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My Kid Won’t Eat What I Cooked! What to Do When Your Kid Refuses Dinner

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Has this ever happened to you? You prepare a delicious, healthy meal and your kid takes one bite (or even just a look) and refuses to eat dinner. Sound familiar? It’s enough to stress out anyone! So I wanted to share ideas on what do when when your kid won’t eat what you cooked.

Picky Eater. Kid Refuses Dinner.

What to Do When Your Kid Won’t Eat What You Cooked

We’ve all been there. You’ve made an amazing (Scramble) recipe and are so happy that you managed to get a healthy, delicious dinner on the table. Then your kid takes one look or bite and refuses to eat the dinner you just made. Maybe they say, “ewww!” or “I don’t like this!” or maybe they just move the food around on their plate. Regardless of how it’s delivered, the message is loud and clear: I’m not eating that.

So what do you do? Hop up and make them a different meal? Send them to the kitchen to scrounge up something for themselves? Lose your cool and force them to eat more? Or, do you send them up to bed without any dinner?

I know a guy who’s mom forced him to sit at the dining room table to finish his food, even after everyone else had gone to bed. The only light left on in the house was the one over his head. To this day he won’t eat broccoli.

There is no doubt that these moments can be infuriating. They can also be concerning if your child really needs those healthy calories (a struggle we have had in our house). However, family dinners should be about more than just the food so you don’t want it to become a time of conflict.

So here are some tips for those moments when your kids won’t eat what you cooked.

Family Dinner Fun

Expect Kind Words

What we say in our house is that everyone has different tastes, likes, and dislikes, and that is fine, but how we express those tastes matters. Our kids know that they don’t have to like the food, but they do have to be polite.

I suggest that you introduce an expectation or rule that says “eww,” “yuck,” “gross,” or even “I don’t like it” are not allowed at the table. If your kids need to say something, then “it’s not my favorite” or “I’m not a huge fan” are more polite options.

There are two reasons why this is important. One is that those words hurt. If you’ve spent time cooking and then someone says, “yuck!” it stings and makes cooking dinner more of a chore than a joy. The other is that when your child knows that they are allowed to have their own likes and dislikes, the tensions at the table will often dissipate (check out the interview I did with my own formerly picky eater to hear in his own words what this experience was like for him).

Pan-Browned Salmon Cakes

Serve at Least One Food Each Person Will Eat

It can just be bread or apple slices, but having a “safe” food on the table will 1) give your kids something to turn to if the dish isn’t their favorite and 2) take some of the intensity off trying the new food because they know there is something they like to fall back on.

kids eating fruits and vegetables

Encourage an “Adventure Bite”

It is fine to expect everyone to at least try one bite of the food. In our house we call these “adventure bites.”

If they’ve taken their bite and really can’t find a way to make it work, my kids are allowed to load up on the “safe” food. My younger son recently only ate the black beans out of a casserole that he found to be too spicy.

If you’ve got a kid who is really reluctant to try new foods, here are some ways to make it easier for them (and you):

  • Provide a glass of water to wash it down.
  • Provide a paper towel so they can politely spit it out, if necessary.
  • If a bite is too much, start with a lick, a touch, or even just having it on the plate near their other food.
Family Style

Serve Food Family-Style

This isn’t always possible if the dish is super hot or hard to pass, but when doable, try to serve things family-style. This will allow the kids to have more control over how much they take and takes the pressure off you a little bit.

You may also be surprised to see those little hands reaching out for more once they’ve tried it (this is happening more and more in our house and makes me so happy!).

How to Make Daily Cooking Easy

You Are Not a Short-Order Cook

If you have gotten into the habit of making an alternative meal if the first one isn’t enjoyed, stop. This creates cooking burnout for you. It also sends the message that if they hold out, the kids will get whatever they want.

Dinner is dinner and if they don’t want to eat it, they can wait until breakfast. They won’t starve, I promise!

If this represents a huge change for you, then take baby steps. Pick a “back up” food with your kids that is something that requires no cooking, they can (ideally) get themselves, has some nutritional value, and isn’t a favorite. Examples include an apple or banana, some yogurt, some cheese, or toast.

Jessica with Family

Breathe

The rejection of the food you made can be very painful. Remind yourself that your kids not liking the food is not about you, it is about their developing palettes. So try your best to change the dynamic and let it go so it doesn’t become a battle.

Remember: you are doing your part—you are providing delicious, healthy meals—now they need to do theirs.

Want more ideas on how to handle dynamics at the dinner table? Check out my interview with my formerly picky eater and 5 reasons to try family-style dining.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you handle it when your kid won’t eat what you cooked? Does the approach above sound harsh or difficult to achieve, or is it what you are doing already?

J.B. Haskins

Thursday 26th of August 2021

Finally! One article that actually acknowledges that giving in to your kids and making them a separate meal or special snacks instead of what everyone else is having is a bad thing. All these other articles go DEEP into enabling poor decisions and spoiling children to the point that you now have "grown" young-adults who only eat chicken nuggets and french fries. People claim that not giving the child anything is "starving them" and it literally isn't. Breakfast and sometimes lunch are generally easy, but the big fights come at dinnertime. Working parents are too tired to have to shop for and make separate meals for one person who refuses to eat. Then up early to get kids ready for school and on to work themselves with barely any time in the day to relax and destress. All giving in does is let's your kids know that they can get their way no matter what. All they gotta do is wait out or complain enough and weaker parents give in. Next thing you know, the kids are on a lifelong path of unhealthy eating and likely life choices as well.

I'm dealing now with a child who doesn't speak to anyone besides me and her mother, and won't speak at all if more than one person is around. Mother calls it "selective mutism" but for YEARS on end, she kept telling my daughter "it's OK if you don't want to talk" and of course, she wouldn't end up talking at all. Almost 10 years old and her social skills are worse than some three and four year-olds and she speaks with a "baby-talk" kind of voice when she does talk. I said for years, STOP telling her it's OK to not talk! Didn't listen because "forcing her to talk will only make it worse" and now here we are with the psychologist is telling us we have to reverse those 8 years of her being told that by MAKING her talk especially when others are around! Sometimes the best advice is the hardest for people (mothers) to accept and you get into situations like not eating dinner or healthy options because it's an enabled, learned and trained behavior.

Jessica Braider

Friday 27th of August 2021

I'm so glad to hear that the post resonated with you. Issues like picky eating and selective mutism are so difficult to navigate, both as a parent and as a kid. I'm glad to hear that you've got the support of a psychologist to help you to support your daughter as she finds her voice. Here's hoping things turn around for your family soon!

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Charity

Tuesday 4th of May 2021

Jessica - I am so incredibly impressed by how you respond to these comments! You are so encouraging and provide practical and helpful suggestions. You're my new online role model and I want to be just like you when I grow up!

Jessica Braider

Wednesday 5th of May 2021

What an absolutely lovely thing to say. Thank you so much, Charity!

Robyn

Wednesday 21st of April 2021

I am raising my kids alone since their dad died. They r 10 now; twins. I have tried everything to stop feeling hurt that my kids don't eat. Sometimes they pooh pooh things they have eaten before. I am a servant and I feel so guilty we r alone in the world, I just try to accept that I will never have the family I looked forward to, believe in, and need. One hates sauce of any kind and only likes two or three things sometimes. The other knows bad food and won't eat anything that has mistakes literally. She may try a small taste of something new but I cannot tell u how many times my efforts leave me with a lot of wasted food or I can eat it all myself. Food and the dinner table means everything to me. It used to. Now it is sad, hurtful, frustrating, boring, and no fun at all.

Jessica Braider

Thursday 22nd of April 2021

First of all, Robyn, I am so sorry for the loss of your husband. It sounds like you are feeling very alone and my heart goes out to you. Food and the dinner table can definitely be a source of healing and connection, but when things aren't going as well, it can also feel like a very frustrating and lonely place. I totally hear you. It sounds like your kids have very strong feelings about food and also like you have a lot on your plate. Perhaps you could combine those two issues into one solution and invite the kids to start cooking with you. Here's what I'm thinking: maybe you sit down with the two of them and share that dinnertime and dinner prep has become a source of stress and sadness for you, when you really want it to be a source of connection and happiness, and ask for their help. Suggest that you start meal planning and cooking together so that 1) everyone is excited about the meals you are having (or at least more of them), 2) they get to start exploring a new skill, and 3) you get some help. You can start with super simple meals like grilled cheese sandwiches, breakfast for dinner, homemade pizzas (with store-bought crusts), etc. It can be fun time together and then you get to share what you made. Research shows that kids are more likely to try dishes they have had a hand in making, so this might help with the one who doesn't like sauces, etc. And the one who has strong feelings about how things should be cooked can feel more ownership. If this sounds like something that might be a good thing to try, I have a couple of posts that might help you to get started: How to Involve Kids in the Cooking, Getting Kids to Cook and Kits to Get Them Started. Another thought that can go hand-in-hand with this or separately would be to work to start thinking about cooking not so much as a way to feed others, but as a mindfulness practice (and therefore time for you). Here's an post on that: Cooking as a Mindfulness Practice. I sincerely hope this helps! I know it's hard, but I believe in you, and please know you aren't alone!

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