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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

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?

Summer Snacks: How to Feed Kids Who Are Always Hungry

Wednesday 29th of June 2022

[…] change in approach came after I realized that I had successfully managed to eradicate the dinnertime battles, but that the fights over snacks continued. Before changing my approach, here’s what things […]

Steph

Saturday 4th of June 2022

4.75 year old now refuses to eat anything but yogurt, occasional granola, banana covered with chocolate sauce, McNuggets, or Culver’s cheese curds for his “meals.” Says he now hates chili, PB&J , noodles, rice and bacon, which he loved before. No longer likes nuts and yells if a stray one isn’t picked out of his granola for him. He will say he’s full after a few bites, but promptly ask for dessert. The only things he will feed himself are his snacks, McNuggets, cheese curds and desserts. Everything else he will insist that you “help” him which is basically feeding it too him amidst multiple protests. If he does enough to earn dessert, he’ll eat it by himself with no problem. He’s loves fruit snacks and chocolate and will still eat protein bars as a snack. He refuses anything you put in front of him from an adult plate. No veggies, no potatoes, no rice, no meat except pepperoni on his pizza or chicken nuggets/ tenders. The thought of meal time is now just frustrating for him. Often completely shuts down when told it’s time for lunch or dinner.

Randi

Saturday 20th of August 2022

@Steph, this is my exact story my daughter won't eat any meal she is 4 never tried a egg , toast , meat , no veg only cheese yogurt and snacks she eats I'm going crazy nothing is working . Any advice ?? Thx you

Jessica Braider

Tuesday 7th of June 2022

Hi Steph, It sounds like you are really in the wars with your kiddo's eating right now. I'm so sorry - I've been there and know how stressful and frustrating it can be. From what you described, I think you are likely going to need to do a reset. He is old enough now that he should be able to feed himself, so I think taking away that version of attention will likely be helpful. I would highly recommend looking into the Division of Responsibility approach to feeding. It basically helps you to set things up so that there isn't conflict around food anymore by saying that you get to decide what is served and when but then he gets to decide what he eats of it. And if he doesn't want what's served, then he can wait til the next meal time. There are some posts on here that might be helpful to you like The Importance of Autonomy: Helping “Picky” Eaters to Try New Things and An Interview with My Formerly Picky Eater, but I'd also look into the book It's Not About the Broccoli or anything by Ellyn Satter. Once you feel ready to try this new approach, I would highly recommend sitting down with him (not at a meal time) and explaining that you've noticed that meal times have gotten really hard for you and for him and that you want to work together to make things better - that way you can partner with him as you make changes. I hope this helps! Hang in there, mama, it will get better!

Racheal

Monday 30th of May 2022

So I’ve learned my daughter and I give her an amount of something I know she can eat. If she wants more ok I’ll give you more but she needs to eat at least the majority of what I gave her. She knows THIS is dinner and this is it. If she doesn’t want to then like you said she won’t starve. I refuse to make another dinner for anyone in the house because that’s ridiculous to me. We will sit with her for most of the time but if she decides to drag it out we will let her sit there to eat it which in many cases has encouraged her to hurry it up. Also just like I’ve learned her they will learn you. If they learn they just need to throw a fit or whatever they learn they’ll get what they want. It’s called rewarding them for bad behavior so try to stay far away from that. They are seriously smart and learning you. People need to be smarter and use that backbone they’ve been blessed with.

How to Change the Dynamic at the Dinner Table

Tuesday 4th of January 2022

[…] What to do when your kid refuses dinner […]

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!