My Food Rules to Help Picky Eaters

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Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating
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Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I get my kids to eat healthy foods. In the beginning, having picky eaters was a struggle for our family. I was searching for a way to create better eating habits and encourage family meals. 

After reexamining our family’s attitude about food (and with trial and error), I figured out some “food rules.” This adjustment in how we viewed food and eating, along with getting my kids more involved, has worked well for us.

If you’re struggling with picky eaters, start by looking at your family’s attitude about food. Offering a variety of foods will help establish good eating habits. However, having some guidelines around food and mealtimes will help change their eating behavior. And it’ll make the time you spend around the table more enjoyable!

Why Do We Have Picky Eaters?

Often, parents assume their kids won’t eat or like certain foods — even if they haven’t complained about (or even tried!) a certain food before. There’s a perception that “kid-friendly” foods like chicken nuggets, sandwiches, and pre-packaged snacks are the only things they want to eat. So we become hesitant to introduce different foods because we’re afraid our kids won’t like them.

When a child’s diet regularly consists of this type of food, they’re missing out on important nutrients of a varied, well-rounded diet.

I’ve also noticed that the attitude we teach our kids about food is just as important as the food choices we offer. When I’ve visited other countries, I’ve noticed a significant difference in how children ask for, eat, and behave around food.

I certainly think the foods we market to and prepare for our children in the US need to change. But, I think it’s equally important to change the way our kids (and we!) think about food.

7 Tips to Help Overcome Picky Eating

As I noticed our family’s attitude toward food needed to change, I began incorporating ideas from other cultures. I noticed my mom’s French family ate a wide variety of foods, wasn’t picky, and was naturally thin. I started using these ideas with my children, and the difference has been astounding.

These are our “Food Rules,” though the name is slightly misleading. These aren’t hard and fast rules that make dinner times more problematic. Instead, these are guidelines about how children should act in food-related situations. These “rules” are best taught by example and practiced as a family rather than with an iron fist (or wooden spoon).

1. No Complaining About Food

In my home, children (and adults) aren’t allowed to complain about food. This doesn’t mean that they’re forced to eat at every meal. But it does mean that negative talk about food is not allowed.

Food’s number one job is to nourish us. It’s not for entertainment. This is an important thing to teach children. Additionally, complaining about food is rude to the person who prepared it and also shows a closed-minded attitude. A negative comment about a certain food can spread quickly and is hard to undo, especially with multiple kids. So it is better to head this off completely!

No one is ever forced to eat if they aren’t hungry (see Rule #6). But everyone must sit together and participate with a positive attitude. Those who insist on a negative attitude can leave to get ready for bed.

2. Food Is Not a Reward (or Punishment)

To help create a neutral attitude toward food, I never use it as a reward or punishment. I want to avoid my kids creating an emotional connection with food. Because, remember, food’s number one job is for nourishment, not entertainment.

Many of us (myself included!) have emotional connections to a certain food. Or we feel a desire to eat certain things in emotional situations. How many times have you reached for a snack when you’re feeling sad, stressed, excited, or bored? 

This is also known as emotional eating. I want to avoid this with my kids, especially with rates of obesity in kids on the rise. So, it’s important to not create an association between foods (especially unhealthy ones) and emotions.

To that end, I don’t use food as a bribe or reward for good behavior (although I’m not perfect at this!). I also don’t highlight certain foods on birthdays or other special occasions. Instead, I focus on experiences. For example, we’ll go to the zoo instead of having a birthday cake and sugary snacks.

In the same way, I don’t present foods as a punishment or associate them with punishment. I’d never say, “You have to eat your asparagus or you’re in trouble.” While I don’t let my children complain about food (see Rule #1), the negative attitude is disciplined, not the action related to the food.

3. Eating Is a Positive Family Activity

Eating meals as a family at the dinner table has become less common. But it’s so important for everyone in the family! The trend of eating on the go and while watching TV contributes to negative attitudes about food. For this reason, I work hard to eat our meals (especially breakfast and dinner) together as a family when possible.

Everyone comes to the table with a positive attitude (see Rule #1). If they choose not to eat, they can stay and enjoy the conversation. This promotes our family time and makes it less about eating and more about bonding.

While we’re eating, I focus on having calming conversations to reduce stress at the table. We talk about things we are grateful for, things that made us laugh. This creates a space to eat slower and more mindfully. And it helps increase their well-being by eating in a less stressful situation.

4. Get Kids Involved

This is a big one to help kids get more interested in food, especially new foods! Kids of all ages can get more involved in the process. And when kids are involved, it gives them buy-in to try new things. Added bonus: they’ll learn how to plan and cook meals for when they move out on their own!

Starting when my kids were little, as young as 2 years of age, I’d have them help. At the grocery store or farmer’s market, you can talk about the different foods and have them pick out new ones to try. I always make an effort to explain why certain types of food are more nutrient-dense and how they benefit the body (see Rule #7).

Kids can also help with meal planning, prepping food, setting the table, and cleaning up. I love this course from my friend Katie Kimball, Kids Cook Real Foods. She offers courses with age-appropriate learning and even has a mini-course for young children! It’s a great solution to help avoid (or cure!) a picky eater.

5. Try, Try Again

In my house, the whole family eats the same thing at each meal. Children don’t get special “kid-friendly” foods. As soon as they can eat solid foods, they get tiny pieces of what we’re all eating. This atmosphere encourages them to eat what’s served and avoids battles over food. When I serve an unusual or new food, I don’t make a big deal about it. I simply present it with a positive attitude and assume they’ll eat it.

They get one small bite of each food that’s served (one green bean, one bite of sweet potatoes, and a piece of chicken). When they finish one bite of each, they can ask for more.

If they don’t like a food or don’t request more, I reassure them. I explain that it’s ok as long as they’re willing to try it every time. I explain that one day (when they’re grown up), their taste buds and food preferences might change and they might like the food. They’re not forced to eat huge amounts of foods they don’t necessarily like. But I do serve it repeatedly and set the expectation that they keep trying it.

6. Hunger Is OK

In our house, we don’t view hunger as a negative experience that we’re constantly trying to correct. I’ve known people who have completely lost a natural sense of hunger due to constant access to food.

It’s perfectly normal (and expected) to be hungry before eating a meal. Children who are at least slightly hungry tend to be happier and more adventurous eaters at meal times. For this reason, I try to limit snack times and make sure they occur well before meals. There’s no need to practice continuous eating.

Normal hunger at meal times encourages kids to eat what’s served. It also helps them want to eat enough so they avoid being hungry too soon. At the same time, a child who complains and is excused from the dinner table to get ready for bed (see Rule #1) quickly learns to have a more positive attitude. It’s never taken my kids more than two nights total of missing family dinners to find an improved outlook.

7. Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods

I noticed that my mom (and the French in general) eat smaller amounts 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. We incorporate bone broth, raw cheeses, homemade sauces (with butter or cream), high-quality meat, eggs, and egg-based foods like hollandaise sauce on a daily basis.

My kids are nourished with a balanced meal after eating an omelet filled with meat and veggies and topped with hollandaise. But they’ve also received a boost of beneficial fats (as opposed to a bowl of cereal).

Although it’s time-consuming, I value home-cooked, nutritious meals. So, I cook from scratch most days, but I also batch cook on the weekends. This saves a lot of time and sets us up for the week. And because the kids help (see Rule #4), it saves me time now that they’re older.

Changing my family’s attitude about food has been a process. But it’s one that’s well worth it to change picky eaters into healthy eaters! As you begin this journey, remember that you’re the best role model for your kids. They’re watching your relationship with food and how you react. Soon picky eating will be a thing of the past!

Is it a battle for your family or are your kids adventurous eaters? How do you handle a picky eater? Share your tips below!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


56 responses to “My Food Rules to Help Picky Eaters”

  1. Naomi Avatar

    Out 2.5 year old literally will not touch any fruit or veg. We have always served him the same nutrient rich food we eat. I confess, we do also eat chocolate, ice cream, bread, chips and fries sometimes. We have also made pasta, corn cakes, crackers and snack bars available as snacks. He is still breastfed, so gets some nutrition from me. He’s strong, sharp and very determined (strong-willed). What can we do to get him interested in fruit and veg (besides turning it into ice cream – read frozen banana and coco powder, or popsicles)? In a few weeks after our lodger moves out, we can rid the house of all cereals, snack bars, come cakes, crackers , chocolate, ice cream, etc. But I honestly don’t know what/how to feed my son. For the first 6 months of weaning, we were so confident. We just served hi, what we were eating – some of your recipes as well! But now he eats nearly nothing!

  2. Katrina Avatar

    I always thought my parents handled my picky eating very well. We had to try everything. It was ok if we didn’t like it, and if we didn’t want to eat the dinner we could make ourselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The part I think was the best was that when we said we didn’t like something they would say, “oh you just must not be old enough to like that yet. You will have to try it again when you are bigger.” The theory behind it being that
    1 we would try it again in the future willingly to see if we did like it now
    2 we wanted to like it in the future when we tried it because it meant we were getting bigger/older
    3 taste buds die off and our sense of taste does change over time so even if we didn’t like it we really might think differently at a later time.
    It worked every time. I didn’t always like it, but I always tried it again.

  3. Brooke Avatar

    I love your ideas on how to get kids to eat healthy! I don’t have any kids yet, but when I do, I want to serve healthy food, so I should find these tips very helpful in the future.

    However, I do have one question. Many people say that kids will not starve themselves to death. However, on other websites that I have been too about healthy eating, those sites always list tips on how to deal with picky eating. Many comments on those websites actually disprove the notion that kids will not starve themselves. I even read a comment on such a website, that said a toddler went almost 72 hours without eating! The toddler started becoming lethargic from the lack of food, so the parents just had to cave at that point and give the toddler food. So…there are children out there who will absolutely starve themselves.

    There was also another comment on that same website, and it really stuck out. I don’t know if this story is true, but it just really stuck out from all of the other contents on that website. A couple was having a hard time getting their toddler, a little girl, to eat. So they decided to just set the food in front of her, and if she didn’t eat, then she didn’t eat. The problem was…the little girl kept refusing to eat. Meal after meal…the little girl refused to eat the food. However, the parents did not cave and did not give the girl any other food. Eventually…the little girl died of malnourishment. Yes, the parents starved their daughter to death. Now the parents are facing prison time, all because they refused to cave and give their child food. Very tragic indeed. I don’t know if this story is true, but you can see why it stuck out.

    So…what should other parents do in that situation? What should parents do when their child just refuses to eat what they set in front of them?

  4. Kristen Avatar

    How do you handle food at school? I have a 11 and 9 year old. I make their lunches every day (with their help and input). My 9 year old (since kindergarten) chooses to ask his friends for their pure junk food (Doritos, Takis, fruit snacks, donuts, oreos, candy, etc, etc) and eats it every single day. We’ve had many discussions about healthy food and choices. What that type of food does to his body, etc. The kicker is he has an increasing intolerance to dairy and gets bad ear infections if we are not diligent on looking in his ears. He knows this and has suffered through several painful infections but still chooses to eat it. We’ve tried every obvious route, short of homeschooling, but maybe there is a path that doesn’t seem clear or I’m overlooking.? Thank goodness we are headed into spring break so his, now, bleeding ears have a chance to heal before he goes back. I know we are creating an anxiety around food and he has begun habitually lying about it. We stopped reacting to when he tells us he ate something. We have a discussion about his choices and why. We, unfortunately, react when we find out he has been lying. Lying just is not tolerated in our house no matter the subject matter. Ahhhh!! What are healthy minded parents to do!!!!

  5. Lucy Avatar

    Love the post! Katie, I was wondering about more details on your kids’ eating schedule. Do they all (excluding the newborns) only eat 3 times a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Or do any of the ages have snacks? I’m curious how often kids actually *need* to eat each day. I’m always amazed when I see parents giving their children more food, even if they just had a meal. It just doesn’t seem like that’s necessary, but then I think, “what do I know, I don’t have kids yet”.

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      If they are really active or if we have a later dinner, I will give them a snack in mid-afternoon, but I stick to something like apples and almond butter or something with protein.

  6. Anna Avatar

    Oh, I forgot to ask what everyone else does when their 14-month baby throws food off of their plate to the floor or tries to feed their food to the animals instead of eating it. I want there to be as little waste as possible.

  7. Anna Avatar

    I am in a situation that no one has mentioned thus far. My husband plus a few other co-workers had lost their jobs just before I gave birth. I gave birth and a few months later we ended up having to move in with my parents. Since then, my husband has gotten another job but it pays half of what he made before. We can not afford our own place… Yet. Our daughter is now 14 months. Anyway, the problem is that my parents and last remaining grandparent are not respecting me when it comes to food choices. They grew up on junk and raised me on junk. My daughter and I are vegetarian (My husband is too when I cook dinner for us), while the rest of my family is not. The rest of my family eats junk food. We do not. We buy our own food, but when I’m not looking they try to feed her junk food or meat (I guess they think I’m depriving her, but most animals today are fed GMO grains, farm fish are too). They are fat and sick. The dogs are fat and sick. “I” used to be fat and sick too. I was raised to eat meat and junk food too. I never ate any veggies unless you call pickles on a double bacon cheeseburger with extra fries and a super large coke veggies. SOMETIMES I would eat peas, but that was rare. I HAD to change my life and I did. I went on a low-fat raw vegan diet and lost all of the excess weight I had and became healthy and even started to exercise. Now that I know how to be healthy, I want my daughter to be healthy too and not have to be sick like I have been. She has not been sick a day in her life so far. Well, my daughter and I did have a cold that only lasted 3 days (during that time my Mom had an upper respiratory infection that lasted 2 weeks and my step dad had bronchitis for at least 3 weeks), but that’s it. But, I’m still concerned about all of the candy (my parents have at least 4 candy dishes throughout the living room) and toaster strudels she samples. Now, we do eat eggs from our chickens that we raise free range and we do occasionally eat wild caught fish, but all veggies have protein to some extent so we get most of our protein from beans, nuts, and seeds (always have to keep my eye on her when it comes to the bird feeders my grandma has. My daughter loves sunflower seeds and pepitas.) She also loves broccoli and peas and even kale chips. Does anyone have any advice for telling my parents what to do in their own home when it concerns my daughter?

  8. Anna Avatar

    I love love love your sight! You are such a blessing and absolutely awesome! Quick question – I have an almost 2 yr old who is such a picky eater. I have finally gotten my husband on board and have thrown most processed foods and snacks out of the house. While I have always enjoyed cooking it is an adjustment to learn to cook or bake everything, but I know it is worth it! However, despite my best efforts my child would rather not eat than eat some healthier options. I followed the conventional foods they recommend as first foods and I know he was probably introduced to sweets to early and has ruined his taste buds. Do I just stay home for a few days, deal with a cranky toddler who is half starved but not let him have anything but the healthy stuff? He will often try new things but just doesn’t like them! He even tried seaweed for me several times but he just couldn’t get used to the texture. That is the other thing, he is very sensitive to textures. Any advice would be welcome, otherwise, I guess eventually he will be hungry enough and just eat? Thanks!

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      I found the one-bite rule really helpful at first. Would your little one eat one bite of a non-favorite food if he could have some food he likes after? After some time, he should develop a taste for these foods.

  9. Kim Avatar

    May I suggest a book for you Wellness Mama, Conscious Parenting. 🙂

  10. Mel Avatar

    I think this is awesome advice! As for children going to bed hungry-many miss the point/s..
    1. Trust me, it won’t happen often. Once is number of times each of my 5 children have chosen to go to bed rather than eat what’s provided.
    2. It’s kinder to be firm a few times in their life, than “cave in” every time!
    3. Skipping a meal-especially an evening meal simply means they’ll be hungry in the morning!!it doesn’t kill them!! With my 2 yr old, I place unfinished meals in the fridge, and serve it an hour or so later when he’s really hungry. He usually gobbles it all.
    4. Definitely ask WHY a child doesn’t like a food. There maybe a simple solution or satisfactory alternative, or valuable insight.
    We have been using food as a reward, but not any more after reading this!
    We don’t do snacks much either, this info reinforced why and I’m glad we’ve stuck to it.
    We aim to keep meal times calm fun and kind! Even if someone doesn’t eat much-they haven’t missed out on our “daily bonding session” and it’s not a drama.

  11. Sophie Avatar

    I have a 6yo who eats everything and anything and a 8yo who is autistic. He has been incredibly fussy with food and moving to France 6 months ago was tough for him food-wise. I’m pleased to say that the one bite rule has been working well and his very limited list of what he will eat is growing. I try to take him shopping with me and encourage him to be adventurous, which is developing his willingness to try. As a French woman, I grew up with a very wide variety of food and a healthy attitude to food but I’ve been to the US and was shocked. Portion size and the sheer amount of rubbish in supermarkets you guys have over there is unbelievable. It must be hard on that side of the pond to fight the food industry!

  12. Leah Williams Avatar
    Leah Williams

    Hi, I have a 9 year old who is a somewhat picky eater. He eats some fruits, some veggies, some meats, etc. but is very hesitant to try new things. I usually try to get him to try just a bite of something new. sometimes he gags when he tries the new food. He doesn’t gag on every new food but just those he is really hesitant to try. He especially hates to try new foods at other people’s houses even if it’s something that he will eat at home because one time he tried something and ended up throwing up.

    I was a picky eater as a child although not as picky as he is. My mom didn’t force me to try new foods and eventually I grew out of it and became more adventurous. My concern if I don’t force my son to try new foods he won’t ever do it. I worry as he begins going to friend’s houses that he won’t eat(this has happened). I’m not so concerned that he will go hungry in those situations but that he will appear to be rude(even though he is very polite when declining food) and won’t get invited back.

    I like your idea of having everyone try a bite of something before the meal and then asking for more of only what they like but would love advice on how to handle him gagging on certain foods.

  13. lara Avatar

    Hi Katie

    I signed up for your meal plans today and am very excited. I read your post of food rules and I would love to put these ideas into my family. I am just wondering how to you manage eating real grain free food out of the house. Ie what rules do you put on the kids for school functions, friends houses, camps etc. Do the same rules in the house apply outside the house? It seems so hard ( maybe rude) to me to be invited to ones house for a meal but not really be able to eat it as the meat is conventional factory farmed meat and the sauces are all made with bad oils and lots of chemical additives not to mention the grains. I am just wondering how you manage these things in your family.

    Cant wait to start meal planning

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      At home, we are completely real food, but unless there is an allergy, I do allow a little leeway when we are at a friend’s house. Thankfully, many of our friends eat the way we do, and I prefer to host when possible, but I feel that sometimes the benefits of time with good friends outweigh the possible negatives of the food they serve (and we take charcoal if it is stuff we usually avoid)

  14. Emilee Avatar

    Thank you , These tips are great. Growing up, my brother and I were always ready to try new food. As an adult I observe parents fixing special food for rude kids who think nothing of saying “Yuck!” and “Gross” or spitting out food someone prepared for them. When did that become OK? Why is it a struggle to get children to just TASTE food?

    I understand an autistic child having issues or one or two foods someone genuinely dislikes (Keep the live and goat cheese AWAY please!). But it seems more like a manipulation/power struggle with many kids.

    Every single rule you list was one we grew up with, except for the food is not a reward one. We did have cakes on our birthdays and easter baskets – though the easter bunny always left us a toy with a little candy but left our friends just a ton of candy.

    We had to taste everything every meal. If we didn’t like it we didn’t say anything. If we did, we asked for more. I still remember at one point my dad reaching for the sautéed mushrooms dish to find it empty then saying “Hey – who taught you two to like these things?!”

    We are adopting older children and “food issues” is a concern of mine. Everyone keeps saying “just give them what the want.” I am saving this list for reference.

    The one thing I would say that did not work on me as a child – we did not have junk food in the house. My mom would make fresh fruit pies for desert occasionally, but that was pretty much it. I had a raging sweet tooth regardless and as soon as I was old enough to access food on my own I went nuts with sweets and gained 22 lbs in one year. If I’d had casual access to sweets all along I might have just gorged on them, or it might have broken the spell they held over me. Hard to say.

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