Helping Children Eat Healthy – Managing the “Picky Eater”

A recent commenter asked how we managed to eat such a wide variety of foods in our diet without running into the picky eater demands…

It’s fairly easy.
“Here’s what we’re eating. Eat. Or don’t eat. It’ll be here when you’re hungry.”

We don’t play the game of demands.
There is one meal served, and it is eaten.

Granted, we used to play it. Often. And not well.  Our oldest used to get all kinds of special treatment for his food wants.
But now that we have more children, more demands on our food budget, and less time for me to be in the kitchen,
we don’t.

Here’s how meals usually go:
We are seated at the table, grace is said.
Food is placed on plates – and I don’t load them up.
We start small.  The general rule is 1 tablespoon of each food for every year of their age.
If they don’t like the food, they only have to finish what they have.
If they like it, they may have seconds of it after everything is eaten off their plate.
They don’t get anything else other than what is on the menu,
and they finish their plates before leaving the table.
We used to re-serve the food to them the next meal, but I wouldn’t want to eat cold food, and the goal is for my children to enjoy eating…
We switched to serving smaller portions, and they are required to finish.
If it turns into a battle, we serve smaller portions the next time, and work our way back up.
But that usually means smaller portions of something they like…
so they find that eating a few bites of something “icky” is worth it for more of my sweet potato fries. 🙂

I’ve found this is the best way to make sure they are getting “enough” of a good thing,
while not making every single bite a battle.
Not to mention, this also takes a LOT of waste out of the equation.
I’ve seen so many parents load the plates up, and then complain that their child “didn’t eat anything!

There’s no reason we should expect toddlers to eat a full size, or even half of an adult sized portion.  Tiny tummies make for tiny meals.
We utilize snack time in our house to help keep tummies from rumbling, as well as making sure to add more nutrition to their diet,
but our mealtimes truly are where children should be obtaining most of their food intake.
(Snacks are limited in their portion sizes, so it doesn’t stress their digestive system out, working all day.)

Our oldest son went a day and a half without eating anything, before he ate what was placed in front of him without complaint.
That’s 36 hours, in case you were wondering!
It’s very disconcerting as a parent to feel like you’re “starving” this baby (he was 2, not an infant… no worries)
who will somehow never be happy again if you don’t fix him
a peanut butter and honey sandwich

But here we are almost 3 years later, and he’s still thriving.
He still likes his peanut butter and honey sandwiches,
but he only gets them at Gramma and Papa’s house, thus avoiding the fight in the future.

Here are some other resources for helping your child eat well:

How to Get Your Kids to Eat Anything, from Cheeseslave’s blog – take a look at the comments, too. Lots of good stuff.
Healthy Foods to Tantalize Toddlers, from the Weston A. Price Foundation
How to Help Family Members Adapt to Real Food, from Passionate Homemaking
Taking the “ICKY” Out of Picky Eaters, from the Weston A. Price Foundation


11 thoughts on “Helping Children Eat Healthy – Managing the “Picky Eater”

  1. We have always used the same general rule as you do. Our one difference is that we allow one or two ‘dislikes’ but that is only after repeatedly trying them out.

    For instance, somewhere around age 10, #2 son just got to where eggs kind of sickened him. He would rather go hungry. He was allowed to have the fried potatoes and sausage or whatever else was served but only his ‘fair share’. He just didn’t like eggs (fried, scrambled, poached) anymore and was willing to do without.

    #3 has never liked fresh tomatoes but likes tomato products. He’s allowed to leave them off. He also doesn’t like most fish – a common dislike – he is allowed to have some sort of left over, if available or make himself a sandwich.

    One thing is the constant: I do not make them an alternate meal. They make it themselves. They don’t get more to fill them up of the ‘favored’ meal items than their fair share. They must wait until the rest of dinner is cooked before they can use the kitchen for their alternate food. – Their preferences should not impede the homemaker at her duties.

    • Jenny –
      That sounds perfectly reasonable… I’ll probably implement something similar to the “allowable dislikes” when our children are older, however, unless we have a huge difference in our food budgets, they’ll be stuck with making their own bread & butter, or yogurt. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  2. WONDERFUL post! After reading all this (and reading the links you posted), I think one of my biggest problems is I’m not being as firm as I should be. Victoria is still doing the whole “let’s throw the bowl of spaghetti on the floor! Whee!!” stage and I get frustrated and just make her a sandwich. The dreaded “alternate meal” to pacify the baby. :/

    Her nap times are changing, which is making meal times as a family more difficult (she sleeps through lunch and is usually getting ready for bed by the time we eat dinner). And since I work 8-5, even though I’m at a home office, it’s still difficult to get dinner made and on the table in time to eat together. I’ll definitely be working on a way to get us all sitting down together, as I think she’ll be more likely to eat.

    The other thing, perhaps, is that she may not be very hungry. My mother thinks she might be in-between growth spurts and just doesn’t need as many calories. She doesn’t seem to be suffering from hunger, at least. 🙂 I am, however, probably putting too much on her plate at mealtimes. It doesn’t look like much to me, but for a 1.5 yr old, it probably is. A tablespoon per year to start is a GREAT idea!!

    Thank you so much! I enjoy getting insight from experienced moms. This “mommy” journey is amazing. 🙂


    • Hi Amy –
      I’m glad this helped… You weren’t the first person to ask, and I’m always happy to share what we’ve experienced with our family. 🙂 Keep trying… !

  3. I’m so glad I found this! I’m just about at my wit’s end trying to figure out ways to help our 3 year old eat more than just chicken nuggets and grilled cheese! The links were such a help, thanks!

    • Norma –
      I’m glad you were able to learn more from the links. You can also check out my blogroll under the Help for a Healthy Kitchen, and see more real food ideas from the ladies there.

  4. Hello! I have had the same problems with my kids! They never eat anything unless its exactly what THEY want. And I am completely worn out with trying to cook healthy and still not spend a TON of money. How young were your kids when you started eating “healthy” food?? I’m afraid my 6 and 10 year olds are going to be a HUGE pain to try to help eat healthy.

    • Hi Bethany –
      Our kids have pretty much grown up on this diet. Our oldest was 3 years old when we transitioned to a traditional foods diet, and it was tough at first… He had a textural aversion to meat, and we’re only just now getting him to consistently eat meat without a fuss (he’s almost 5). We’ve made food a priority not only in our budget, but in our child training as well. I think this makes a big difference in the way you not only approach eating, but helping your children learn to enjoy specific foods.

  5. Our kids are so picky with their food!!! It drives me nuts. I’m going to try doing the smaller portions and see if that helps. Thanks for an awesome post – great ideas! And your kids are SUCH cuties. 😀

    • Kira –
      I’ve found that most “pickiness” is eliminated by hunger. 😉 Not to mention if we’re really consistent with not offering another option, they learn very quickly to enjoy what they have in front of them. And thanks! We are very proud of our kids. 🙂

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