“Food Rules” to Cure Picky Eating

Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating  Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating

I get a lot of questions about how to get kids to eat a healthy diet

While this was initially a battle for us as well, I figured out some “food rules” along the way that helped with their adjustment. We now have (mostly) non-picky eaters, which I attribute to the attitude we present about food.

It’s all about the attitude…

In general, I’ve found that many parents assume that kids won’t eat or won’t like certain foods, even if the children themselves have never complained (or even tried a certain food before!). There is a perception that foods like chicken nuggets, sandwiches, and pre-packaged kid-sized snacks are the foods of choice for kids, and we (as parents) are hesitant to introduce foods that we fear they won’t like.

I’ve also found that the attitude we teach about food is as important as the food choices we offer. In the times I’ve visited other countries, there is a difference in how children ask for, eat, and behave in food related situations.

While I certainly think that the type of foods we market to and prepare for our children needs to change, I think it is also important to change the way our kids think about food as well.

To this end, I pulled some ideas from my mom’s French background (after noticing that her family was naturally thin, not picky and ate a wide variety of foods). We’ve incorporated these ideas with our own children, and the difference has been astounding.

I call these “Food Rules” though the name is slightly mis-leading. I think that while we certainly must have guidelines about how children act in food related situations, these “rules” should be taught by example and practice rather than iron fist (or wooden spoon).

1. No Complaining About Food

In our house, children (and adults) are not allowed to complain about food. This doesn’t mean that they are forced to eat at every meal, just that negative talk about food is not permitted.

Food is first for nourishment, and this is an important thing to teach children. Additionally, complaining about food is both rude to the cook and shows a closed-minded attitude.

How we handle it: No one is ever forced to eat if truly not hungry (see below) but everyone must sit and participate in meal times with a positive attitude. Those who insist on a negative attitude are dismissed for bedtime. Especially with multiple kids, a negative mentality about a certain food spreads quickly and is hard to un-do, so it is better to head this off completely!

2. Food is not a Reward

Food is first provided for nourishment, not entertainment or emotional reward. For this reason, we try (not always perfectly) not to bribe with food or offer food as rewards for good behavior. I even try not to make certain foods a big deal on birthdays or other occasions, as we try to focus on experiences instead. (i.e. instead of a birthday cake and sugary snacks, we might take a family trip to the zoo or other fun place for a birthday).

In the same way, I don’t ever present foods as a punishment or associate them with punishment (i.e. “You have to eat your asparagus or you are getting spanked.”) While children can’t complain about food (see above), it is the negative attitude that is disciplined, not the action relating to food.

I’ve seen in many children (and even to some degree in myself at times) an emotional connection to a certain food, or a desire to eat certain foods in emotional situations. While the types of foods we provide is certainly important, it is also important to avoid creating an association between foods (especially unhealthy ones) and happy times or fond memories. I’d personally much rather those fond memories be connected to family time and experiences anyway!

How we handle it: While we do, of course sometimes have treats, they are only given when I make them. We don’t use them as a bribe, kids don’t earn them through good behavior or good grades, and we don’t withhold them if children misbehave.

3. Eating is a Family Activity:

I think that the trend of eating on-the-go and in isolation (while watching TV, etc) has contributed to the negative attitudes children have about food. For this reason, we make a sincere effort to eat meals (especially breakfast and dinner) as a family when at all possible and to make this an enjoyable time.

The advantages are that meal times (hopefully) provide an enjoyable time for conversation and bonding with the children, which also facilitates slower and more mindful eating.

In our house, the whole family also eats the same thing at each meal. Children don’t get special “kid-friendly” foods and as soon as little ones can eat solids, they get tiny pieces of what the rest of us are eating. The family atmosphere helps encourage children to eat what is served, and helps avoid food battles.

If a food is unusual or a new food for us, we don’t make a big deal about it (by not saying anything about it) and just present it to the kids with a positive attitude and assume that they will eat it. I’ve seen my husband choke down liver with a poker face (poor guy!) and the kids eat it readily because they have no idea that they shouldn’t like it.

How we handle it: Meal time is family time and outside activities are rarely allowed to interfere. Everyone eats the same thing and eats it with a positive attitude (though if a person is truly not hungry, he or she may just sit there after tasting the food and enjoy the conversation). In the rare cases that children don’t have a good attitude at meal times, they are excused to their rooms. In the same way, we don’t often snack so that everyone is ready to eat at meal times (though children do occasionally get healthy snacks if there will be longer than normal times between meals).

4. Try, Try Again

To help facilitate a non-picky palate in kids, they get  one small bite of each food being served at a given meal (one green bean, one bite of sweet potatoes and a piece of chicken). When they finish one bite of each, they can request more of any food. When children don’t like a food or request it when asking for more, we just explain that it is ok as long as they always are willing to try it and explain that one day (when they are grown up) they will like the food.

Dislike of foods is not set in stone so we don’t force feed huge amounts of foods that they don’t necessarily like, but we set the expectation that they keep trying those foods until they do.

How we handle it: Just as negative comments about food are not allowed, we try to promote a positive attitude about new foods by presenting them in manageable (one bite) amounts and giving the expectation that they will learn to enjoy all foods one day.

5. Hunger is OK

I’ve worked with clients who have completely lost a natural sense of hunger due to constant access to foods and eating on the go. It is perfectly normal (and expected) to be hungry before meal times and hunger is never an excuse for negative attitudes about food or eating junk food.

Normal hunger at meal times encourages kids to eat whatever is served and to eat enough to avoid being hungry too much in advance of the next meal. At the same time, a child who complains and is excused from the dinner table for bedtime quickly learns to have a more positive attitude (it has never taken one of our kids more than two nights total of missing family dinner to find an improved attitude).

How we handle it: We don’t let hunger be an excuse for unhealthy eating or bad attitude. We don’t often offer snacks as children who are at least slightly hungry tend to be happier and more adventurous eaters at meal times.

 6. Focus on Nutrient Dense Foods

Now for a few details on the actual types of foods we eat and why. I noticed that my mom (and the French in general) spend more time eating a smaller amount of higher quality food. They enjoy it more and obsess about it less (in general). To help make all of the above “rules” easier to implement, I focus on cooking nutrient dense, rich foods, from scratch each day. We incorporate bone broth, homemade pate, raw cheeses, homemade sauces (that contain butter or cream), eggs and egg based foods like hollandaise sauce on a daily basis.

Not only are kids less hungry  after an omelet filled with meat and veggies and topped with hollandaise, but they are more nourished and have received a boost of beneficial fats (as opposed to what they get from a bowl of cereal). When possible, we let the kids help shop for or prepare the meals and I always make an effort to explain why certain types of food are more nutrient dense and how they benefit the body.

How we handle it: I cook from scratch every day, which is more time consuming that throwing a sandwich together, but it is worth it to me to help my kids learn a healthy attitude toward food. You can check out my recipe index for some of the recipes we use.

I’ve also heard positive things about the book “French Kids Eat Everything” and while I haven’t read it myself, many friends have told me that she promotes a similar attitude about food and eating.

How do you handle food with your children? Is it a battle or are your kids adventurous eaters? Share your tips below!

Reader Comments

  1. Candice Vega says

    These are great! We have started something similar with our 4.5 and 1.5 yr old. They are trying new things and eating a much much wider variety! It’s amazing to me that our culture chooses (for the most part) to label processed food as healthy and a good choice for children.

    • Starr says

      I am not sure if I am able to ask a question here or not, but here it goes.
      My 13 yo. daughter is obsessed with hot chips. I have tried to remove them from her diet. But after a few days that is all hear about. Her wanting hot chips. I eventually give in which I know isn’t the right thing to do. My question is this, How do I remove them from her diet and it not be a fight? (She also gets them when she is at friends’ houses.)
      I’ve tried to explain that they aren’t good for her.

      • Stephanie says

        I bake sweet potato chips a couple of times a week and they are a hit! I just slice them up, drizzle them with oil (I use coconut oil), and season with different things. They are a great alternative to potato chips and you could spice them up with cayenne pepper.

          • Stephanie says

            I use a Cutco knife to slice the sweet potatoes. The brand is expensive, but it has been worth every penny! A friend uses a slicer, but they don’t slice well. I think a sharp knife would be the easiest option!

  2. says

    You are so right on (as always!). I’ve found that it doesn’t take very long to get kids on board with eating healthy even if they are used to complete crap. We are foster parents and our most recent two (a 3yo and 6yo) came to us from another foster home with bags of “their food” which included fruity pebbles, poptarts, donut sticks, etc. I.E. all they ate was pure sugar. The other foster parent told me they don’t eat vegetables and their favorite food is pizza. I kindly said, thank you for the info. The kids both screamed and fussed the first night when i gave them chicken, greens and okra. I gave them about a week to wean off their sugar addiction by allowing them one of those crappy treats if they finished their dinner. After that, it all went in the trash. We explained to the kids why we eat the way we do and how important proper nutrition is. The 6yo really bought into it. (The fact that the 3yo’s front teeth are black/gray from decay helps our case!) After about 3 weeks, we have had almost no food issues with the 6yo. We’ve had a little more trouble with the 3yo. If he doesn’t eat dinner, he goes straight to bed. But generally he eats his dinner. They now both say they love broccoli! (And they take their fermented cod liver oil with no problem!) We were at the store the other day and some man in front of us in line tried to tell the 6yo he needed a candy stick. With a very straight face, the 6yo told the man, “We don’t eat pure sugar.” That was a moment of glory for me! But your rules are so right. Don’t make a big deal. Kids can choose to sit at the table and eat or they can choose to go to bed. And BTW, French Kids Eat Everything is a great read! Also Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman is also a good read. It’s about the French parenting style, but includes info about their attitude toward food as well. P.S. When will you start selling Wellness Mama merch?!?! i am ready for a tshirt or tote that says “Wellness Mama rocks my world!” (or perhaps something far more witty!)

    • Jenny Shaver says

      GOOD FOR YOU!! A) for being a foster parent, and B) for weaning those kids off of the crap!! I want to hug you! Especially, as you said, the decay in the 3 year old’s teeth! I work in dentistry & that is so sad & tragic! I don’t yet have kids of my own, but want to thank you, Chantel, for making this world a better place! Love to you & your family!! <3

      ~Jenny

  3. Meagan Crone says

    Great tips! I used to be a nanny and the quickest way to end food struggles was this: say I was serving a salad for lunch. If the children decided they didn’t want to eat it (they liked and usually ate salad with no complaint) that was fine. They would take a bite or two and I would put it in the refridgerator for lunch the following day. The kids quickly figured out that a fresh green salad tasted better than a next-day-wilty mess.

  4. Tracy says

    My question is about foods that seem to be truly disliked. I guess this would fall under the negative attitude part, but I have a nearly 4-year-old who used to eat anything (she’s always been paleo), but now seems to have developed a sincere dislike for fish. To the point where on Thursdays, when I buy and serve fish for supper, she starts telling me first thing in the morning that she doesn’t want fish for supper. We always make her take one bite, but the struggle is starting to wear me down. And then I always wonder if after her bite of fish, which I know will not satisfy her, do I get her something else to eat so she doesn’t wake up hungry in the middle of the night? I know there are a few foods (mushrooms..ugh) that I cannot stand, and I would expect that any person will have a few foods like this. Any advice is appreciated!

    • Natasha says

      I have no advice, but this may fall under the ‘pick your battles’ category? My daughter is a great eater so when she turns her nose up at something (she can be iffy when it comes to mixed-up, casserole type foods) I just remind myself that she would choose raw fruit and veggies over most things.

    • Judy C says

      That is a tough question and one I ask myself with my 2 year old son. At the moment his main issue is veggies so I just keep putting small bite sized pieces on his plate. But with fish it could be a bit trickier. When I read your comment, a couple of things came to mind.

      Ask your daughter what she doesn’t like about the fish – flavour, smell, texture? Does it make her tummy feel funny after she eats it? I ate fish (fish fingers! Ugh!) when I was a little kid but I developed sensitivity to all seafood and now it does not agree with me at all.
      Now for family meals I cook fish and chicken or other meat. We all eat same veggies. My husband chooses fish, I choose chicken and my 2 year old son has both! Would a similar thing work for your family? And perhaps do a “serve yourself” style meal on those nights so your daughter can choose her own meat source. This gives her no pressure to eat the fish, you don’t appear to be giving her special treatment, she gets her protein source without you giving in and cooking a separate meal.

      Good luck!

      • kristine says

        Judy, your advice is spot-on. It is vital to ask the right questions. ‘Why don’t you like this food?’ is a great one. Your solution to offer two types of proteins is brilliant! As a mom of seven children, I salute you! :)

  5. Natasha says

    These rules are brilliant! My son was born a picky eater–opposite of his older sister. It was easy to deal with when he was little, I would just not give him snacks and would then give him the green beans, asparagus, or blackberries FIRST, and then give him what he liked (the meat) after. Now he is older and wants to wheel and deal about the food on his plate or, most recently, the milk in his glass. Luckily he does like broccoli, which is high in calcium, because that is an old stand by in my house.

    • Hanna says

      As a kid I balked at milk, and was force fed whole milk dairy because it’s ‘healthy’. It turns out that I have a dairy sensitivity, so this resulted in years of chronic and serious ENT pain and issues (including several surgeries). I agree that we need to foster positive relationships to whole food in our kids. But supporting them to develop a healthy sense of intuition and the ability to attend to what their bodies are telling them, is also very important.

      I also have to say, more generally, that the ‘no food rewards ever’ and ‘good food/bad food’ stuff I am reading here flirts with eating disordered thinking. Most of these rules are really helpful and thought out, but as someone recovering from eating/body issues who grew up with a lot of these sorts of prohibitions, I have to say that I don’t agree with some of this. Food for thought, anyway.

  6. meliisa says

    I whole-heartedly agree with these food rules, but I do have some comments. I have 2 sons aged 15 and 7. My oldest was diagnosed with Asperger’s at a young age and has always been an extremely fussy eater. My youngest will eat anything and everything. My oldest is an extreme vegetable hater. So, we have found ways to incorporate pureed veggies into meals and then he has no idea that he was eating veggies. Recently, I started to be honest with him. For instance when I make mac and cheese with pureed squash and cauliflower (thereby cutting back on the cheese content and just using a sharper blend of cheeses, like old cheddar and parmesean). He would ask me which secret ingredients I snuck into it and he would comment “wow, but it was still really good”. (But I would not tell him till after he ate it). I have found this to be a really good approach. Also, I agree that food is not a reward or a punishment and the one-bite rule is most certainly in effect at our house. However, I have never had the heart to send a child to bed hungry, ever. I think that is mean. I know I do
    not sleep well when I am hungry, why would they? But, I am also not a short order chef; so what I do is this: One bite of everything is mandatory and no complaining allowed. If you choose not to eat it it’s ok. But, you must remain at the table to be polite, while the rest of us finish our meals. After about an hour of everyone being excused from the table, the picky non-eater would be able to make himself some toast and peanut butter or cheese or a bowl of cereal with milk. Because food is not supposed to be a punishment either; so by not eating the food, should not translate into going to bed hungry, either. This approach has helped my oldest son to become less of a fussy eater over the years, despite his autism. He will now eat veggies he
    never ate before and I no longer have to lie about my squash and cauliflower
    spiked mac and cheese, as he eats it willfully, even knowing I have snuck some of
    his much hated veggies into it!

  7. says

    I don’t have any kids, but i have worked as a Program Aide in day camps, and I remember there was one little girl who wouldn’t want to eat her lunch, and let’s just say some ventriloquism did the trick.

  8. Jess says

    How young would you recommend putting a child to bed hungry? I have an 18 month old. If he doesn’t want to eat I figure he isnt hungry but when I take away the food or excuse him he just cries at the fridge until I cave (yesterday was 2 hours) and get him something he wants. I’m nervous putting him to bed hungry b/c he already eats so much in the morning and he is kinda small for his age.

    • Janet says

      I would also like to know how you deal with sending a child to bed hungry.
      I can’t bring myself to do this as long as my daughter tries everything, she will usually eat all the veggies but only one bit of meat.
      She often wants something more to eat, so allow her a healthy snack to subsidize or more veggies but I don’t always have more of what I cooked to give more of what she liked.

  9. Kelly says

    Katie – just curious what you do about candy and food related to holidays? For example, Halloween, Easter, Valentines day? I pretty well regulate what kind of sweets my kids get during these holidays, but I find that they get all kinds of junk I wouldn’t otherwise give them- from well meaning family members – aunts uncles and grandparents. I’ve asked kindly to limit the amount of sweets given. I’ve even picked through and discarded some things when my kids are sleeping. But I wondered how you (or anyone else reading this comment) encounter that obstacle?

    • says

      We don’t really do Halloween, I hide empty easter eggs or put non-food treats in them, etc. They sometimes choose to eat junk when we are out but usually feel bad later so they don’t choose those options often.

    • Jennifer says

      I let my kids go to town on Halloween and collect as much candy as they want, when we get home we pull out all the non-candy items and leave all the candy for the Pumpkin Fairy, she magically changes all their candy into money and then they get to go to the toy store and buy a toy with their money. For Easter we fill plastic eggs with date rolls, dried fruit, nuts, little erasers, cars and other small toys.

  10. Ashley says

    Does anyone have suggestions about providing adequate nutrition for a child and husband that won’t eat ANY vegetables? My husband is 37 and step-son is 11. Neither will eat veggies and gag when attempting. My mother-in-law believes it started with my husband because of his asthma medication. As a toddler he loved veggies but just like his son developed serious asthma. I am at a loss because they both refuse to eat any veggies but I want for them to have optimal health. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

  11. Tiffini S. says

    Any suggestions for children who regularly vomit as a way to avoid eating a food they dislike? My son and my daughters know that they have to try things when told, and will do so calmly, then they’ll vomit all over the table (and yes, it’s happened at restaurants and relatives houses) if they don’t like it.

    At home, we don’t make a big deal out of it and just send them to bed. But at a restaurant, or especially at my in-laws, there’s a huge commotion and concern. It undoes everything we’ve done at home, and the child maintains (correctly) that this is a good way to get out of eating food they dislike.

    We’re talking multiple times a week. I’m on the last nerve with it.

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