Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating

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Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating
Wellness Mama » Blog » Mindset » Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating

I get a lot of questions about how to get kids to eat a healthy diet, and while this was initially a battle for our family 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. I also try to get our kids involved by helping out in the kitchen with some easy recipes, and this was made much easier after they took this online kids cooking course.

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!

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.


55 responses to “Food Rules to Cure Picky Eating”

  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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