8 Strategies for Picky Eaters: End the Mealtime Battles for Good

Picky Eater
Has your dining room table turned into a battlefield?

Instead of reminiscing about the day, do you spend mealtime engaged in a hostage negotiation over vegetables?

To add insult to injury, is the culinary masterpiece you slaved over treated with disdain as your child flings it into the dog’s mouth or reminds you again how disgusting broccoli is?

Before you know it, you’ve thrown your hands up in surrender or dropped your head to the table in utter defeat, wondering how steamed carrots could cause such a guttural reaction.

I hear you. As a busy working mom with two sons who had “discriminating tastes” when they were younger, I know all about “picky” problems and mealtime meltdowns. By implementing a few strategies, I was able to squelch the mealtime battles once and for all. (And good news, my sons are now young adults and they actually eat vegetables – there is hope for you too!)

Here are 8 steps you can take to end the war with picky eaters in your house:

1. Let Go of the Labels

The truth is, when we label our kids’ eating habits (or any behavior, for that matter) we compound problems. For example, if you have a picky eater and you’ve made that clear with phrases like, “Oh, she doesn’t eat that,” or “He’s so picky – he’ll ONLY eat mac and cheese.” Guess what? Your child will “not eat that” and “only eat mac and cheese.” In the same way, saying “Oh, she’s just shy” will only reinforce shy behavior because children own the labels you bestow upon them.

By labeling your child’s mealtime habits, you give her permission to continue the resistant mealtime behavior. This will also unintentionally rob your child of the chance to accept and enjoy new foods.

On the flip side – using positive labels around eating also creates more problems than it solves. Think about it – when you label one child the “good eater” – his sibling can only assume he’s the “bad eater” setting up an environment for sibling rivalry to thrive. The bottom line is this: avoid labels, positive or negative.

2. Take Control of the Pantry

While getting kids to make healthy food choices can be tough, just remember – YOU PURCHASE THE GROCERIES. Sure, they will enjoy a cupcake at a birthday party or some candy at a movie theater every once in a while – but if a child eats the majority of their food at home (which most kids do), the parents must not forget who’s stocking the shelves.

Are they eating too many Oreos? Toss them. Are they drinking more Cokes than you allow? Pour them out.  Are they overindulging on all the sugary snacks and starch-rich junk food in your home? Remove them from your pantry and refrigerator. If all you have on hand is healthy alternatives – then healthy is what they’ll eat.

If you’ve stocked your fridge and pantry with foods you want your kids to consume, but they are still leaving most of their dinner on their plate – that’s a clue to close the pantry (and fridge) at least an hour or two before mealtime.

Making this shift won’t always be easy, but here is a great resource to end any nagging and negotiating that might result in the changes to the pantry selections. Just remember, you can’t control what the kids put in their mouths, but you can control what options they have to choose from.

Note for Positive Parenting Solutions Members: See Lesson #22 in Session 3 for more information on how to use the Control the Environment Tool to make morning routines run like clockwork, minimize sibling rivalry, tame technology battles and diffuse all sorts of other power struggles.  

3. Don’t Go to War at the Dinner Table

If you don’t want mealtime to be a battle, then don’t make it one. What kids eat or how much they eat should not be a debate every night. As the parent, your job is to plan and execute healthy meals for your kids. When you include at least one healthy item you know your child will eat, you’ve done your job. After that? Leave it be. Seriously. Let your child take it or leave it.

Your well-intended “just try a bite” or “how do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?” remarks open the door for an ongoing power struggle around food. If you are overly-invested in your kids making the “clean plate club,” you are giving them the power to create a problem.

Serve the meal, then let the chips (figuratively speaking!) fall where they may. The more anxious you are about mealtime and who eats what, the more anxious (and potentially manipulative) your kids will be about it.

When it comes to mealtime – just be Switzerland. Stay neutral. Don’t pick sides.

If you stay out of the fight, mealtime will be more enjoyable than you ever imagined.

4. Don’t Make Food a Reward

How many times have you heard, “If you eat your vegetables, you’ll get dessert?” Food, even the sweet treats, are something to be enjoyed as a family, not to be used as a bargaining chip for good behavior or finishing your meal.

When dessert is held up as the “good stuff to get to after you choke down your broccoli” – that’s what kids will crave! Furthermore, this doesn’t teach a child healthy eating habits. After all, we want our children to enjoy healthy foods, not simply choke them down only to receive something sweet at the end.

In addition to offering dessert as a reward for eating their vegetables, it’s important not to offer sweets as a reward for good behavior – being obedient in public, picking up their toys, getting good grades, etc. As a Positive Parenting educator, I strongly advise parents against using rewards in general, but using sweets as a reward, specifically, can send mixed messages.

Think about it this way. If children know spinach is a healthy food that’s good for your body and cookies are less healthy, then why do we offer the “less healthy” and “less beneficial” option as a reward for doing something good? In simplest terms, why should they get to eat something bad for doing something good?

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5. Variety is the Spice of Life

Variety is also the key to tackling the picky eaters in your home. One simple strategy to demilitarize your dining room table is to mix up your meal plan. Challenge yourself to plan a different lunch and dinner for every day during the week.

By doing this, children won’t automatically assume, “It’s lunchtime. That means I have a PB&J,” or “It’s dinner time. We always have Mac & Cheese at dinner.” When you keep kids on their toes and mix up the anticipated meals, you’ll break your kids’ habits of expecting specific dishes.

Just think about it. If your kid has seen chicken nuggets three days in a row for lunch, they are easily going to wage war when you throw down an enchilada. By showing your children your kitchen produces a wide variety of dishes, they will learn to enjoy whatever food has been prepared.

6. Offer Some Choice

If you followed my suggestion in #2 and only filled the pantry with food you’d like your children to eat, then it’s perfectly acceptable to offer some choice over food throughout the day.

For example, at breakfast, you can say, “Would you like blueberries or an apple with your bagel?”

At lunchtime, you can say, “Would you like carrots or cucumbers with your sandwich?”

For snack, you can say, “Would you like a cheese stick or rice cakes?”

At dinner, you can say, “Would you like milk or water to drink?”

When a child is given some control over what they eat – even if only for a part of a meal- you are helping to fill their power buckets and diffuse potential mealtime battles. By giving them some power to choose, your kids will be more agreeable in situations when they don’t have a choice.

Note for Positive Parenting Solutions Members: See Lesson #21 in Session 3 for how you can use the Create a Decision-Rich Environment Tool to fill your child’s power bucket in positive ways to fend off those frustrating negative power behaviors.

7. Try, Try Again

Don’t write off a type of food because of one bad experience. Feel free to get science-y and let your kids know that taste buds regenerate every ten days to two weeks. Wow! That means just because you don’t like something today doesn’t mean it won’t end up on the favorites list later.

When you set that once-disliked food down again, don’t attach any previous emotions to it. Simply encourage your kids to keep tasting and trying – over time they might find they like it!

8. Make Meals an “All In” Experience

Meals are more fun and engaging when everyone is part of the process. From table setting to food prep to even choosing menus and picking out produce – when everyone is in, kids are less likely to pitch a fit about the finished product.

In addition to including everyone in the prep work, mealtime should be a family affair. While it may seem easier to “feed the kids first,” or “eat while watching tv,” I highly encourage families to turn off the electronics and all eat together.

When families share a meal, it becomes less about the food and more about the community. When kids see value in dinnertime as an opportunity to share about their day or hear about the plans for an upcoming vacation, they won’t pick as many fights about the food.

Mealtime offers an opportunity for community that extends far beyond filled bellies. When we focus on our child’s food consumption, we miss the opportunity to fill up their hearts and spirits with time spent together. View your dining room table as a respite from the day, a place where hearts, souls and bellies come to be filled. By doing this, you’ll be well on your way to more joy-filled meals together.

Final Thoughts

I want nothing more than for you to enjoy mealtime again, and I know for many parents that means you need to curb the picky eaters in your home. I have helped thousands of parents solve this issue and would love to help you too.

Remember, mealtime drama is often a SYMPTOM of a deeper power struggle, so if you’d like more strategies to help solve the power struggles in your home, I’d love for you to join me for a FREE PARENTING CLASS. In this hour-long class, I will teach you how to get your kids to listen without nagging, reminding or yelling.

Wishing you peace at mealtimes!

Note for Positive Parenting Solutions Members: See the Advanced Module entitled “Eating and Mealtime Battles” to learn a step-by-step action plan to encourage healthy eating without power struggles!

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.