When Your Kids are Picky Eaters: 8 Ways to Stop Whining at the Table


How to Deal with Picky Eaters: Stop Whining at the Table!

Do you dread dinner time? Do you spend an hour making a decent meal, one that you’re going to enjoy, and then your kids sit down and whine and play with their food and make everyone miserable? Today let’s talk about how to deal with picky eaters!

When my kids were little one of my daughters decided that anything that looked like an herb was obviously poison. So if anything had any parsley, or basil, or flecks of anything at all–meaning that if anything had any actual taste–she would refuse to eat it. It was quite the battle.

We finally won it by instituting the “Rice and Beans” rule (elaborated below), but I thought today I’d take off my Marriage Hat (since I usually talk about marriage on this blog), and I’d don my Parenting Hat and give us some tips on how to deal with picky eaters.

1. Distract Picky Eaters by Making Dinner Fun

Picture this:

You’re at a dinner party with food you’re not totally sure of. It looks like something foreign. You want to eat it and keep smiling, but all around you people are talking about something you have no interest or knowledge of. You feel left out. You’re wondering how much longer you have to sit there for, and how long before you can politely excuse yourself. You’re definitely not enjoying the meal.

What was the main problem? Was it the food, or the conversation? I know for me the problem would be the conversation. I can eat food I don’t particularly like if I’m having fun with those around me. But if I’m miserable to begin with, the food’s going to seem even worse.

I think we do the same thing to kids. We sit at the dinner table, but then the conversation is one of two things: it’s either us talking to our husbands, or it’s us yelling at the kids to eat or getting up from the table to fetch something they need. We’re not actually engaging them in conversation!

And I’m a big believer that the most effective discipline is to stop the bad behaviour before it has the chance to start–simply by engaging kids.

Dinner time is not couple time. Talk with your husband at another time. At dinner, involve the kids!

Once kids are 3 1/2 or so, they can participate in dinner time conversations. So here are some quick ideas:

1. Keep a trivia game near the dinner table and ask questions.

2. Get a game of “conversation starters” and use a different one each meal.

3. Memorize some Bible verses (I’ve got a list of the 50 Best Bible Verses to memorize here, along with some cards you can download).

4. Talk about nutrition and money–what food groups are here? What’s in each food group? How much did this meal cost to make? These are all great things for kids to learn!

5. Go around the table and play the Hi-Lo game: name the highpoint of your day, and the low-point of your day. Especially good for involving all family members, even the little ones!

6. Or you can do a different kind of game–like choose a utensil. Everyone uses chopsticks for one meal, or everyone gets an odd thing to eat with, like a spatula, a whisk, or an ice cream scooper. Or once a week you can have “backwards day” where everybody wears their clothes backwards to dinner. I wouldn’t do this every night, but periodically do something special that makes everyone laugh.

When we talk at the dinner table, then dinner becomes more fun, and kids are more likely to want to be there! Make sure you eat dinner at a table, too, so that it’s an event. Make the table pretty. You may think it doesn’t matter with little kids, but kids see when something is special. Treat dinner like it’s something special, and even picky eaters will start to feel that way, too.

2. Involve Picky Eaters in the Set Up–and the Meal Planning

Have your kids set the table. Leave it to them to make it pretty. You can ask them to make a centerpiece earlier in the day. It can be their job to fold napkins–any way they want! This way your picky eaters can start anticipating dinner and taking pride in it.

And if you plan your meals the week before, you can ask for their input. Even name a day for each person, like “Mommy’s Day” and “Brian’s Day” and “Katelyn’s Day”. That way everybody has their day of the week where they’ve chosen the meal. On that person’s day, make them feel special. Pray for them especially at the meal. Talk about what you love about that person. And the deal is: if we honor Brian on Brian’s Day, then we have to honor Mommy on Mommy’s Day, too.

3. Give VERY small portions of everything to Picky Eaters.

Okay, we’ve set the stage for them to look forward to dinner. Now let’s talk about what to do about getting them to eat the actual food!

When you put the food on plates, give extremely small portions of everything–the minimum that you would accept them eating of everything. So if they love mashed potatoes, but hate carrots and meat, put the minimum amount of everything, including the mashed potatoes.

Then if he wants more of any one thing he can have it, but this is the minimum that he has to eat. That way it’s not overwhelming.

4. If a Picky Eater Whines, give a warning.

Tell the child firmly, but without yelling, “you cannot whine at the dinner table. You need to eat your food. If you choose to whine, you’ll have to get down from the dinner table and sit in time out until the rest of us are finished.”

Time Outs Work! Stopping Whining at the Dinner Table

5. If he whines again, have him sit in a time out, away from toys, until the rest of the family has finished.

Don’t let him just go to his room, or he’ll see it as an escape. I whine, I get to go play! Instead, have him sit in a time out where he can see  you having fun, but he isn’t participating. If he wants to come back up and eat his food that’s fine, but no whining.

Most likely a child won’t sit nicely in a time out. You may have to physically get up and keep returning the child to the time out, or take away another privilege, like a toy or something. But speak firmly without yelling, and let the child know you mean business. This is far harder the first two or three times than subsequent times. So stick it out!

6. Keep his plate in the fridge. If he gets hungry later, reheat it.

Don’t give the child any other snacks. Some pediatricians even recommend saving the food for breakfast, though I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. But they have to learn to eat what you serve, especially since you’re only putting out a very small amount of everything–like three small bites of everything. No overwhelming the child!

7. Offer Picky Eaters a Once-A-Week “Out”

I’d suggest keeping hot dogs or something easy in the house so that once a week the child can choose to have an “out”–but only once a week. That way, if the child doesn’t like what tonight’s dinner is, he or she has to decide whether it’s likely that something else later this week will be served that he or she hates even more.

8. Africa Week Cures Many Picky Eaters

When we were in Africa on missions trips, the girls quickly learned that most people have beans and rice 3 meals a day. Actually, most people eat something closer to a maize meal, and beans and rice were actually a luxury. But the point is, in most areas of the world, people eat the same thing every meal of the day. There is very little variety.

So when our kids got really whiny, we threatened Africa Week, where all we would eat, three meals a day for a week, was beans and rice. We never had to follow through; they got the picture. But it’s always good to remind kids that we are fortunate to have variety!

The good news is that kids do eventually outgrow this. Very few kids end up leaving for college eating nothing but spaghetti noodles. Both my girls now eat lots of foods, including sushi, Indian food, and anything that’s normally thought of as “British”. They even eat parsley! So you just have to get through those whiny years, and you will one day enjoy a wonderful family meal around the table–with no one whining or falling out of chairs or spilling their milk.

What about you? How do you deal with picky eaters? Let me know!



  1. I think overall these are great ideas. My kids are an exception in that 2 of them have autism, while they are very high functioning, textures are a big deal to them. So learning to eat anything with texture is awful. One of the things we’ve done is they each have to take 1 bite of something they don’t like at each meal. Then they have to keep it in their mouth for 30 seconds. They can chew it and swallow it really fast if they want to, but that is really hard for them. So at the end of 30 seconds they can spit it out. Over time they accept the foods. We’ve done this for long enough that the boys know the drill and a lot of foods have been accepted into their list of foods they can chew and swallow.

  2. I have used a lot of these ideas with reasonable success.
    The one thing I have learned, is that everyone has one or two foods they genuinely can’t tolerate. So on nights when the menu is what they can’t stand, they are allowed to make themselves a sandwich.
    But they are only allowed one or two things on their “no way” list, and everything else they just have to eat.

    For my 6yo, knowing ahead of time what the meal will be is crucial. I can serve his favourite dish, and if he didn’t know what was coming he’ll still balk. So about 5-10 minutes before dinner, I make a point of telling him what we’re having. Then by the time he gets to the table he’s used to the idea, and far less likely to whine.

  3. I was a huge whiner when I was a little kid! My mom says I would sit and pick at my food and whine, and then when I finally decided to eat it I would whine some more – “It’s cooooold!” – and beg her to reheat it. One night she decided she was tired of the routine, so when I started in on complaining it was cold, she marched over, picked up my plate…and dumped my dinner down the garbage disposal! Then she sweetly said “Okay, you may be excused. Go play.” Apparently the shock on my face was a huge crack-up. But I ate my dinner while it was still warm after that! :-)

    Our three (almost four) year old is an extremely picky eater. He had texture issues when he was younger, and he would eat until he was over-full and then projectile vomit after almost every meal. Doctors could never explain the vomiting. It wasn’t reflux for sure. We think his sense that told him when he was full just took longer to develop. So mealtimes have been a point of contention for a long time. He won’t touch a vegetable for anything and he is more stubborn than me and my husband put together. So we invested in a cookbook called “The Sneaky Chef”. The author spends the entire first part of the book telling her own story of dealing with a picky eater and being concerned with her child’s nutrition, and also the psychology behind why kids can be so picky with their food. It was a huge relief for me that she addressed that because I didn’t feel so alone and like such a failure. It is very normal for children to deal with these things. The author provided practical solutions for good nutrition during the picky times, and strategies for introducing nutritious foods on their own a little later on. It’s been a good first step for us because we know our kids are eating nutritious foods, but it’s foods they love, so mealtimes are now pleasant.

    My husband, though, must be credited with coming up with the most brilliant solution yet – “Green ‘Moni-Cheese”. Our three year old loves the color green. One day my husband had a thought and acted on it. “Would you like GREEN macaroni and cheese?” Kiddo’s eyes lit up and he said “Yeah!” So what hubby did was take a box of organic, whole-wheat mac ‘n cheese, and instead of making the cheese mix according to the instructions he blended the cheese powder with cooked broccoli, peas, and green beans and a splash of milk. Both of our boys (the youngest is 17 months) gobbled it up! It is one of the most requested meals. It works for now!
    Melissa recently posted…Inside My BrainMy Profile

    • That’s awesome, Melissa! I used to hide veggies in everything, too. If you use a slap chopper you can chop carrots & celery & mushrooms & broccoli super small and mix it into ground beef for pretty much any meal, and that always worked like a charm!

  4. Great tips! We play a table game that started off like Hi-Low, but my husband didn’t like talking about the low, so we changed it to 3 Questions: What was the best part of your day? What did you learn? What are you looking forward to tomorrow?

    We’ve been doing it for over a year and our 4 year old is usually the first person to want to ask a question. She is also extremely picky. So the rule is that she has to take a bite before she can ask or be asked a question. I’ve also stopped giving her afternoon snack so she and the 6 yr old will be hungry for dinner (the 18 month old still gets a snack).
    Vinae recently posted…Nursery Know-How: 5 Tips for an Easy Church Nursery ExperienceMy Profile

  5. I can get my 4 year old son to eat most veggies, thankfully. Unfortunately the only meat he can eat and hold down are hotdogs. If he eats any other meat he vomits it back up. Thankfully he gets plenty of protein with peanut butter and cheese.

    While typing this he asked me what ‘vomit’ means. Oh, the joys of having a preschooler who can read.
    Tracy recently posted…Can Formality be a Form of Respect?My Profile

  6. As a Brit, I’m curious… what foods are “normally thought of as British”? I honestly can’t think of anything! :-)

    • I guess I just mean typical North American fare–just the typical stuff we eat! But to say “North American fare” made it sound like Indian food wasn’t part of North American fare, for instance, so I just stuck that in there!

      • Ah, okay! :-) I thought you meant British as distinct from N American. I finally came up with jellied eels and black pudding – but I’d be impressed if your kids were THAT adventurous! :-)

  7. We always gave our kids a choice: this or nothing!
    Many years ago, my son had a little friend over for dinner. The little boy declared at teh table, “Yuck! I hate green stuff!”
    This prompted me to make sure none of my kids ever did that to someone else! So if I wanted them to behave ina certain way in another house, I needed to train at home.
    So, when they decided to play the “I don’t like this” game, we would (after MUCH trial and error to get to this point) wait until everyone else was finished and then clear their plate. No more food now until breakfast the next day,and no snacks (morning/afternoon tea) the next day. Meals only.
    Any child who declared they didn’t like the food or similar grumbling was sent to bed: “that’s ok sweety, you don’t have to eat it because you are going to bed now!”
    We only did that once or twice but the legend has lived on so that younger children (not even alive when this occurred) have never uttered a negative word for fear of being sent to bed! For genuine dislikes (and really, in our house these are very few), I gave a small amount. All our children have been happy to eat whatever is offered when visiting.
    Now, they are all bigger (5 teens + a 10 yr old). All have preferences. All cheerfully eat whatever we are having whether out or at home. I have never strived to serve meals that they might ALL like (there are too many of us for that). I serve the meals I choose 😉
    The training has paid off now :-)

  8. I really needed this encouragement. Thank You! I have a 7 year old that has been picky since about 2 years old. The most nutritious thing he eats is fruit, thanfully he gets that from me. But I can barely get him to eat anything else other than PBJ, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken nuggets. 2 very processed and disgusting foods. I finally have stopped buying chef boyardee because it’s just disgusting. I talked to my pediatrician a couple years ago, and she just said he’s healthy so give him time. Well 2 years later, and we are seemingly getting worse. I do make him try things (when I stick to it) but sometimes I just don’t want to deal with the fight. I’m going to try some of these suggestions and see where it goes. My biggest thing is sticking to it because when everyone is miserable it’s sure easy to just give in and make nuggets. However, I’m noticing my nearly 3 year old start to pass on foods she actually likes. So far she’s not picky at all, but I’m afraid if he continues she will become picky. Thanks again for this post. Any words of encouragement on how to get us on track would be well taken.

  9. These are great tips, I have a relatively adventurous eater because I generally served him the same thing we were eating.

    I would like to make one caution. As a child I remember sitting alone at the table trying to eat canned fruit. I was gagging while tears ran down my face & my mother said “so being so melodramatic.”

    As an adult it was found that I am allergic to fruit. I don’t think my mother was being mean, she was trying to patent me… who ever heard if being allergic to fruit, especially back then. But i’d like to point injure that refusal to eat some foods may not be just a child being headstrong.

    My own sons is on the autism spectrum & while he eats a large variety of foods (including cooked spinach) he has a sensitivity to textures which cause him to gag & even vomit. He still can’t eat lettuce, but he is able to eat many things he couldn’t before (apple sauce for one) after feeding therapies with his speech therapist. It was found he also didn’t have the muscle tone to chew tough foods like steak.

    I think many parents may not be aware if the possibility that there CAN be physical issues underlying some food issues.

  10. I never had the patience to offer ‘distractions’ as my kids got older. (4 of them). We were all hungry and just wanted to eat by the time we sat down to dinner. Battling about food made things worse so we did a couple of things. The first rule was everyone had to try the food at least once a meal. I read it can take up to 10 times of trying a food before a child will actually decide if they REALLY like it or not…..best advice I ever read as my last 2 were not as picky as my first 2 kids. My 2 youngest got into the habit of whining so to break that habit I promised them a hamster each if they could go a month with no whining. I had to reminded them twice but that was it and the habit was broken. After that, if they fell back into whining they ended up with an extra scoop of the offending food. That stopped it immediately! So now, the same rule applies ( one bite) unless we know for sure it is something they really hate. Trying to find a meal that pleases all 6 of us daily is difficult so I try to offer options like raw vegies my kids can have if they really don’t like the main dish. It has also always followed that if they didn’t eat their dinner there was no snacks later. The portion size was pretty much left up to them as long as I didn’t hear ‘I’m hungry’ shortly after dinner!

  11. This is all great advice but for kids who are old enough to understand. My 2 1/2 year old started becoming picky not long after his 2nd Easter and I swear it must be because I allowed him more than a piece or two of candy. Since then he has become incredibly picky. I miss my good eater. At 4 months he was begging for food off the table. He’d eat mashed potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, all kinds of fruit, green beans, corn, rice, etc. The only things I could never get him to eat is any kind of meat except chicken and only if it’s in the form of chicken nuggets (homemade, store bought, or McDonald’s), cheese (if it’s in any other form except melted on bread and no he won’t eat grilled cheese sandwiches), and pasta.

    The odd thing is that at daycare he eats whatever they give him. He’s only ever eaten hot dogs and macaroni and cheese there. Just a bit ago I gave him a hot dog and some peas and the tantrum only just ended a few minutes ago after a good 20 or 30 minutes of him crying.

  12. Well I have to say that I must be a bad mother because my daughtedr was (kley word there. . WAS) very picky. She knoew what she liked and didn’t like and she LOVED mushroom soup. I also know how to pick my battles and food was NOT one of them. Whenever we had something she didn’t like, say for instance enchaladias. . . I would make her a can of mushroom soup. Alot of the one-pot in-the-oven things she did not like. Casseroles . . and so on. She has since grown out of that pickyness. . however she still can’t stand Avocados so when we have salads . . we just don’t put avacodo in hers. Pretty simple.
    My husband had a problem with my catering to her like that. . . but food battles just aren’t worth fighting. Their tastes will change over time. It isn’t worth forcing them to eat something they don’t want or making them go hungry. That’s not right. For god’s sake make them a peanut butter sandwhich or something! Don’t ever NOT feed them!
    I know how I was when I was a kid . . my mom never forced me to eat something I didn’t like either. I gave my daughter the same RESPECT.

  13. My son is one of the pickiest eaters I have ever heard of. I am thankful that my oldest has a diverse pallet otherwise I would be tempted to blame myself for my youngest’s eating habits. It has been a struggle because everyone has an opinion on how to fix my son’s eating issues. I have tried everything I have heard of to no avail. Thankfully my son has never whined about the food options, but he would take all dinner to eat the smallest piece of broccoli or a single grain of rice. Conflict at the dinner table does not make it a pleasant place for anyone, so I learned a long time ago (my son is almost 12) to let go of my expectations. Many nights my son drank a glass of milk for dinner and was quite content (and happy not to have to eat what we ate). Now that he is older, he is free to make himself something for dinner as long as he is eating with us. He is always welcome to eat whatever we have at the table if he chooses. I am pretty certain he is either a “super taster” (more taste buds on the tongue than usual) or he has a texture issue (or maybe both). My son actually likes the idea of being a super taster, and maybe someday that will be to his benefit. He recently told me that he can tell what a food will taste like just by smelling it! My husband is skeptical, but there may be something to that, what do I know?

    When he was younger, I was concerned we were having a battle of the wills. There were a few times when he refused to eat what I knew he was able to eat, but majority of the time I really don’t think he was trying to have the last word in the matter. I truly think he had an issue with the food.

    As a child I remember being forced to eat things I hated, like canned vegetables! I have empathy for my son because there are a lot of things I don’t like to eat either. Now that he is older, his doctor encouraged him to work at increasing his dietary options. I have seen him try harder and he has been able to add a few new things to his diet. I make it his responsibility to eat a balanced diet before he can have a treat for the day. I am hoping this will teach him how to properly fuel his body.

    The most successful method for better eating we have had is by making smoothies at home. I used to make him drink one every day, but it became a battle. When I backed off a bit and worked on finding a recipe he liked (again, extremely picky), then we had success. He has even asked me to make the smoothie for him (instead of me pushing it on him).

    I still worry about his eating habits and if he will go off to college just as picky as when he was 5 (at this point, it is VERY possible), but I will not make food a battle ground.

    Thank you all for sharing your story because it can be very lonely to have an extremely picky eater. So many people just think we are not doing our job as a parent, but sometimes even the best parenting cannot triumph over a picky eater!

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