Frustrated when your child refuses to eat what you made for dinner? Learn how to avoid power struggles and get your kids to finally eat.
I cooked orzo pasta for dinner—usually a family favorite—except this particular meal happened to have artichokes.
My son 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 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 snacks and food like fruit and vegetables.
Your child may have even been a great eater in the past, but now refuses food you know he’s had before and liked. Instead, he only eats certain foods, despite you having tried everything to get him to eat new things.
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What to do when your child refuses to eat
This dilemma wouldn’t be so difficult if we didn’t feel hypocritical at times. After all, we don’t eat food we don’t like. Not until recently did I cook meals with eggplant simply because I didn’t like it.
You don’t want your child to hate certain foods because you make her eat them, but you also don’t want her to expect a PB&J for every meal. Bribing her to eat isn’t a sustainable way to go, either.
No wonder picky eating is driving you nuts, especially since you never expected this to happen, not now. Even daycare or other childcare providers are finding it difficult to convince her to eat, much less finish, her lunch.
In short, you just want a happy family dinner with kids who eat what you set in front of them and get the nutrition they need—all without any anxiety.
I totally get it. I’ve had my fair share of tantrums (both my kids’ and mine, admittedly) all because they wouldn’t eat a burrito or a soup that I had spent a lot of time cooking.
Before we go on though, I recommend reaching out to your child’s doctor to rule out medical issues, from an eating disorder to a fear of new foods to food allergies. Sometimes, the problem is medically-related and need to be approached a different way.
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 since learned what to do when a child refuses to eat. I’m confident it can 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 she rather skip straight to the apple instead of eating soup first?
In my home, we typically eat a main meal followed by fruits. 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 the main meal 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 potatoes, for instance, they can take a bite of the apple. This makes eating the main meal easier since they don’t have to think about finishing the entire thing before getting to the fruit.
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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 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 tastes and flavors is to offer them 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 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 take at least five bites of the main meal. I find that it’s a fair compromise, one where they’re not forced to finish their meal, but that they should give it a chance.
And guess what: I did this often enough that now my kids love (yes, love!) goat cheese and ask for it.
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. You could keep her regular cheddar on white combination, but add spinach as well. Or you could make quesadillas using the same cheddar but try 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.
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.
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) throughout a meal. After all, this is when kids can practice table manners, hold utensils, and not make 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 in the left.
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
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. 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.
Your child can also participate by shopping at the farmers’ market, planting vegetables, or helping you plan meals for the week.
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 healthy eating 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 at that standstill and 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 that everyone else is eating, then that’s her choice. Making a separate meal just for her only confirms her theories that she shouldn’t eat what everyone else is eating, and sets the stage for more of the same.
- 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 (even if she refuses to eat). That way, she knows there’s a time to eat and a time to play. Plus, she 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 yet. Instead, save it in case she decides she’s hungry between now and bedtime. 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 because she’s hungry.
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. If she’s adamant about not eating it, have her at least take five bites before she eats the fruit or dessert at the end of mealtime. Offer similar meals to the ones she loves, so she has less to resist if it’s close enough.
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 can now say he’ll eat it, all without the whining and groaning.
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)
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab your copy of the 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child below—at no cost to you: