Baby and Monster are at that age where dinnertime is always a surprise. Sometimes they’ll scarf down everything in front of them. Other days, they’ll whine and complain and throw tantrums and do everything possible to wiggle their way out of eating their dinner, especially if we’re trying something new. Getting my picky preschoolers to eat isn’t always easy, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Here’s some advice to help get picky preschoolers to eat dinner.
1. Set Ground Rules
First, establish some basic mealtime rules. Mealtime with family works best when it acquires a status as an “important event” in your child’s day. Consistently enforced ground rules help frame the meal and give your child the necessary structure so they know what to expect and what’s expected of them. Here are some of the mealtime ground rules we use:
We all eat at the table.
Everyone eats the same meal.
No toys at the table. TV off.
Your butt stays on the seat of your chair.
Everyone stays at the table until we’re all done.
If you don’t want to eat, we can put your dinner up for later.
Now, we don’t strictly enforce these rules 100% of the time, but they’re a part of most of our mealtimes. Monster still likes to occasionally sit my lap or her mother’s lap instead of her chair. Sometimes we’ll let one of the girls go play after they finish their meal if the other one is taking a particularly long time to finish. The key, though, is that the girls have learned that these are things that are expected of them, and we remind them of the rules when we need to.
Your family may decide on different rules. Use the ones that are right for you.
2. Excuses or Legit Complaints?
Kids seem to have an endless font of inspiration they can tap into for excuses why they can’t eat any given meal put in front of them. Baby told us the other day that she couldn’t eat lettuce because it was too green (even though she happily ate the paler parts of the leaf). Monster told me once she couldn’t eat her apple slices because she wanted to put them in her pocket.
Sometimes, though, “excuses” aren’t excuses. Here are some legitimate reasons your child may not be eating:
They may be tired or may not feel well.
They may be full from a snack they had earlier.
The texture of a particular food may feel weird.
They may have had a bad experience with that food — my sister got choked up on hamburger meat once and wouldn’t touch it for months.
Some foods may truly taste bad to them — I hated lima beans, onions, and pickles as a kid. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to like them.
Children may have mild food allergies, but not have the vocabulary to explain that a particular food makes their lips tingle or their stomach upset after they eat it.
Really, these reasons for not eating aren’t any different than what adults do. There are certain foods I don’t like to eat when I’m starting to get sick, and sometimes textures bother me. I love mashed potatoes, but some varieties have a gluey consistency that is disgusting to me, no matter how well it’s seasoned.
Try to discern the difference between your child’s “just don’t wanna” excuses and their legitimate grievances with the food. If they have a legitimate reason to not eat, don’t force them.
3. Make Mealtime Fun
Try Fun Food Shapes
When I was a kid, I hated eating breakfast before school. My mom used to coax me to eat in the mornings by using different cookie cutters to make shapes out of pancakes. I never knew what shape she was going to use, and it was a lot of fun.
The Bento Box craze makes this super easy — Amazon has tons of cute, inexpensive cutter shapes — animals, stars, flowers, butterflies, and so many more. You can even find little molds to shape soft foods like rice or sweet potatoes into shapes. Check out some of the bento cutters they have available:
Tasty Finger Foods Work
Most kids enjoy the tactile sensation of touching food with their hands. Many recipes can be modified and transformed into bite-sized forms with a little creativity, and you can hide just about anything — meat, veggies, cheese, fruit — in a muffin. Kids also seem to have a complete fascination with the concept of dipping foods into other foods.
Just pretend you’re making a bunch of hors d’oeuvres for a bunch of snooty food critics. When you’re dealing with preschoolers, it’s the same thing.
We almost always end up cleaning hands and faces anyway after dinner, so a little extra cleanup is worth it to get the girls to eat.
4. No Substitutions
Don’t get into the habit of making a separate meal for picky kids. It’s exhausting, and it just teaches them that you’ll go along with anything they demand. Don’t negotiate with terrorists.
They need to eat the same meal everyone else is eating. If they decide not to eat and you put their meal up, they may come to you later asking for a snack. When this happens, remind them that they didn’t eat their dinner and you can give it to them now.
Small exception: if someone in the family has unique dietary restrictions, you may need to bend this rule.
5. Put Them To Work
Instead of doing everything yourself and having dinner be this magical thing that just pops out onto the table when Mom and Dad call, give your child small tasks to help with meal preparation so they can see how dinner is created. Letting them help gives them an invested interest in mealtime. Here’s a few ideas:
Have them set the table. This is great for counting practice too — have them count how many family members are eating, and then count out how many plates, forks, spoons, napkins, and other dinner utensils are needed.
Making cornbread muffins? Let them help you stir the batter and spoon it into the muffin pans.
After you’ve chopped all the salad ingredients and put them in a bowl, give them the task of mixing everything up.
At mealtime, make a big deal over how much they helped and how it made dinner taste so much better. When we made cheeseburger muffins for dinner one night, I let the girls help me spoon in the batter and the meat-and-cheese filling. After they were done baking, I made sure to give the girls each one of the muffins they had made themselves. They were so proud to be eating something they helped with!
6. Toys Off The Table
Preschoolers get distracted easily, and if there is ANYTHING else in the vicinity to focus on instead of eating, you can be sure they’ll lock onto it. Try to minimize distractions as much as possible. Clear the table of art kits and drawings. Put away the toys. Turn off the television.
Putting away the toys and TV has another benefit — you can motivate them to eat by reminding them that they need to eat their dinner if they want to play or watch their favorite show before bedtime.
7. Put Away Your Phone
Your kids aren’t the only ones that need a distraction-free mealtime.
This is one that Angela and I aren’t always so good at, but if you finish your meal and are still waiting on your preschooler to finish, avoid the temptation to pull out your phone and browse social media.
Instead, talk to your child and stay engaged. Ask them about their day. Ask them what they want to do later. Answer their questions. If they see you’re getting bored and not paying attention to them, they’re less likely to eat.
Cultivate the idea that mealtime is family time and leave the brain-dead scrolling for later.
8. The Power of Pivot Praise
This is one of my favorite tactics if you have more than one child. Pivot praise is a technique where you motivate one person to do something by praising someone else for it.
If one of your children is eating well and the other one is ignoring their dinner or refusing to eat, make a big show of enthusiastically praising the one that’s eating.
Pivot Praise Example
When Baby is refusing her dinner, I’ll look at Monster and say something like:
“Wow, Monster, you are eating SO well tonight! I’m really proud of you. Give me a high five!”
This is REALLY powerful. Nine times out of ten, the other child will start eating. Let a few minutes pass, then “take notice” and be sure to praise them too.
9. Give Them Choices
I always try to give my girls small choices, even on things that might seem inconsequential to me. Do they want to use the Elsa & Anna plate or the Paw Patrol plate today? Do they want their cheese sauce on top of their broccoli, or beside it? Which juice do they want to drink? Do they want their cheeseburger in one piece so they can pick it up and eat it, or do they want it cut into quarters?
If you think about it, children have very little control over their lives. Almost everything — what they eat, who they see, where they go, when events happen — is controlled by an adult. Letting them make small choices helps them feel a sense of control over the situation.
That said, once they make their choice, they need to stick with it.
10. The “One More Bite” Trick
If the girls tell us they’re done and we don’t feel they’ve eaten quite enough, we compromise and encourage them to take one or two more bites. We let them know that once they finish that one bite, they’re done and they don’t have to eat any more.
Sometimes it helps to physically point out the bite of food I want them to take, like picking up a small piece of chicken and handing it to them. I use this a lot when it’s obvious that the girls have focused on eating only bread and cheese and avoiding the meat or veggies on their plate.
Once they’ve eaten that bite, we don’t press the issue any further.
11. Don’t Expect Clean Plates
I don’t expect my children to eat everything.
Personally, I think requiring your child to eat everything on their plate forces them to develop unhealthy eating habits — it puts them in a position where they’re required to keep eating even after their body tells them they’re full. Small children have small stomachs — it doesn’t take a lot to fill them up.
I want the girls to learn to stop when they’ve had enough, even it means we end up scraping some food into the trash. If you’re scraping a LOT into the trash, you probably need to start giving your child smaller portions — they aren’t going to eat an adult-sized portion, so don’t give them one.
BONUS: Pick Your Battles
Don’t let every night become a battle to get your kid to eat. If you’re sick or exhausted or your patience is wearing thin, sometimes it’s okay to let them win one. They only want to fill up on bread and ignore the veggies? It’s okay. They want to skip dinner and just have a slice of chocolate cake? It won’t kill them.
Let them get away with it once, but come back to it and encourage better mealtime eating when you’ve rested and feel better equipped to handle it.
Do You Have A Picky Preschooler?
Are mealtimes are battleground in your house? What techniques have you used that help get your preschooler to eat? What are you struggling with? Tell us in the comments below.