Being Confident of This

Grace for the work-in-progress woman

6 Principles for Picky Eaters

on June 10, 2013


We’ve all experienced it: the transformation of that babbling baby who happily ate ALL of the baby food groups into the terrible toddler who only wants to eat crackers.  Every child goes through a picky eater phase.  Of course, some children take picky eating to more of an extreme level than others! Our firstborn was easy, our second was challenging, and our third and fourth (twins) offered another perspective altogether.

Nevertheless, how we react to this picky-eater phase (much like any other phase) helps determine whether our children remain stuck in that phase or whether they grow through it. Thus, I offer you these 6 Principles for Picky Eaters based on my thirteen-plus years of parenting so far:

1. Decide ahead of time where you’ll draw the line and stick to it!  If you first set out with the goal of having your child clean his or her plate and later decided that’s too difficult, your child may see this as a sign of weakness.  Any sign of weakness can lead to a doubled effort on the child’s part to break you – seriously.  Trust me: at the first glimpse of weakness, your tiny tyrant will “seize the day” and your job will suddenly become that much more difficult.

2. Use the “Try at least one bite” rule.  This rule came directly from my mother, and I find it very suitable still.  At our house, the kids are not allowed to turn down an entire plate of food, especially something new, without even tasting it.  Even now that they are older, every food group must be at least tasted before they are allowed to reject it.

When he was a toddler, our middle child became so adept at turning down food, that I feared he would be adversely affected.  However, when I mentioned my mommy fears to our seasoned pediatrician, he just smiled knowingly and kindly pointed out that my toddler was perfectly chubby and wasn’t going to “starve” any time soon. It was our doctor’s obvious revelation that gave me permission to wait our strong-willed toddler out.  Here’s the technique we used:


  • Offer the plate several times, giving the child a few minutes to try in between. Be on your toes during this phase. If it lasts too long, you’re likely to experience the ceremonial dumping of the plate. 😉
  • If the food is repeatedly refused, take it away and end mealtime altogether. (This step will prevent much frustration for everyone – including older children – and can even prevent irritations such as plate dumping, fit throwing, cup tossing, etc.)
  • Remove child from highchair or table with the reminder that the food will be waiting when he or she is hungry.
  • Cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate if necessary.
  • Re-heat whenever the child asks for food and offer plate again. If your child is very strong-willed and you don’t want to reheat the food often, show the child the plate.  Tell the child if he or she is hungry, this is what he or she can have.  If  he or she immediately refuses, don’t even bother re-heating.
  • If the food  is again refused, put it back in the fridge.
  • Repeat cycle until the child eats (how much is up to you) or until bedtime.  Most children will break down and eat it when they get hungry enough.  However, I once re-heated a plate FIVE times within the space of two hours for our middle child.  So, don’t be surprised if your child continues to test until the process is well-established!
  • Important Note: absolutely NO snacks or milk should be given in the meantime (only water). This was per our pediatrician’s advice, and it makes sense.  A glass of milk is more than enough to satisfy hunger pains for an hour or two, especially for small children.  By caving in with a little bit of milk or even a single cracker, you will undo all of your hard work thus far. (Obviously if your child has a medical condition that does not allow for depriving them, follow your own doctor’s advice.)
  • Above all, be consistent!  I cannot emphasize that enough.  Once we started using this technique, we rarely had to employ it after the first few victories.  Toddlers and Preschoolers alike are quick to learn when we are consistent in our parenting.

*Disclaimer: this technique doesn’t work as well when that stubborn toddler becomes a sly four-year-old.  One day, we set out the plate at lunch time and had to put it back in the fridge.  We got it out at snack time and put it back. We got it back out at supper time and put it back.  We got it out once more at bedtime, at which point my son grinned wickedly and said, “But I won’t have to eat it for breakfast.”  Well-played, son, well-played. I decided to let him have his small victory, but he still went to bed hungry. It hasn’t happened since then. 🙂

*Disclaimer #2: This technique should only be used for healthy children!  Please see the note of caution at the end of the article.


3. Create a test to see if your child is truly full, or if they just don’t want to eat what’s in front of them.  If our children are asking for more of something they liked (or for dessert), but they haven’t eaten the other items on their plates, I ask them to finish the majority of the other items first.

For example, our daughter loooooves bread.  When presented with a plate of half of a sandwich, fruit, and fresh veggies, she will often eat the bread and the fruit, leaving the meat and the veggies.  Then, she’s likely to ask for more bread or more fruit.  We make her eat the majority of what she left behind (the meat and veggies) before giving her more of what she desires.

Tip: I use a similar method when my children ask for seconds of an unhealthy treat or snack.  “If you’re really still hungry, have some carrots.”  If they eat the carrots, they were really hungry and they ate a healthy snack.  If not, then they weren’t hungry and just wanted more cake, cookies, etc. Children are often smarter and more devious than we realize!)

4. Use the “take ______more bites” rule.  If one of our children wants to be excused from the table, but I can see they haven’t eaten very much of their meal, or very much of their veggies, I usually insist on at least a few more bites.  I only do this if they’ve eaten less than half of the portion.  Most times, they are able to stomach at least a few bites of whatever food group they’ve chosen to reject.

Start with a lower number of bites and then increase the amount as they grow older.  For example, our preschoolers might be required to take only two or three more bites, but our older children might be asked to take closer to ten (especially the sly middle child who takes the tiniest bites ever known to mankind).  An alternate method would be to divide the portion in half and ask them to eat only one half.  This method works well with older children.

*Disclaimer: if your child is visibly gagging on the food, think long and hard about whether or not you want to clean up a pile of puke before you choose to enforce this rule.   I’ve learned through experience that sometimes, they just CAN’T eat the foods we’d like them to – it’s not a matter of disobedience or control, but rather an uncontrollable physical response to a particular taste or texture. Again, see the note of caution at the end of the article.

gracie plate

5.Make it fun!  Remember when your stubborn child was a smiling baby and you would makes spoonfuls of baby food into airplanes, or choo-choo trains, etc.?  Remember that baby smushing food on the high chair tray and running a finger through piles of goo?  But to the stubborn toddler we say, “quit playing with your food” or “sit still and take a bite.”

Now, I’m all for table manners, but somewhere along the line, we parents often quit making food fun!  If you make food fun, or even the eating experience itself fun, your child is likely to stay at the table longer and eat more of that healthy food you worked so hard to prepare (or at least arrange on a plate).  How do I make food fun, you ask?  Tune in tomorrow for a short post on Making Food Fun! 🙂

6. Be patient….. OR…. Win the war, not the battle. Naturally, patience is the last thing on your mind when your picky child dumps his or her plate for the second, third, fourth time of the day. Many of my most desperate prayers for patience were inspired by mealtime battles with our middle child. However, take a moment to remind yourself that this is only a phase.  You may lose battles here and there, but the goal is to win the war!


In retrospect, I think the mantra for all mamas of small children should be, “This too shall pass” because it is true.  The parenting problems that so often seem unbearable today will be gone tomorrow, replaced by a new phase with its own set of problems.

If we can keep the years of picky eating in perspective, we realize that there is no need to stress about our children’s eating habits.  All we can do is our best to encourage them to make healthy eating choices, and then we have to trust God with the rest.

If you’re looking for tips specifically on how to include veggies in the diet without a fuss, click here!

I hope you find these picky-eater tips helpful.  If you have a tip to share with the rest of us, leave a comment!

Jen 🙂

*Reader Kimberly makes an excellent point – if your child is extremely picky, please consult your physician! There may be underlying physical issues, such as food allergies or intolerances, that are causing the trouble.  Thanks, Kimberly! 🙂

Enjoyed this article? Check out this post on how to keep those Eaters happy during meal-prep:

Sharing this post with: How Do You Do It? and #TheLoft

You may also find this post linked up at any of these lovely blogs.


46 responses to “6 Principles for Picky Eaters

  1. Val Young says:

    Very smart. We do this exact thing with our daycare children even. They eat great!

  2. I love this! Sharing on my FB page! Thanks for Linking up at Tending The Home Tuesdays!

  3. […] 6 Principles for Picky Eaters Jun […]

  4. Sarah says:

    Adding some fun to our meal times …

    Thanks for joining the melody this week. I would be delighted to have you add your voice each week. I jot some momma notes on Monday … but its a post whenever you can during the week kind of link up. I get the filled to the brim momma schedules.

    Happy day,


  5. Great tips! I use the “Take x-amount more bites.” thing a lot. And also, “If you want dessert, you better eat it all up!” Thanks so much for linking this up with Pin It Tuesday! I hope you will come back and link up next week!

  6. igotthismartha says:

    I really needed this advice! My three year old doesn’t want to eat anything other than frozen waffles!

  7. Very helpful thank you! My middle child is a nightmare when it comes to food.

    Thanks for linking up with us at Pin It Tuesday!
    Join us again next week to see if you were featured!

  8. sue says:

    Really great tips Jen! Pinned to spread the word! Thanks for sharen with us at One Sharendipity Pl. this weekend!


  9. Kimberly says:

    These are all good ideas, except for one troubling thought. I was an extremely picky eater. My parents followed your steps almost exactly. I was a very skinny kid. Turns out that I was allergic to almost everything that I didn’t “like”…four pages of allergies as tested by a physician. I suggest that if your is extremely picky you get them tested for allergies before you assume they are just head-strong.

    • This is an excellent point, Kimberly, which is why I included the phrase – if your child has medical issues, follow your own doctor’s advice. 🙂 We have several in our household with food allergies. I appreciate your advice, and perhaps I should make a note in the article for parents who may not be familiar with food allergies. Thanks for sharing!
      Jen 🙂

  10. […] via Powerful Mothering on […]

  11. […] via Powerful Mothering on […]

  12. […] via Powerful Mothering on […]

  13. […] via Powerful Mothering on […]

  14. […] via Powerful Mothering on […]

  15. […] for Picky Eaters by Being Confident of This Many of us have at least […]

  16. Gabrielle says:

    Excellent post! Thanks so much for sharing it on our Pin-It Party!

    • Thanks, Gabrielle! I’m happy for the opportunity.
      Jen 🙂

      • Gabrielle says:

        I would love to feature it on this week’s pin-it party! Would you mind adding our button to your side bar so that I can do that? Thanks!

      • I’d love to be featured! It should be on there now. 🙂 One thing though, I had to insert it as an image since there is no html text below it to insert it as a button. So, I wasn’t sure which web address to link it to? Right now I have it linked to the pin it party #2. Let me know if I need to do it differently. I’m pretty new to blogging. 🙂

  17. […] wisdom, decided to bless us with a strong-willed, picky eater.  However, I learned much from dealing with his picky eating phase, a phase that felt like an eternity!  By the time our twins came along, I had a much better idea […]

  18. Really great tips! Thanks so much!

  19. Rebekah says:

    Oh wow! I just dealt with this at lunchtime today – great post and great tips! Thank you!!

  20. Ahah! Great tips!
    My mom used to pull some of these tricks on me and my siblings 😉 Some of them worked and have succeeded in turning us into fans of food-we-used-to-hate.

    • You have a clever mother, then. 🙂 They really do work, even for adults! My husband and I now both enjoy tomatoes and my husband even eats broccoli (he’s not a veggie-lover) as long as the chunks aren’t too big. Thanks for stopping by!
      Jen 🙂

  21. Scarlett says:

    Some great tips! I have a picky eating 20mo on my hands, and trying to figure out what he WILL eat (that isn’t anything resembling an animal cracker or graham…) is a daily struggle. He’s in the phase where he will eat something with adandon one day and then not the next. He loves macaroni, so at least he’s eating something!

    • Yes, it can be frustrating when they can’t seem to make up their minds about what they like! 🙂 As long as you stick with it, though, the phase will end eventually and mealtime will be more enjoyable! Praying you make it through quickly!
      Jen 🙂

  22. Lauren Tamm says:

    I think being firm and very consistent is the major key to yielding results with small children. Holding out longer, just for a few times, is usually enough to get on the right path. I love these ideas, and yes, of course your child should be healthy. I know sometimes people get nervous when you start talking about eat this or go hungry, but I do agree this is a technique we plan to use. I also think there is value to preparing healthy foods in various ways. For example, instead of baked fish, try homemade fish cakes the next time.

    • Yes, consistency is key! Our doctor always said children WILL eat when they are truly hungry. I think it’s harder on the mamas to wait it out than it is on the kiddos. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!
      Jen 🙂

  23. ldskatelyn says:

    Great post! Love how you broke down different things to try! Thanks for linking to HDYDI!

    • I wish I would have known more about picky eaters with our first child, but the babies definitely reap the benefits of parenting experience. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
      Jen 🙂

  24. Rebekah says:

    Yes! Yes, yes, yes! We did a lot of this with our younger son. The most important part of it all was the consistency piece. It was hard…but we did it! Great tips!

    • I wish I had known how well it would work with our firstborn! Thankfully our middle son gave us good practice with it to use when the twins went through that stage. Otherwise, suppertime would have been even more of a chore!
      Jen 🙂

  25. Rebeca Jones says:

    “Trust me: at the first glimpse of weakness, your tiny tyrant will “seize the day” and your job will suddenly become that much more difficult.” Oh, Jen, this made me laugh out loud! It is true in so many areas of parenting in the early years. 🙂

    Now that my kids are older, we play word games at the table. This keeps them engaged, and my still-picky youngest will eat more while having fun.

    This article is excellent; full of practical wisdom!

    • Yes, it is soooo true, especially with the strong-willed kiddos! 🙂 I’m very thankful that now we rarely have food issues at the table. Our kids love to have their own turn talking, especially the little ones since they often go unheard. It’s like being on stage or something, haha.
      Jen 🙂

  26. Chris Malkemes says:

    Rebecca where were you 20 years ago. I caved in and gave them cereal. My dr advice…let them eat what they want because they’re crav the vitamins from certain foods. Ahhhhhhh. Too late. Thanks for sharing. You bloggers have info at your fingertips Thanks Rebecca when my grandkids come they don’t have a chance.

    • Well, trends change so often that it’s hard to keep up! Who knows – in ten years the “wait them out” approach might be wrong again. Haha 🙂 I have to give credit to our former pediatrician, though, and it probably matters that He is a believer. Thanks for stopping by!
      Jen 🙂

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