The Drama of Picky Eating

Are mealtimes a struggle because your kids refuse to eat the food you make? Are you packing the same lunch over and over again because your child only likes drinkable yogurt and goldfish? Did your daughter love broccoli when she was three but now at four she hates it and barely eats any veggies? 

These are all common eating struggles for parents. We start to worry that our kids are not eating a variety of foods, therefore missing out on some key nutrients. We fight with them at meals and it has turned eating from something pleasurable to something stressful. Is my kid healthy enough? Is she constipated? Sluggish? Moody? Irritable? 

It’s important to know that all kids go through picky phases. Kids will go on food jags, when they focus on one food or a certain color of food for a period of time. For instance, your child will only eat raspberries and no other fruit. This could go on for days, weeks, or months. Eventually kids branch out.  One day the raspberry-loving child will suddenly announce she no longer eats raspberries and has moved on to grapes.

So what the heck do I do if my kid is a picky eater and doesn’t want to eat the “GOOD” foods, like veggies, but only the “BAD” foods? 

What if my kid picks at dinner, barely eats, but immediately wants cookies for dessert? 


Even though I’m a dietitian, I’m also a mom of two young boys (6 and 9 years old) and I’m by no means immune to what every other parent of young kids is faced with when it comes to food struggles. Here’s a familiar scenario in my home. I make salmon, sweet potatoes, and broccoli for dinner. One kid may eat some sweet potato but will not touch even a speck of salmon. The other kid is throwing a tantrum. WHY CAN’T WE JUST HAVE MAC AND CHEESE? I HATE SALMON! GROSS!

Possible actions I can take? 

#1: Start making numerous meals. I realize the kids aren’t going to eat this food.  I offer it to them, they complain and say they won’t eat it, then I make mac and cheese. I don’t want them to starve!

#2: Use the guilt tactic. Tell them how hard I’ve worked on this meal and that they can’t get up from the table until they at least try a piece of each food on their plate. 

#3: Offer something as part of the dinner that I know they will like and has nutritional value. For my boys this could be grapes, apple slices, or baby carrots. If the meal is already prepared, I can grab these out of the fridge and don’t have to start cooking something new. If they eat a ton of grapes but don’t really touch the rest of dinner, well, at least they ate something that I feel semi-good about. 

#4: Threaten them with the “no dessert” mom-threat. Tell them they have to eat a majority of what’s on their plate or they can forget about having any dessert. Or if your family doesn’t typically have dessert and your kid won’t touch his dinner, then bribe him with a brownie as a special treat.

What would you do?

What do you think you should do? 

I’ve definitely done a few of these in my mom career.  The first response, to become a short-order cook for your kids, is not a good plan. This is giving your kid the upper hand at meal time. You could be setting your kid up to expect this for years to come. 

I don’t need to eat what mom makes because she’ll just make me what I really want.“

It’s hard enough to plan one meal. Don’t subject yourself to making multiple meals every night until your kids move out of the house.  This can also feed into picky behaviors and mold your picky child into a picky teenager and possibly grow into a picky adult.  

In #2, telling your child he can’t get up from the table until he tries what you made may elicit a reaction that has nothing to do with if they like the food or not but more about a power struggle. Kids like to have some degree of control. If the food you want your child to try is a turn off for him because of the smell, color, or texture, having them sit at the table until they try it is only creating a stressful situation. Also, scientific studies have shown it can take a child at least 12 exposures to a food before they will consider eating it. Exposure means seeing, smelling, and touching the food but not necessarily eating it.

I’ve been using tactic #3 for a while now. Using my salmon dinner example, I’ll make the kids canned baked beans or tater tots as a side dish because these foods have some nutritional value and I know my kids will eat these foods. Instead of saying, “you don’t need to eat this salmon”, I’ll put a tiny piece on their plate. Why a tiny piece? To increase their exposure to it, give them an option to try it, and reinforce that this is what I made for dinner, take it or leave it. Also, I don’t want to give them a huge piece that they won’t eat and then toss it in the garbage.

I’ve caught myself with #4 and the “eat this broccoli or no dessert!” threat. This sends a message that broccoli is not the fun stuff but you have to push through it to get to the prize - dessert. If your kid barely eats dinner and asks for some cookies a few minutes later, take a look at how they ate that day. Did they eat a good breakfast and lunch? Then maybe they aren’t genuinely hungry for dinner. Did they already have a bunch of goodies during the day such as munchkins at a birthday party or cookies after school? Then maybe offer something like fruit or a cheese stick. There has to be some structure around this and not create a food frenzy free-for-all as well!

Banishing a sweet treat because dinner wasn’t eaten is a punishment. Should food be used as a punishment OR a reward? Is it sending the right message and giving parents the results they hope for? Chances are if you take the dessert away as a punishment for not eating dinner, the same exact thing may happen all over again tomorrow night. Or it may prompt your child to start cleaning his plate when he’s not hungry just to get to the sweet reward at the end. This is where kids slowly begin to stop trusting their intuitive eating signals and lose touch with true hunger and satiety feelings in the body. They may start forcing themselves to eat things they don’t like all in the name of getting dessert. It’s important kids try a variety of foods but there is no reason any of us should be eating things we don’t even enjoy. 

It’s not easy dealing with food battles. It’s important to know it is a completely normal part of growing up and developing. It’s also good to know that there are some kids out there who are great eaters and willing to try anything. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with your picky child. The only time to worry is when your child may be eating so little they are losing weight, or if you suspect there is a medical reason for the picky eating. Then you should consult with your child’s pediatrician. 

If you are simply dealing with natural pickiness but it’s causing you stress, meeting with a registered dietitian, especially one with expertise working with picky eaters, is highly recommended. Also, reading any of Ellyn Satter’s books or info on her website about the division of responsibility” in feeding where parents choose the foods that are offered and kids pick what they want to eat from these foods. 

What are some ways you’ve been successful, or unsuccessful, in dealing with your picky eater? Please comment, no judgement here at all!