The Dinner Table Battle: When Kids Won’t Eat What Mom Cooks

How do I get my whole family to eat what I serve for dinner?

MOLLY: The reader added that she has five kids and whatever it is she makes, one of them complains and refuses to eat it. She’s stopped cooking and now grabs pre-made foods. How does she get to a place where her kids will eat what she serves?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): She basically has to start from scratch now. She has to sit her five children down for a family conference and say: “Things are not going well at dinnertime in this household. This is not good for anybody, so this is the way we’re going to do it from now on: I’m going to cook a regular meal at dinnertime for everybody.  And everybody has to take at least 3 bites from each of the foods before they say if they are going to eat it or not. If you decide that you don’t want to eat what is served, then you’ll have to wait until the next morning at breakfast to have food. We have too many people here to do it any differently.”

And then she has to stick with it to the letter. So when the first child looks at dinner and says, “I don’t want that,” she needs to say to the child, in a very calm way: “The rule in the family is that you have to try three bites of each food that is served. If you still don’t want it after that, you don’t have to eat it. You can just eat the other food on the table for dinner because I’m not making anything special for anybody. I cannot do that anymore. We have a large family and there is a lot of food on the table, so if you can’t find anything you like you’ll just have to wait until breakfast to eat.”

She needs to do this in a very calm and very consistent way.

MOLLY: We have the same problem where my 5-year old daughter will only eat a little bit of her dinner but then, after she goes to bed, she’ll get up and come downstairs complaining that she’s hungry.

MOM: That’s not a good pattern.

MOLLY: I tell her the kitchen is “Closed,” but it’s often a discussion between my husband and me and he’s a softie –she tugs at his heart strings. He doesn’t want her to go to bed hungry.

MOM: The kitchen is closed is the right way to respond, and if she goes to bed hungry one night then she’ll get the message that she has to eat dinner when it is served. Sometimes children use this as a ploy in order to stay up later. Of course, as a parent you feel for your kid and you want her to have something to eat and not feel hunger, but she needs to get the message that the way to avoid this feeling is to eat her dinner.

Remember that the kitchen is closed, and you’re so sorry she’s hungry but tomorrow night maybe she’ll eat more dinner.

MOLLY: Elizabeth (my older sister) suggested that you say “You eat what the chef makes.” This way the kids also think about the fact that you’re cooking their meals and it is work for you. I’ve found that works sometimes too.

MOM: One thing I should clarify: while I don’t think it’s possible for this mom with five kids to sit down and as a family decide what’s going to be for dinner each night, I don’t think she should serve unappealing foods like boiled onions or foods that kids don’t often eat. Which I’m sure she doesn’t. What I mean is, you want to ease your way into this with kids and feed them acceptable kinds of foods that they like or can learn to like.

You can serve foods they already like, of course, but don’t make additional peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for kids as an alternative. You need to decide that you don’t make extra food above and beyond the meal you are serving. The idea that you eat what you are served is a basic component of mealtime manners.

Do you experience this at your house? Comment below if you’ve had success using other strategies to help ease the tension at dinner time. Or Contact Us if you have a parenting question you’d like to see addressed.