowl right here. That way, if you get hungry later on, you can still eat it.” This avoids you having to make her a different meal or offer a snack.
Power struggles often happen over the dinner table, especially when your child refuses to eat. Still, it’s not hopeless—you truly can help your picky eater take to more food.
Start by alternating a food she likes with a new one you’d like to introduce. Or if she’s adamant about not eating it, have her at least take five bites before she eats the fruit or treat at the end of the meal. Offer similar meals to the ones she loves, so she has less to resist if it’s close enough.
Make sure to give her the autonomy to decide how to eat the meal instead of fussing over everything. Encourage her to participate in the meal-preparing process, from planning to shopping to cooking.
And finally, refer to the three steps above on what to do in the middle of a standstill if she absolutely refuses to eat.
I may not have convinced my son to eat the artichokes in his orzo pasta that night, but I’m certain he’ll learn to give it a try in the future—just as he did with the once-hated goat cheese.
Get more tips:
- How to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables
- How to Raise Kids Who Want to Eat Healthy
- 8 Warning Signs You Need to Be a More Patient Mom
- 7 Game-Changing Ways to Respond to Your Argumentative Child
- Unfair Reasons We Get Mad at Kids (And How to Change)
Tell me in the comments: What is your biggest struggle when your child refuses to eat?