A few weeks ago, my husband spent the better part of two days working on an elaborate Latin American meal. He drove all over the DMV procuring the best ingredients from the best purveyors, jostled work calls while preparing fish stock, had things marinating and brining and bubbling away for nearly 48 hours. My son sat down to dinner that night, took one look at his plate, and started crying.
“I don’t WANT THAT!” he wept. The look on my husband’s face suggested he wanted to weep as well.
I was recounting this demoralizing tale over dinner with a few girlfriends who also have young children, and, after appropriate laughter and sympathy, one of them shared: “Well, only one of my children eats per night.” She went on to explain that she is committed to the philosophy that she will make one meal for the family each night, no ifs, and, or buts about it, but that her two children independently maintain long and unyielding lists of things they won’t eat — and that their respective catalogs have almost zero overlap. She sighed. “I just say, ‘This is what’s on the menu,’ and then watch as one child goes hungry each night.”
Is feeding young children always this challenging?
My husband and I find ourselves tumbling in and out of patterns of wild frustration and shrugging “oh, wells.” Mr. Magpie was a picky eater until college and now look at him — one of the most adventurous eaters and ambitious home cooks you will meet. Still, our resolution this year was to eat dinner with the children as often as possible. Dining is a highly-valued part of our adult lives, and we wanted to model that appreciation for our children, and include them in it. For us, dinner time is particularly sacrosanct. We unplug and focus on the food, on one another. We usually pour a glass of wine, turn on music, and open ourselves up. Up until the dawn of this year, we nearly always fed our children separately (earlier) because we valued this time so much for ourselves. Especially during the pandemic, dinner felt like the one sliver of the day that belonged to us alone and that consistently brought us joy in dark times. But with those days behind us and the children staying up later and being generally more aware and capable, we felt it was not only timely but in some sense ethical (as it pertains to our own values) to accommodate them in the ritual.
It has been a bumpy ride.
Some dinnertimes, we make wild eyes at one another as if to say: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” These non-verbal exchanges usually come on the heels of sitting for an hour and a half while our children find two thousand excuses to avoid or defer ingesting the three bites of lamb, small mound of peas, and one fingerling potato on their respective plates. Or after we watch them spit out butter-poached lobster, or something much simpler — like the buttery, crispy, breaded fish sticks my husband prepared from scratch, attempting to appease their palates. (He served them with homemade tartar sauce for us, which would have been a bridge too far had we plated it for our children.) My son, who will happily eat Gorton’s freezer variety, spat these fancy fish sticks out on the table in defiance.
And yet. We’ve seen slow and incremental improvements in other ways. My daughter will at least try almost anything on her plate, and my son has gradually gotten better at sitting at the table without needing to be reminded: “BOTTOM IN THE SEAT” fourteen times. Even if I cannot say much about the impact of our shared dinnertimes on their nutrition, I have witnessed beautiful gains in other realms: we often learn about their days, share stories, and talk about food together. My children also take turns saying grace at the head of the meal, and this Catholic routine is deeply reassuring to me. I occasionally feel as though I am failing at “instilling the Catholic faith” at home, but at least we say grace daily together. In short, sometimes I feel that dinnertime together is less about what they actually eat and more about the rhetorical emphasis on community, on manners, on conversation, on prayer. So, net-net, not a full failure.
Still. There are days where I wonder if my son has eaten more than one bite of dinner for the past couple weeks. (Am I putting him to bed hungry too often? Am I being overly spartan?, she wonders at 1:43 a.m.)
We’ve done enough consulting on the subject to follow the general recommendations you’ve probably also heard about: 1) portion size can overwhelm children — we give them small portions (especially of new foods); 2) put something familiar on their plate — we serve them at least one thing we know they will like on their plate (actually, usually two, because — in addition to an “easy hit” side like rice, buttered noodles, edamame, etc, we always give them a serving of fruit at dinner, which they invariably eat, and usually before anything else); 3) do not dictate how much they eat. We do not force our children to clear or even eat anything at all on their plates, BUT! We do permit them something sweet after dinner if they’ve tried everything on their plates and “feel full.” (If you have young children, you probably intuit that the laxity and flabbiness of that last condition is problematic.)
The conversation usually runs like this:
My son: “I don’t WANT THAT.”
Me: “OK, that’s up to you.”
My son: “But can I have dessert?”
Me: “If you’re not hungry enough for dinner, you’re not hungry enough for dessert.”
My son: “But I’m not hungry for that.” [Enter infinity loop.]
My daughter, with the negotiation skills of seasoned litigator, will routinely press us on “how many bites” she needs to have in order to qualify for dessert. We tear out our hair telling her “until you’re full.” This usually becomes a competition as to how few bites she can get away with, at least with proteins and new vegetables (she is pretty good elsewhere), and sometimes I find myself telling her “eat your age in bites,” which is what my mother always told me. I don’t know any way around this! We are a dessert family; I am a baker and we love a post-dinner sweet treat. I really do not want to be a “do as I say, not as I do” type person either, hiding my own desserts, or eating desserts myself but not permitting her to enjoy them. Life is all about balance! Having struggled with an unhealthy relationship with food as a teen, I don’t want my children to think any food is “bad” or “indulgent” or what have you, so this is meaningful point for me.
All this to say —
I do not know how to get my children to eat full dinners.
I polled my Magpie readers and, if you’re hoping for a silver bullet like I was — there is none. The two heartening things I heard across the lot of replies had little to do with the actual mechanics of getting your kids to eat and more to do with muscling through their picky years:
“It gets better.”
“Don’t focus on what they eat in a given day. It’s more about what they eat over the course of several days. Some days it seems like they barely eat; other days, they eat a lot. It all balances out.”
That last one came like a hug. I do feel that my son will have a few good meals and then some sparse ones; he will eat when he is hungry.
Most of the others were either things we’ve tried with moderate to minimal success (usually owing to their implicit temporariness) or things we won’t try because they don’t fit our lifestyle/values system, but I will share them here in case they spark something for you:
“Don’t do an afternoon snack! And then just eat earlier.”
“Have them help. My kids will try almost anything if they’ve “made” it.”
“Feed them early. I would rather give dinner at 4:30 and a snack before bed.”
“Chick-Fil-A BBQ sauce. My son will dip anything into it!”
“Serve the meal in make-your-own format like tacos. Or throw in fun surprises like pancakes.”
“Provide the food but don’t dictate how much they eat. It gets better.”
“We use a spaceship plate and tell him he can fly it in the air when the food is gone.”
[Paraphrasing]: “Offer alternative seating arrangements to sitting at the formal dining table. Sometimes my children eat best sitting on the floor.”
I received so many notes from Magpies saying: “I’m right there with you,” so if you’re also on the struggle bus with this matter, know that it’s a packed one, and I’m sitting in the front seat.
Today, just repeating this to myself: It gets better. It gets better. It gets better.
+In case you’re “in it” as a parent today.
+The early days of motherhood almost assuredly demand a withdrawal from your former life.
+Some of our favorite mealtime gear for little kids. Not that any of this “helps” over the long haul. I find cute things like fruit picks temporarily pique their interest but then it’s back to the same. Still, might as well like the aesthetics of the dinnerware you have in your drawers!
+Extremely tempted by this cardigan…only three left in my size…
+This bikini for a little lady LOOKS like Hunza G, but is under $20. She can “twin” with me in my actual Hunza G…!
+Love the lampshade options on this gorgeous table lamp.
+OMG how fun is this backyard sprinkler?! I’m seriously contemplating it.
+Love this under-$70 colorblocked sundress.
+Love these hot pink jeans.
+Just did a big shop at J. Crew for the kids and bought nearly everything at the bottom of this post.
+Everyone’s favorite swimsuit in a fun cerulean blue color.
+Chic everyday caftan dress for under $40. This is the kind of thing I live in all summer long.
+Chic scalloped wicker frames.
+These decorative matchboxes would be a could gift to bundle with a candle.
+This silk maxi dress is spectacular. Can’t decide if I prefer in the pink or orange!
+I’ve been seeing these gorgeous paper plant sculptures in the homes of very chic ladies — love!
+Planning to treat myself to this box set of collected Mary Oliver poems.
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31 thoughts on “How Do You Get Your Children to Eat?”
It may be an older book but Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter really shaped how I fed my kids when they were little.
Yes! So many people have been referencing her philosophies in these conversations we’ve been having!
Thank you for sharing this! It sounds like you are being so thoughtful about how to create a positive mealtime experience for your children. I’ve found feeding my children to be one of the most emotional parts of parenting so far – it’s so challenging and anxiety-provoking. I’ll share what’s worked for us (2 toddler boys) in case it’s helpful…we’ve really tried to separate the amount of dinner they eat from whether they get dessert. We decide in advance whether we’ll offer dessert that night and give it to them regardless of how much dinner they eat. I found that cajoling them to eat and policing number of bites was ruining my enjoyment of the meal and I think even causing them to eat less and feel frustrated. It’s felt so much better (although weird at times) to put the food in front of them and give them total control about how much they eat. I think it helps them figure out for themselves how much they need to eat to be full. It also takes dessert off the pedestal a bit and reduces focus on it so sweets don’t become a reward. I’ve taken a lot of guidance from resources such as Feeling Littles and Kids Eat in Color, and the Intuitive Eating approach. It can feel so strange to provide dessert when a child has eaten literally no dinner, but I take comfort in the fact that research has shown that less parental involvement leads to more adventurous eaters and less pickiness in the long-term. Ultimately, we try to make dinner as pleasant an experience as possible and focus on talking and sharing about our days, as it sounds like you do too. Good luck with all of this!
Thanks for the note and food for thought! There have been a couple of suggestions along these lines re: dessert, either incorporating them into the dinner or serving them earlier in the day so that they don’t earn “reward” status. Thank you!
My pickiest eater, who went to bed hungry many a night even though I always had at least one thing on the table that he liked, is now my best eater. He grew up, he kept trying things, and then he dated a girl in high school who was from another culture and he tried things in front of her parents to be polite. 🙂
My best eater, who once put down a cookie to eat a carrot instead, loves (and I mean loves) junk food but also goes heavy on protein and is learning to cook. It’s fun to see his creativity!
Keep offering options, have firm boundaries on the things that are most important to you, and trust that they will grow up and reflect all that your have taught them but will add their own individual twist to food, life, everything. But hugs to you for those difficult dinner times.
Thank you so much for the encouragement!! Very inspiring/motivating…
Solidarity! We made (in my opinion) delicious homemade chicken fingers and we planned this meal for the kids and did the kids eat them? No. And will I ever forget when my husband made delicious homemade Mac and cheese for thanksgiving and my three year old screamed “no!!!! I want THE BUNNIES” [ie Annie’s] when it was served. I think you’re right though, dinner is about more than just food. And your approach seems thoughtful and I appreciate you sharing! Xo.
Thank you for the note and solidarity! “Dinner is about more than just food” — yes! This is definitely my takeaway from reflecting on this post and sifting through the comments.
Hahaha—my five year old is a kindred bite litigator. Indignance and anger fed the beast, but telling him his thoughts on what was palatable were not of general interest has helped. No one wants to be boring, five year olds included!
One sure fire way for mine to eat vegetables is to make a pre dinner crudité platter. Does it mean they will skip any dinner vegetables? Almost definitely— but they would anyhow. The “crudités” are usually scraps of whatever we are making, so it’s no lift to scoot them over to a separate cutting board.
I love this! So interesting the way this intersects with an earlier comment about how much “more fun and interesting” things labeled as “snacks” are vs. sit-down dinner for little kids. Might borrow this idea myself! Thank you!
Solidarity! My middle child (5.5) has always been our pickiest (as in, we did feeding therapy from 7-13 months), and the biggest thing that has helped is letting her assist with the cooking process — this is how, for example, we discovered she likes raw mushrooms and goat cheese. A lot of times she will try the veggie ingredients of our dinner if it seems “off-limits” by sneaking bites while we cook. In other words, this tip is especially for the non-rule-followers of the bunch.
(Relatedly, she has always enjoyed more “adult” flavors — her all-time favorite entree is spinach, bacon, and goat cheese quiche, and she will eat anything with buffalo/hot sauce. Do I think buffalo ranch is weird on salmon cakes? Absolutely, But she hoovers them with a side of it!)
For my oldest (now 8.5), when he was a toddler/preschooler, asking him ridiculous questions about what eating the food would do to his physical appearance nearly always did the trick; “Do you think eating this broccoli will turn you green like the Hulk?”
Super interesting – need to figure out how to better incorporate our kids into the meal prep process! Thank you for the idea!
No pearls of wisdom from me, but like Laura I have a former picky eater who is now a college student who loves to suck down oysters (I don’t care to repeat what he first said upon seeing an oyster as a young child!), rare steak (he just ordered it “blue” this past weekend), sushi, sauces of all sorts, and so on. I would have never guessed what an adventureous and eager eater he would become. I think if I have any regrets, it would be time spent in battle of wills, whether about food or other matters – it usually wasn’t ever worth a battle! PS – I love reading about what a dedicated chef Mr Magpie is, and baker you are. At about what ages did you embrace those passions?
This is so deeply encouraging. Thank you!
Your words in re: “is it worth the battle?” are really resonating with me today. I worry I say ‘no’ too much, and it always feels like a delicate balance between instilling the right things and being an absolute killjoy. Going to err on the looser end today.
Oh and P.S. – I took an interest in baking in high school, and Mr. Magpie started getting interested in cooking in college, but it took on “life passion” status in maybe his late 20s.
It’s tough, but hang in there! We used to call my daughter the white food princess. But like you, persevered and now she’s a college student with an adventurous palate. We served one meal and sat down together every weeknight. Sometimes I’d deconstruct it on their plates and I tried hard to not engage in the how many bites conversation. On weekends, we fed them “kid friendly food” earlier. Then made ourselves a fancier adult dinner later. It’s all about balance. Those nights around the dinner table really bonded us as a family so don’t give up!
Thank you, Laura – I really appreciate you tenured Magpie moms weighing in and encouraging me. It is worth it! I also deeply took to your comment: “It’s all about balance.” Yes! Recently, Mr. Magpie and I made a random gametime decision to feed the kids earlier and eat separately later (despite our resolution) because the kids were off the walls with excitement and we just saw the writing on the wall. I’m so glad we gave ourselves that little bit of extra space when we needed it!
Right there in the trenches with you, Jen, and other Magpies in the same situation! My daughter, up until she was maybe 2 (now 5.5 yrs old), would eat things like mushrooms and artichokes. Now she would eat buttered pasta (or any buttered carb, really) all day every day if I let her. I also hesitate to make multiple versions of a meal, or multiple meals all the time — that’s just too much work! But sometimes it’s the only way. My husband and I generally like stronger-flavored, spicy things, and sometimes there’s just no way to simplify it. When I can do a deconstructed version, I do, so she can see things separately on her plate and then pick and choose. Like you, I also don’t make her finish what’s on her plate and respect when she says she’s full.
I also do subscribe by the philosophy of looking at her overall intake over the course of the week than per meal, and remember that she did eat quite a bit of cherry tomatoes or cucumbers or frozen green beans (as in, straight from the freezer — insert shrugging emoji here). I’ve come to accept that she’s at a raw vegetable phase right now and is not so inclined to have cooked vegetables. Echoing what others have said, involving her in meal prep gets her to at least “interact” with the food in some way, even if not through taste, through her other senses, so it’s not so foreign. You’ve probably heard a lot of pediatricians/dietitians say how it can take 10-20 exposures to a new food for a kid to try it. If she at least smells/touches it then it counts as an exposure to reduce the strangeness of the food. However, I don’t always involve her either, as I sometimes prefer to cook on my own to unwind.
As Claire wrote below, Ellyn Satter’s philosophy on the “division of responsibility” makes sense to me and I’ve tried to practice this since she started solids. It did help take a lot of the stress away.
Another thing that I try to do, though I admit not consistently — is to provide a more substantial snack, almost like a mini-meal. We went through a phase when I noticed she was really hungry around 5 (our dinner was usually 6:30-7), so I would give her things like pita with hummus and carrot sticks, or bread and tomatoes and fresh mozzarella balls, and she would devour it, then not have much for dinner, though we would ask that she sit with us. Her rhythms have changed a bit, but I apply the same strategy — during those times she seems really hungry, that’s when I would offer a substantial snack/mini-meal, otherwise she’d fill up on cheez-its. There’s something about the word “snack” (vs “meal”) that implies more fun too, and that alone seems to impact the atmosphere in which she eats. So when I offer the substantial mini-meal outside of mealtime, I still call it a “snack”, haha.
The other thing that seems to help her a lot, is when we share a meal with another family who has a slightly older kid with a more “developed” palate. Once we met some friends at a Mexican place and my daughter gobbled up tacos. As in, non-deconstructed tacos! With multiple things in it! All because she saw her friend do it. Of course, this doesn’t help on a day-to-day level, but it at least gets her exposure to something new. So when we get together with friends I try to strategically have her sit next to the older kid 😉
But this: “sometimes I feel that dinnertime together is less about what they actually eat and more about the rhetorical emphasis on community, on manners, on conversation, on prayer. So, net-net, not a full failure.” 100%!!! I love this. This makes up one of my fondest memories growing up, and it’s not so much about what I ate, but how much we laughed, listened to stories from my grandparents, etc.
When I’m trying to weigh one thing against another, one of my litmus tests is, which one aligns with my values better? Of course, we do value giving our kids nutritious, varied, balanced meals. If they have other opportunities for that, then maybe there is a bit more leeway with dinner, because the routine aligns more with what you value for that part of the day?
Ultimately… no real answers as much as solidarity. Also reminding myself that “it gets better”!
Thank you! Really appreciate the solidarity. I plucked a couple of great, new-to-me points from your comments — so thanks for taking the time to share them. I was specifically dialed in on your comment about 10-20 exposures to a new food — going to tuck that one away. Sometimes we are introducing really different things to the kids because, even if it’s “white fish,” it’s with a sauce layered with lots of flavors. Or it’s in a different format. Or what have you. Going to keep that rule of thumb in mind.
I also LOVED your perspective on “which one aligns with my values better?” This is such a helpful framing. Sometimes you just can’t have it all ways. If we choose to prioritize exposing our kids to new cuisine and not dumbing things down / making multiple meals, then we’re going to have to put up with more pickiness. Thank you for that.
Wow, comments have exploded in response to this post — it goes to show how much this topic is on our minds!
Re: food presented in a different format — 100%!! To them, even if it’s the same ingredient, if it’s in a different format or layered with other components then it’s a whole new thing. Along similar lines, I read somewhere that this is why toddlers gravitate toward mass-produced snacks. In a bowl of raspberries, one berry might be mushy, one might be sweet, one might be tart, etc. In contrast, one goldfish cracker is exactly the same (i.e., predictable) as the next one, and the next one, and the next one to infinity. I read that there’s an evolutionary perspective to this that goes back to the hunger-gatherer era. So interesting!
The other thing I realized that helped us is — I stumbled upon this quite accidentally, as we had just moved and had not unpacked all of *her* dishware. Everyone was “hangry” so I ended up giving my daughter the same dishes and utensils as we were using and told her that “this is what big kids use”. I was bracing myself for a meltdown as it was yet one more thing different after moving, but to my surprise it clicked! I haven’t looked back, for the most part — I still saved our kid-friendly dishware for eating in the yard or when we have other kids over, but for daily meals I use what the “grown-ups” use. Granted they are either simple West Elm or plain white Corelle (I feel so much nostalgia for Corelle as we used this growing up, before my mother decided we were ready for actual china), so they are not too precious. She tends to revert back to predictable flavors, but I have noticed that she’s been more willing to try new things. While it may coincide with simply getting older and maturing a little bit day by day, she seems to have taken this “big kid” comment to heart!
Such interesting insights — truly, these comments are a gold mine and have made me re-think some basics. I love the idea that your daughter just “went with” the impromptu dishware change and that it suprisingly helped things. We’re reeling from a sudden seaswell along these lines this week with my son. For weeks, he has eaten around the protein on his plate (unless it’s a chicken nugget or meatball), and on the second night of serving up the same grilled chicken, he randomly ate a bite of his own volition, and then loudly shouted, “YUM! I LOVE CHICKEN!” And proceeded to eat the rest on his plate and then beg for it for dinner the next few nights. We were — we are — flabbergasted. Like, totally and thoroughly shocked. Where did this come from?! We’ve been wringing our hands for weeks and out of the blue, on a leftover night, he’s all in on chicken?
Just goes to show it’s all a phase…
P.S. Writing this out assures that he will tonight insist he hates chicken. Ha.
Family dinners are so important for the reasons you listed, so I will offer up another “hang in there” comment! The struggle is real.
FWIW For as long as I can remember, we’ve separated dessert from dinner. I don’t love the sugar before bed, which was the initial impetus for change, but I also didn’t love suggesting that dessert is a reward for eating a particular amount. I think I made this switch after a post from Kids Eat in Color on Insta. Dessert is now often what my children look forward to sharing together when everyone reconvenes after school (oldest is picked up at 3) during snack and homework time. Just some food for thought 🙂
This is so interesting! I hadn’t thought of this, or the permutation from another Magpie below — to offer dessert alongside dinner versus as the “reward.” Going to have to think through that! Thank you!
I have 2 toddlers and follow Ellyn Satter’s guideline– parents decide what’s on the menu and when mealtimes are, and kids decide whether they eat it and how much. My kids don’t eat a wide variety but it’s eliminated power struggles and for that I’m thankful.
Such a good mantra to keep in mind!! Thank you!
I’m not a parent but my brother was THE most picky eater when we were kids. It was a shame because my mother is a wonderful cook and had a beautiful dinner on the table 7 nights a week – we rarely ate out. With the principles of at least trying new foods and sitting at the table for the entirety of the meal in mind, my brother and I both turned out fine and are now quite adventurous eaters. But this might offer some solace: my mother noticed that my brother became much less of a picky eater after he was a bit older and began eating snacks/meals at friends’ homes or birthday parties or other social events. I definitely tried new things at friends’ houses that I would’ve never tried at home as a child that I ended up liking! Pickles are one food that comes to mind for me, haha.
Our hypothesis: children feel too uncomfortable to tantrum/throw out food/spit food out in front of new friends and their families, so they try new foods outside of their family home, where things are familiar and they know they are loved and accepted even if they refuse to eat. At other people’s homes, they are “forced” to try new things to fit in or at least not make a scene, and after a while, this expands their palate naturally and without extreme negotiating on your end.
All that to say: hang in there! It’ll improve.
Yes, yes – this totally tracks with my own observations of my children, both related to eating with company and other matters. They hold it all in / follow the rules / try to appease people when they’re not with us, and when they’re home, they let it allll hang out. Need to remember that’s a kind of underhanded compliment / gift 🙂
I am not a parent, but I have witnessed many of these battles and certainly participated in some as a child! I will share one nugget that one of my relatives recently shared about her own dinner-averse 6 year old. Basically she said that she stopped stressing about her eating much at dinner because she realized her child prefers to frontload her daily calories. She eats large breakfasts and lunches and just doesn’t have much of an appetite at dinner, and that is ok. Every human has their own preferred eating rhythm that feels right to them. I know people who do the opposite- hardly eat all day but then tuck into a giant evening meal. Like you said, what’s most important is that you’re together at the table sharing a ritual. Maybe the volume of food consumed can take a back seat to that?
This is spot on, too. Thanks for the reminder. Mr. Magpie and I often observe our kids eat substantial breakfasts and lunches and then peter out by dinner. Such a good point to keep it all in perspective. Maybe it means we need to vary breakfast/lunch a bit more since they seem to be hungrier/more willing to try things.
Toddler dining can be torturous, but I’m with you on the myriad gains of sitting at the table — the conversation, social learning, routine, etc. I even love how invested my daughter is in table linens now — she always notices when I change things, and has developed strong opinions of her own, ha!
You’ve listed just about every tip I’ve seen out there except one, so I’ll share it — serve dessert WITH dinner! Put the bit of sweet on their plate, if dessert is important to you. Apparently it decreases the reward/special factor of dessert and thus takes away negotiation, which can get them to focus on the whole meal at hand rather than what comes after. We don’t do dessert yet, really, so I haven’t tried this, but the logic makes sense to me!
This one blew my mind – thanks for the idea on dessert with dinner (and another Magpie suggested dessert earlier in the day). Going to turn this one over.
Thank you also for the solidarity!