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 57 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.

    • It’s been 4 days now since I took the food away and I’m still waiting for REAL hunger to bang my son’s stomach. Getting quite worried because he says he’s starving but he still refuses to eat what is served because he doesn’t like it (it contains vegetables).

  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.

    • My two year old and five year old behave the same way on occasion, and I have determined that first they get hungry and don’t acknowledge it, and then past a certain point they get hypoglycemic. Once they pass that threshold they feel bad, but don’t identify that feeling as hunger. They just act crazy, and the hungrier they are the more they will refuse food. For both of them, all it takes to regain their composure is getting them to eat something with a little sugar in it, like a handful of raisins or as a last resort a pack of “fruit” snacks. The effect is very quick and then they become reasonable (or “normal”) again. Both my kids have regular meals, are generally good eaters, and are not overweight (80% height, 40% weight percentiles). They are not deprived of treats and this is not a ploy to get my attention or get a special snack. It is real, and I believe the comment that “The hungrier my kid gets, the more she doesn’t want food.” That said, if this child is always having hunger attacks and “never filling up at any meal”, perhaps the balance of foods is off and there is too much carbohydrate in her diet (which causes blood sugar spikes up and down and triggers hunger)? More dairy and protein to even things out might help.

      • ALR – It’s very interesting that both the 2 year old and 5 year old behave the same way around food. In terms of developmental growth, by rights they wouldn’t be. That makes me think, as you do, that there is some kind of biological factor influencing them. I think if might be helpful to talk with your pediatrician about this, and check their blood sugars and whatever else he thinks is important. More protein might be helpful, as you suggested. Since you’re thinking it’s not a psychological issue, working with an M.D. might be your best bet.

  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!

    • 2b1Tallennusvälineitä ei käytetä samalla tavalla yksioikoisesti lailliseen, ostoa korvaavaan kopiointiin kuten C-kasetteja. Tuota kopiointia on varsin vähän kokonaiskäytöstä. Sen vuoksi maksulle ei ole perusteita. Sitä paitsi maksua käytetään pääasiassa kulttuuritukena eikä hyvityksenä.Ongelma maksun pois anomisessa on sama kuin jos kenkiin asetettaisiin taksihyvitysmaksu, joka pitäisi anoa pois osoittamalla, ettei kenkien käyttö vähennä taksinkäyttöä.Maksua kerätään jo nyt täysin naurettavin perustein lainvastaiseen tarkoitukseen lainvastaisista asioista. Lisäksi se tuottaa tulokertymäänsä suurempaa kansantaloudellista haittaa.85

    • 24 2010.12.31.kurion írta: Hát ha a tömés jó akkor csak annyit tudok mondani hogy ne legyél telhetetlen, néha vegyél közben levegÅ‘t is mert ha nem kap oxigént az agyad az nem egy jó dolog.Was this answer helpful? +21Ez a kérdés hasznos volt?

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  13. My 11 year old is picky, and can’t have dairy either. If I make something with dairy, I make a small portion without (cheese, milk, etc) for her. If she doesn’t like what we’re having, she’s old enough to cook her own ramen or chicken noodle soup. I cook dinner. If you don’t like it, you’re responsible for finding and making your own alternative.

    • Shawsha – you probably know that there are lots of dairy alternatives out there – our family uses lots of them! We’ve gotten to prefer them. Sounds like your daughter enjoys and is willing to do her cooking – not bad!

  14. I have a 15 year old teen who only wants to eat pizza everyday and cereal (a very specific kind of cereal) for breakfast. I am a professional cook (surprisingly) but he won’t eat my food. He will only eat out and not ever touch my food because it is “equivalent to food poisoning!”.

    He will throw full tantrums if I decided not to order $20 pizza every night. He then verbally abuses me (using every swear word you could think of) and starts to threaten me and break things (which is a whole other problem in it of itself).

    He is out of control and the only way to tame the beast inside him is to take him out to McDonalds or order pizza. It’s making me lose my mind and creating a huge whole in my pocket! What shall I ever do?

  15. Zakiyah

    You are teh parent act like one take back your control and teach your spoiled brat that he can’t have everything he wants. Or he’ll act like this with his wife. Now tell me what do you think would happen? Adult men will also not put up with his behavior and beat him. If he acts like this at the dinner table then he’ll act like this in other ways too, your job is to save him. Teach him his boundaries. He’s screaming at you (literally) to put your foot down and teach him. He needs you to tell him no. He will not die if he skips a meal or two. Two weeks with out food and only 3-04 days with out water he’ll be fine now be a mom. He’s counting on you, with every screech and insult. Don’t let him be a lost adult. 🙁

    • Maya – Thank you for reading our blog. There are any number of ways to cope with raising children – no easy task! It’s up to each parent to make all kinds of hard decisions. Generally, I have taken a more gentle approach, but it’s certainly not the only one open to parents. Thanks again for reading!
      Dr. Susan Rutherford

  16. I have this same situation in my house. I have three boys 5 and under. If they don’t eat dinner, then the kitchen is closed. But my kids won’t try what I cook 90% of the time..which means they don’t eat dinner 90% of the time. What should I do?

    For further clarification, I make spaghetti, tacos, sloppy joes, beans and rice, various chicken dishes…nothing crazy..

    • Andrea – You have a very busy – and sometimes difficult household! It sounds like you’ve read our blog about the Dinner Table Battle. I would suggest that you set something up with your 3 kids; set up a chart where each child picks out a meal for one dinner during the week (or every 3 days, depending on how it’s working). That way you have at least one of the kids invested in the meal – it was his choice! It’s important to keep a chart that the kids can refer to. If they want to switch a night, that’s fine, but, of course, you’ll have to keep tract (and they can, too, by referring to the chart). I think this might work!

    • We do the 3 bite rule at our house. I have 3 boys & 1 girl, my middle boy (Noah, almost 7) refuses to try food 80% of the time. The other children have started trying new things, even eating things they wouldn’t have before. Noah has tried very few new foods. What do we do when he actually tries something but doesn’t like it? Or what if he tries it & absolutely does not like it? We do 3 bites of all foods & you can have a healthy snack, if you eat all your food, they can have a snack of their choice. This hasn’t encouraged Noah at all. Sometimes our dinner is just a casserole, so if he tries it & does NOT like it (has to spit it out or almost throws up from it) then what do we do? Feeling desperate for advice. I do believe he has texture issues with food (autism in the family) as I have texture issues myself but as an adult I can overcome that problem. Any advice, thanks!!

  17. As a former nanny, I used to get my kids involved with dinnertime prep – tasks depending on their age. The younger kids I would ask to help set the table; napkins and utensils, plates if they were older and the parents were okay with the kids handling the ceramics.
    With parent’s go-ahead with older kids (8+) I’d use them as my ‘chef’s helper’. Simply the act of getting kids involved in preparing dinner generates a lot of excitement and anticipation, which I found made my job a lot easier and everyone happier. I might have early readers help me with a recipe (math and reading = how much milk? 1 1/2 cups!). I’ve washed potatoes, made bread, and made a big score with ‘personal salads’.
    My own family is very much a foodie family, so from a very early age my own parents involved me in the cooking process – beginning with dumping pre-measured ingredients for cookies into the mixing bowl. Despite my naturally picky palate, I love to try new foods because I’m so involved in the making of food.
    Kids are much more likely to eat the work of their hands. Mostly.

  18. All of this is so helpful to me! However, our situation is complicated. Two of my kids are autistic, which is associated with severe eating issues and gastrointestinal issues. But interestingly, many of these ideas are similar to suggestions made by feeding specialists. Simple rules, sticking to what you’ve said, eating schedules (no eating/drinking between meals except water), consistently introducing less preferred foods over time, etc. My biggest issue is trying to plan and make the meals. It’s exhausting!!! But glad to know I’m not in this alone!

  19. I have a 7 yr old girl step daughter, her father n her moved in about 3 months ago she refuses to eat 80% of what everyone else eats we are a family of 9… She rather have chicken or pork has to be plan or pizza..pancakes has to have peanut butter on it or else she refuses we don’t always have peanut butter but her dad will even ask a the neighbor to borrow some.. Than even wont taste anything else such as tacos,anything with ground beef.. She sees everyone eat things even my 3 yr old niece but she refuses to even try.. If u ask her to try she acts like its poison n sit there n pout or cry. If she does take a bite like sausage once which took her half hr she ran to trash n spit it out but yet the next time i made it she ate it no problem. . am i overreacting.. I tell her u don’t know unless u try n if it was soo bad why does everyone here eat it.. Advice please

    • Danielle,
      She sounds so unhappy. It must also be hard on the rest of the family. Instead of focusing on the food issues right now, it might be helpful to talk with her about her feelings, particularly about moving in to a large family. She might be feeling invisible with so many new people in her life. Her eating problems might resolve as she feels more a part of the family, and maybe is encouraged to take a more active role in preparing the food for meals.

  20. I have 5 kids as well and we are just now getting to where someone always doesn’t like what I serve for dinner. It didn’t used to be this way but they are getting pickier and pickier by the day.
    I used to allow them to substitute something for a food they didn’t like. For instance if they didn’t like the green beans I was serving for dinner they could go to the fridge and grab a handful of carrots (a veggie gets substituted for a veggie, a fruit for a fruit, etc). But they got to where they took advantage of the situation and it was happening more and more and then there were times when they wouldn’t like the meat but I didn’t already have another meat substitute cooked and available.
    So, we stopped that and next I told them I am only cooking one meal, if they don’t like it they can cook them selves something different. That didn’t work either because they would leave the kitchen a bigger mess plus the little kids can’t cook them selves something different.
    So now we are on the, “you eat what I cooked you or you don’t eat at all” stage. They are not happy with this.
    I like the idea of a family meeting and making them try 3 bites before saying they don’t like it and then if they don’t eat it they don’t eat it. The three bites of each item will at least get something in their stomachs. Great idea! Thank you!

  21. I’m having a rough time right now with this as well.

    My frustration is my boyfriends kids.. 7yr old boy and 15 yr old girl. Seems no matter what I cook, soup, full turkey dinner I spent 4 hours making, steak,chicken.. doesn’t matter.. they barely touch the food then an hour later they are in the kitchen eating cereal or peanut butter sandwiches.

    I want to give up on cooking, I used to love it but this is driving me insane. I don’t want to cook for them anymore.

  22. Sarah – I understand your frustration. It’s hard to know if it’s the food or a way to reject you because you’re not their Mom. I suspect the latter. Here is what I would suggest you do: First,, talk with them about you’re not being their their “real” Mom and that you understand that they are very loyal to her and one way to do that is to reject your food. Then suggest that they might want to do some of the cooking with you, as a team, and that you would welcome their input. I would continue this approach for a while, even if they initially reject any overtures. If they remain fiercely opposed to your food, I would give them cereal and peanut butter sandwiches and hope things improve with time. The best thing you can do with them is accept their needs and not take it personally re rejecting your food. I think this is a loyalty issue with their Mom, and let it be. Time will be your best friend.

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