How to Get Picky Eaters to Eat Their Dang Dinner

As if a working parent didn’t have enough to worry about in the evenings, fixing dinner for picky eaters can throw off the game of even the most on-top-of-it cook.

Picture this: me, pre-kids, smugly thinking to myself, “I’m such a foodie! I’ll never raise picky eaters! It’s all about exposure to new foods and taking away the fear! My kids will eat everything!”

God laughed. Then he gave me my daughter, who is just as smug and headstrong as her mama.
(He threw me a bone with my son, who will eat whatever is put in front of him, but that’s another story)

I do hesitate to consider my 6-year-old daughter a “picky eater”, however; her aversion to certain foods ebbs and flows with her moods.

It’s more a determination on her part to let me know that she will be bossed around by nobody, especially not her mommy handing her a plate of previously-adored homemade sweet potato macaroni and cheese.

She will label the offensive macaroni “disgusting” one day, and gobble it up cheerfully the next.

And while that is maddening, I’m not sure if it qualifies for actual pickiness. My personal definition of a true picky eater is someone who has a genuine aversion to many foods, whether that’s due to taste or texture, and who doesn’t waver from those aversions despite my trying out every trick in the book.

However, for the sake of this post, I’m lumping them all together in the same ‘picky eater boat’.

That’s because I do know one thing: whether your kids is straight up picky or just headstrong, like mine, picky eaters make cooking dinner harder than usual.

Because it’s not just hard to accommodate the wily needs of a picky eater.

It’s downright impossible to do so within the crazy crunch time that lies between getting home from work and getting the kids tucked into bed.

How is it possible to cook dinner for the entire family, including picky eaters, in 30 minutes, without losing your mother-loving mind?

I may not have all the answers, but I do have four helpful secrets that work for, say, 65% of the time.

If we’re talking picky eaters, that’s a damn good percentage if I do say so myself.

Secret Number 1: Build-It-Yourself Dinners

This is my first go-to trick, and it’s the one that is in some ways the most practical: let them freaking make dinner.

This idea works best when you think of a meal that works as a “bar”. Nope, not the bar you feel driven to when your kid refuses dinner for the third night in a row (that’s the bar I’ll meet you at later, mama, with a shot and a beer, because #solidarity)

I’m talking food bars- taco bar, baked potato bar, pizza bar, quesadilla bar.

How it works:

  • Lay out ingredients so everyone can put together their own meal.
  • Set some ground rules (No cheese-only dinners. You must have 3 different ingredients on your plate. You don’t have to eat it, you just need to choose to have it on your plate)
  • This may mean I finish up the cooking portion of the meal. For instance, they choose their toppings on individual pizzas or quesadillas, and I finish them in the oven.

Why it works:

Overall these build-it-yourself meals cause a lot less stress for everyone. The picky eater feels like they have control over their plate. I feel like I have control over my sanity.

Secret Number 2: Playing ‘Restaurant’

This goes hand in hand with letting kids choose their meals. With the restaurant game, you’re letting them set the scene for dinner.

This idea works best on leftovers night. I’ll often find myself with the remnants of two or three meals that don’t have enough to serve everyone at once, so the leftovers will be divided amongst everyone.

How it works:

  • Pick 2-3 leftovers you’re hoping to use up. Write them out on a “menu”. My daughter can’t read but she does know her letters and numbers, so I’ll draw a picture of each meal and number it.
  • Sit your tired ass down at the table and tell your kids they’re the waiter tonight.
  • Everyone at the table chooses a meal, including the ‘waiter’.
  • Have the kids serve you, serve each other, etc.

Why it works:

Again, they feel in control of what they eat. They get a cheap thrill out of serving you like you’re in a restaurant. You have time to sit down at the table for once, where you can pat yourself on the back because you’re giving your children a life skill of preparing to wait tables in college for beer money.

Secret Number 3: Like-for-Like

This is a class-A parenting ninja move, and it’s one of my most tried and true. If your kid is dead-set against trying new things, give them something that’s suuuuuuuper close to what they’re used to, then make a big deal about how brave they are to try new things.

How it works:

Here’s a case study: A friend of mine has a daughter who loves cream cheese, but this friend was trying to get her daughter to try new foods. At snack time, they’ll usually eat cream cheese on crackers.

Instead, this time my friend spread a bit of labneh (an Israeli soft cheese that’s texturally like a cross between yogurt and cream cheese) on the same cracker brand she always serves and gave that to her daughter instead.

The daughter wasn’t as suspicious of the labneh since it looked so much like cream cheese, so she tried it and liked it.

Cue the parents making a huge effing deal about how awesome the daughter is for trying new things, which jazzed her daughter up to try something else the next day.

Why it works:

A lot of picky eaters come from a place of fearing new foods. They tried a new thing once and it was disgusting, so they think, “Whelp, that’s it! I’ll only stick with stuff I know I like, since new stuff isn’t worth the hassle”.

The new food doesn’t have to be wildly different. It just has to be different enough that you slowly erase that fear by proving their preconceived notion about certain foods wrong.

The key here is to take a gentle approach to trying a new food, not forceful.

Staying super casual about the food beforehand and then basically throwing a ticker tape parade after they try it for the first time will reinforce the idea to your kids that trying new foods is a commonplace thing– but that it’s also super cool to be a brave little badass and step out of your comfort zone (because you may like what you find!).

Secret Number 4: Wait it Out

Seriously, it’s okay to do it this way. It doesn’t guarantee your child will never eat new foods again.

How it works:

  • You just embrace the crazy, ignore the nagging voice in your head, and let your kids eat what they’ll eat. As long as they eat.
  • Keep it casual about trying new foods, continue to introduce new foods to your kids whenever you can, and (this is the hard part) don’t sweat it when your kids rejects the food.

Why it works:

So much of picky eating is control. So much of it is a phase. Striking a balance between giving your kid back that control and waiting out the phase works sometimes better than you think it might!

Case in point: My brother, for about 2 years, only ever ate hotdogs and cheerios. Every day.

My mom just rolled with it, since she was busy with work and the rest of the family and #aintnobodygottime, etc etc.

Eventually, my brother got sick of these foods. He got sick of going to eat at friend’s houses and not being able to join in because the dinner was new.

He grew out of his picky eating, started trying new foods, and discovered they don’t make you die.

Now he’s that dude in South Asia eating crickets on sticks and demolishing my fridge of leftovers whenever he visits.

Kids grow up! Their tastebuds change. They change. By keeping it casual and letting them see from other people that trying new foods wasn’t a big scary thing, my brother eventually realized there was a whole new world of food out there, he just had to check it out for himself to see.

Listen, I’ll be the first to agree, cooking dinner for picky eaters is no picnic.

But I’ve found that by staying loose and casual about the thing, and relentlessly keeping new foods in front of my kids and never forcing them to try it, you’re setting yourself up for success!