“I Don’t Like That!” When Your Kids Refuse What’s For Dinner

Got picky kids at the dinner table? I’ve been there! Here are some of my fave ways to get kids to eat at the dinner table- without tearing your hair out. 

Real talk: sometimes I cringe when my family asks, “what’s for dinner?” because…. Uh…. pizza delivery?

In truth, more often I cringe because I’m steeling myself for the inevitable “I don’t like thaaaaaaat” the second I do tell them what’s for dinner.

This happens even if dinner is something totally innocuous, like breaded chicken (other than vegetarian/vegans, I ask you: who doesn’t like chicken!? A stubborn 4-year-old in a bad mood, that’s who).

Because it totally sucks hearing that as a parent, right? You spend that time in the kitchen, no matter how long, getting dinner ready. You’re chugging away the hours til bedtime, and then dinner drama just throws a huge wrench onto the tracks.

And that’s the moment you realize you identify more closely with crabby Betty Draper than sunshiney woman laughing alone with salad

That’s why next time, instead of driving yourself to drink (or becoming a short order cook), keep some of my favorite Family Dinner Hacks in your back pocket and maintain your sanity. Because by the time you’ve gotten to the dinner hour, you’re already thisclose to Netflix and sweatpants anyway! There’s no need to arrive at your post-bedtime me-time all irritated and cranky. You get me?

Here are some ways I avoid (or deal with) the ‘what’s for dinner?” argument:

Rotating Meal Plan

I’ve talked about this one before, I know, but it bears repeating again- when things get bonkerballs busy around here, a rotating meal plan saves my sanity every.single.time.

Here’s how I do it: I pick 5 meals I know everyone likes, and I buy their ingredients.

I use the other two nights of the week for leftovers and delivery.

Then I make those same 5 meals every week until things calm down again OR I get sick of the meals, then I rotate them up again.

So, say it’s Tuesday and I had planned on Sheet Pan Kielbasa and Peppers but my kids start whining, I can change the game up and serve chicken piccata instead, because I’ve already got all the ingredients on hand.

(what do you do when they whine about your choice and you don’t have something else planned? Wait til you read this last tip!)

“You don’t have to eat it”

We loosely follow Ellyn Satter in this house, which means I decide what to serve, where to serve it, and when we eat. My kids decide how much they eat and what they eat.

They are always allowed seconds of anything on their plate, provided we have enough and dessert, though we don’t usually do dessert (much, anyway).

By telling my kids, especially my somewhat picky, very stubborn daughter, “you don’t have to eat it- but this is all there is for dinner”, we have a way better track record.

The most important thing here is to stick with this method; it only works when it’s what they’re used to 90% of the time.

Eat Together

I admit that I struggle with this one. As an adult pre-kids, with a husband who worked nights, I developed a love of eating my dinner solo in front of Netflix on the couch. Like, LOVE. It’s my favorite way to unwind at the end of the day if I’m being honest.

On top of that, I like being able to multitask while the kids eat dinner. This was especially true when they were babies and we followed baby led weaning; I would park them close to me in the kitchen and let them go to town with their dinner while I cooked my own meal and cleaned; then we’d head into the bedtime routine from there. But now that they’re older and don’t need highchairs or bibs, they sit at the table in regular chairs to eat,

Except they don’t eat at the table. They get up, they bicker, they throw toys, they complain about what’s on their plate, they disappear to the bathroom for 20 minutes (I think they learned that one from their dad).

However, when I sit down with them and we eat together, they are sooo much better about eating what’s in front of them.

And while I admit they are not the most riveting conversationalists, I like the pause of us sitting together. It’s a nice way to reconnect at the end of the day, especially on the nights when daddy is home to join us. 

Give Your Backup Plan Its Own Backup Plan

Sometimes, when the fight has all but left me, I scrap diner plans altogether and fall back on old standbys.

When my kids ask, “what’s for dinner?” and I say, “Fresh Cherry Tomato Pasta with Turkey Meatballs” and they immediately launch into whining, I’ll sometimes change it all up mid game and pull an old standby from the freezer or pantry.

Some faves? Naan pizza. White bean and bacon pasta with fried breadcrumbs. Sheet pan nachos with leftover veggies on top.

These are the surefire winners with my kids (like.. 94% of the time) and I still enjoy eating them, so it’s a win-win for everyone. That Greek Chicken Sheet Pan Meal I’d planned on making can wait until next time when I’ve got the stamina to deal with the kids’ drama.

Because at the end of the day, it’s really all about giving yourself grace. Create a framework that works for your home, and then get loose within that frame. When you’re relaxed, so are your kids. We work hard enough during the day- dinner hour doesn’t have to be a struggle!

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