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.

ding 27 comments on “The Dinner Table Battle: When Kids Won’t Eat What Mom Cooks

  1. Every parent goes through this “ritual” now and again.It seems there is nothing we can do about it because the child is only expressing a fundamental right that he/she is entitle to – the right to eat or not to eat.

    If you want my solution, then keep the food away.But make it warm still. The child is coming back to eat when REAL Hunger begins to bang in the stomach.

    Parents usually get ourselves worked up on matters like this.

    We shouldn’t.

  2. Here’s what I tried and this actually has been working incredibly well and everyone is happy and actually looks forward to dinnertime. I conducted a family meeting and held a clipboard in my hand with paper and pen to take notes and make it official and let everyone know I was taking this seriously, as should they. We discussed the problem and I let everyone talk about their ideas and feelings as to how to fix this and we came up with a great solution:
    Each child is assigned one night of the week and my husband and I each get a night also, totalling 7 nights. I wrote down who gets which night and it is set in stone. Then, I told each child to list his/her top five favorite meals and I wrote them down next to their name/night. We all agreed that in order for this to work, each child had to accept and eat whatever their sibling or parent picked as their night’s food or they would lose their night’s meal if they refused to eat another person’s choice.
    Now, everyone gets their favorite food one night a week, they each feel special and heard, they are excited for their “night”, it makes my shopping easier because I can plan for dinner and know what I need to buy at the market in advance, and my kids are actually trying foods that they never would have eaten before for fear of losing their turns, and they are actually liking the new foods and starting to ask for them on their nights. We are a happy dinnertime family!!

  3. The three bites rule is good in theory, but … sometimes kids really cannot bring themselves to eat a bite. It would be like trying to eat poop. I have a weird, illogical, stupid phobia about milk. For as long back as I can remember, I have never tried it. Obviously, if I were actually starving, I’m sure I could drink it. But if I was forced to drink it at the table, I think I might puke. Maybe there needs to be some alternative if they just absolutely cannot?

    • OMG Susan you have me Soooo laughing with the candor of your post. I was THAT child!!! Cooked peas were poop for me – actually they tasted to me like puke. But my mother was dirt poor as a child and any food was sacred. So she mandated all five of her daughters eat what was served – no three bites about it. For years as an adult I would never order any food – stir fried rice, soups etc. – that had peas in it. I used to say “that which touches a pea will never touch me.” Fortunately, today I have made progress. I simply push peas aside or swallow them with other food if they are in soup. Every human being is different. Things do not taste the same to all people. With my own daughters, I simply made dinner I thought they would like, and if they did not like it they were free to make their own. The simple rule was they had to consume the four food groups. Today they enjoy nearly everything they hated as children and I definitely believe not traumatizing them was the secret to success.

      • I think you are so right about not traumatizing children around food! It can create life long issues (as you know). Your approach seems to have worked well with your children. I like our approach, too, about the 3 bites; it leaves the door open for trying things without making a total commitment to eating everything on the plate.
        Thanks so much for your input – we always appreciate feedback!

  4. My husband and I have gone back and forth on this simply because when the “kitchen is closed” is implemented we found around 3 am little feet would come to our bedside asking for cereal or something to eat in the middle of the night to make up for their lack of meal earlier that evening. It is certainly difficult to stick to your guns when feigned by sleep! Advice on that response?

    We landed with providing the leftover dinner, a glass of water or choice of fruit prior to bed if dinner has not been completed after many requests. This is not satisfactory either. Many times I send our 5 year old son to the kitchen to obtain his own water or fruit (or cheese stick) then insist he re-brush his teeth…

    Compromises, compromises :(

    What have you done when your child awakes in the middle of the night hungry as a consequence of him/her not eating their dinner?

  5. My children had to eat what was served. If they refused to eat it then I would put it in the refrigerator and if they came back saying they were hungry later I would reheat their plate and give it to them. I also had the rule that you had to have at least two bites of whatever was on your plate. You can’t say you don’t like something if you don’t taste it. A child won’t starve by missing a meal but they will figure out how to manipulate you and make you feel guilty so stand strong and be consistent.

    • I agree, it’s important that kids try a few bites. My daughter will sometimes claim she doesn’t like something. Once she tries it, she’s surprises herself how much she “now likes it!”

  6. Goodness. All of this sounds too familiar. A toddler and a preschooler here and lately every night is exhausting. Its either one or the other. They can never both have a good night. I’ve gotten to the point that I have no problem serving one dessert if the other is taking a ridiculously long time. It sometimes spurs them on to eat quicker. Sometimes. But otherwise, I never cook anything different. If they don’t eat I keep their plate and if they’re hungry before bed they are offered that and nothing else. And that’s how I keep it consistent and less stressful for me and my husband!

  7. I am a grandmother and have a two and a half year old granddaughter that has decided that she will not try anything she doesn’t think looks good to her. I try to cook something in the meal that I am pretty sure she will eat, say mac and cheese, and encourage her to try the other items. Sometimes she can be tempted to try a food if you promise something she wants: dessert, a chip, a cookie. Sometimes, not. If not, I remind her that there will be no snacking after dinner, but before I put her to bed I offer a little milk to provide a little protein in her stomach to help her sleep. Breakfast is always a big meal for her the next day if she didn’t eat very much at dinner.

  8. In my many years of experience here’s what does not work, and what does.
    Begging, bribing, threatening, and force feeding, may work for one or two times, but in the long run, they are frustrating to the whole family and result in poor nutrition habits for all.
    When kids are able to feed themselves, about two, make two rules, and never compromise. You don’t have to publish them on the wall, or verbalize them, just follow them. If your kids are already in school tell them there are some new rules, but only two. Talk about them briefly and only once, but don’t dwell on them; and after introducing them don’t mention them again. We want action, not words!
    Rule #1, Parents don’t care if kids eat or not! Put the food on their plate, eat yours, if they do not eat theirs by the time you are done with yours, pick up the plate and discard the food. (Another reason to have a dog) Kids will be hungry at the next meal. Don’t talk about it, don’t make excuses, they won’t starve.
    Rule #2 No eating between meals, not for you, not for them. Kids do not need a snack after soccer practice or games, they do not need milk or juice between meals, although a drink of fresh tap water is usually needed after vigorous play and should always be available. Perhaps if dinner is late at your house a light fruit snack can be given sometime between lunch and dinner, but this should be the regular practice not a “stop the hunger band-aid”. If parents talk about what the kids like and what they don’t or how many spoonfuls they must eat, parents lose!
    Take the pressure off yourself, have a nice conversation with the family about what’s going on in the world, and forget about what they eat or don’t eat. Sure they may wake up in the middle of the night hungry, but don’t ever open the kitchen and don’t say sure you’re hungry, you didn’t eat supper, don’t mention it. (Remember, you don’t care if they eat or not!) Just say the kitchen is closed, go back to bed. If they cry, they’ll stop before breakfast and you can feed them. That will only happen once or at most twice.
    Once they see, not hear, you mean business, they’ll get the point and eat; it won’t take very long, 2-3 days and you’ll have a new life and one less thing to worry about.
    Remember you are the parent and are in charge! Believe me, I have used this method many, many times and it only fails when Mom or Dad breaks the rule and starts to talk about what thekids should eat!

  9. What about the rotten unbearable behavior you have to endure because your kid is always hungry and never filling up at any meal??? I have tried all that has been suggested here but can’t endure the whining miserable tantrums because my kid is so hungry and still won’t eat. I become enslaved to just staying home because the child’s behavior is so appalling. The hungrier my kid gets the more she doesn’t want food. Help!

    • This sounds like an extremely difficult problem. I wonder if there are other issues going on, too. Do you think it would be helpful to see a child therapist? It almost sounds like she’s trying to communicate something to you, but we don’t know what that is. I do think it would be helpful to get more specific help from your pediatrician and/or a therapist.

    • If your kid is refusing food while claiming to be hungry, then they aren’t truly hungry. If this kid is around 4 or 5, then try having a discussion with them about why they are refusing food when they are supposedly hungry. If they still can’t give an answer, take the kid to a therapist.

  10. There should be a time limit but not necessarily when the parents finish. We usually had about an hour cutoff because everyone was at the table together and we talked. My brother in law may eat in 10 minutes. That is not appropriate time period for a child to finish their meal.

  11. Our ten year old grandson lives with us and sometimes doesn’t lilke what I serve. If it’s something spicy I offer an alternative to him. If it’s something that he usually likes, such as chicken noodle soup, and he says he doesn’t like it, we do not offer an alternative. Then we have to deal with crying and toddler-like behavior. Trying to be firm about this, but he says, “You usually let me have PB & J after I’ve tried a couple bites, why not this time?” I told him, “Because this is a food you normally like.” So people here are not happy tonight.

    • Debbie – it might be helpful to have a conversation with your 10 year old about foods for meals; that he is getting older, that you would like to institute some changes, including reducing some work for yourself. If he is used to getting PB&J, then he needs some preparation from you that that’s not going to work. See if you can get him to “buy-in” to the new plan; include him in the planning. It will take a little time to get him on board. Good luck!

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