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Surprising tips for parents of picky eaters

Updated on December 12, 2008

Who hasn't been there? At your wit's end, looking down at a child who just WON'T EAT! Maybe even forcing them to eat something or else they can't leave the table, then feeling guilty afterward when they're mad at you. Well, here are some tips for you from an experienced nanny and preschool cook.

Don't make it conditional

What not to do:

Eat your veggies, then you can have dessert! Force-feeding your child anything. First, eat your lunch, then you can get down from the table and play.


Making food a condition of doing something else creates resistance. No one likes being forced to do something they don't want to do. It's best to not even try, because you end up losing. That gives your child confidence that they are more powerful than you.

What to do instead:

Give choices. Say, "You've done a good job eating _____; let's try _________." Eat the corresponding food from your plate while they eat theirs. Serve two kinds of troublesome foods, like peas and green beans, so that they can eat one or the other and still get their vegetables.

And remember, dessert is part of the meal, NOT a reward. Making it a reward will rush them through enjoying their other food.

Involve the children in food prep

What not to do:

Tell the children they're not allowed in the kitchen. Cook or otherwise prepare food when they're not around. Always go shopping without the children.


Children need to learn where food comes from and how it's prepared. This is an essential life skill, and it starts as young as you allow it. The more involved a child is in his or her life, the more interest he or she takes in it. Creating interest in food preparation allows them to learn healthy cooking and eating habits when they are naturally curious.

What to do instead:

When cooking, give the child an easy job, mixing a small amount of dry ingredients to pour in with other measured ingredients (even if it's too small an amount to make a difference in the recipe), turning knobs or pushing buttons under your direction, even just listening for the timer and telling you when it goes off. Explain things as you go along, and answer questions about the food and ingredients. This is a good time to talk about the protein and vitamins in foods, and discuss likes and dislikes (theirs and yours). Take the child shopping, and have them pick out fruit and vegetables (cans, frozen, or raw) or other healthy things that have pictures on them.

Ask for meal ideas

What not to do:

Make all the meal decisions. Put food on the table, then say, "This is what we're eating," without letting children have input.


Everyone likes to have a say in their life, children included. If you are willing to try their meal ideas, however silly, they will be more willing to try yours.

What to do instead:

When planning meals for the week or month, ask them if there's something they especially want to have one of the days. Even if it's a silly idea, go with it if it's within range. Maybe having peanut butter and jelly in scrambled eggs would even taste as good to you as it does to your child.

Plan "surprise" meals

What not to do:

Have the same "favorites" or not-so-favorites for dinner all the time. Or lunch, or breakfast.


Eating the same thing every day is boring. Eating a variety of food creates a better diet, exposes the children to new foods, and creates anticipation of mealtimes.

What to do instead:

Every so often, not at regular intervals, surprise the family with an unusual meal. Pancakes, maybe with cubed ham inside, for dinner. Waffles with peanut butter, folded, in a packed lunch. Meatloaf for breakfast, with orange marmalade on top. The possibilities are endless, with a little imagination.

Let the children "cook"

What not to do:

Say, "No, you can't make dinner/butter bread/etc."


This goes along with involving the children in food prep. They want to make something for you every so often, to show you that they can do it on their own. This is a natural process of learning, and very healthy for them. It also shows them how recipes are created, and lets them use their imaginations.

What to do instead:

Give them a list of ingredients they can use, and see what they come up with. Eat a bite of it, and have them eat a bite of it, then talk about if it tastes good or bad, what the ingredients are, and how they made it. This can be as easy as a sandwich (which might have surprise ingredients like chocolate chips or gummy worms), or as complicated as soup that they add things to then ask you to microwave for them (or microwave themselves if they're old enough).

Using these tips can turn reluctant eaters into gourmets. It still might take a little time and effort, but you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.


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    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Great and needed hub! I'd add don't let your food preferances dictate your children's food choices. Can't stand broccoli, doesn't mean they should like it. Far too often I've heard young mothers say, "you won't like that" to a child when offered something mom doesn't like.


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