Getting Kids to Eat Their Dinner Is Hard, But Not Impossible

2 ¾ min

Mealtimes with kids can be one of the most frustrating parts of a parent’s day. It’s upsetting to cook up a healthy, delicious meal only to have your children reject it.

I have three small children. The older two would happily survive on chocolate milk if I let them, so I know first-hand how frustrating mealtimes can be.

Yet as difficult as it is, parents need to persevere. Teaching kids to eat balanced, nutritious meals is an important part of a good upbringing. “Eating habits are learned behaviors; they’re not intuitive, so what your children learn to eat at home early in life sticks with them well into adulthood,” write Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes in their book Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.

About a year ago, I realized we had fallen into some unhealthy eating patterns, so I rededicated myself to ensuring my kids ate well. Since then, we have made enormous progress as a family following these three pieces of advice:

1. Cut Out Snacks

If a child has filled up on snacks, they will refuse their dinner. This tip sounds obvious, but it is harder to implement than it seems. Parents need to carefully monitor what their kids eat outside of mealtimes. It is all too easy to absent-mindedly hand your kid a snack in response to a request. Moreover, both parents and babysitters need to be on board with this policy.

2. Serve Tiny Portions

Getting your kids to eat their food is a marathon not a sprint. Parents need to establish the principle that a child must eat whatever is served to them. Start by dishing up a tiny portion that you think your child can handle. If they are still hungry, they can always get seconds. Additionally, never let your kids serve themselves. If your children are like mine, they tend to dish up more than they can eat.

3. Offer Uneaten Food Later

This is a bit harsh. However, if you follow steps one and two and your child still won’t eat their food, you can put their plate in the refrigerator. If they ask for a snack later, you should bring out the plate. I have only had to do this a few times, and it is quite effective.

But while these three pieces of advice worked for my family, a couple of other common tips did not work. These include:

1. Let Kids Help With Food Prep

My older children love putting on their little aprons and helping me in the kitchen. But that never translated into more enthusiasm for actually eating the finished product. 

2. No Short Order Cooking

I never make my kids separate food. They are always served exactly the same thing as the adults. Unfortunately, my refusal to be a short-order cook still didn’t make a difference in the struggle to get my children to eat the healthy food set before them. 

There are, perhaps, a few children who are born loving to eat all kinds of healthy food. For most parents, however, this part of the upbringing is going to take some work. These three strategies were successful in my family – perhaps they will help you in the eternal food struggle as well!


Image Credit: 


Emma Freire

Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a writer living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She has also been published in The Federalist and The American Conservative.

Add a Comment


Join the conversation...

You are currently using the BETA version of our article comments feature. You may notice some bugs in submission and user experience. Significant improvements are coming soon!


Rowana F
This is a good article. I would only add a few thoughts. 1) If your child strongly rejects a food, ask them (once) why they don't like it. If they just say something vague, take that as just stubbornness and remember you're the boss. If they say it hurts their tummy or they can't chew it, that's something to investigate with their pediatrician and maybe an allergist. (I was born with several allergies -- and developed more in my late teens -- and when I was little my teeth could not chew tough meat.) Everyone else in my family could have and liked cheese, but I absolutely refused to eat it and eventually discovered that I'm severely allergic to it. 2) It won't harm a child to get rather hungry sometimes, so these suggestions about snacking and reheating uneaten mealtime food are good. It may be an unpleasant battle of wills for a while, but always remember who is in charge. When it comes to food, children do NOT know what's healthy, they have to learn.