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How We Deal With Picky Eaters

Do you have a child who is a picky eater at home? This is my best advice on how to deal with picky eaters!

{Psst! Don’t miss this great list of 25+ frugal & healthy snack ideas for kids!}

How to Deal With Picky Eaters

When I talk about cutting your grocery bill, I will often hear from people who ask, “What do you do about picky eaters?

As you probably have gathered from our sometimes non-conventional menu plans, we don’t base our menu plans upon picky eating palates. Instead, we based them upon what’s on sale at the store and what we have on hand.

Our kids have learned from a young age that I don’t cater to their whims and wishes when it comes to food. We stick with a budget and we shop the sales and markdowns.

Much of the time, that means I find at least a few great deals each week on some of their favorite foods (and I try to stock up as much as I can when I do!). However, sticking with a budget means that I’ve at least somewhat regularly served things for meals that the kids didn’t think they would like.

kids at a restaurant

How to Deal with Picky Eaters

When it comes to encouraging our kids to eat foods they either don’t really like (or just haven’t tried and think they won’t like), here’s how we approach it at our house:

1. You have to eat three bites.

I know it might almost sound a little juvenile, but for some reason, limiting it to three bites seems to be very doable for our picky eaters. They rarely complain because they know that three bites is all that is required.

Note: The adults need to set the example here. If Mom and Dad are picky, there’s a good chance that it’s going to trickle down to some of your kids, too. Set a good example of gratefully eating food set in front of you and not complaining about food… your kids are watching and picking up on your example more than you know!

2. If you complain, you have to eat three more bites.

It is such a gift to have food to eat and I never want my kids to forget that. Even if you don’t like something, you don’t have to complain about it.

So we’ve instituted the rule that if you complain about something, you have to eat three more bites. This cuts down significantly on any complaining from picky eaters! 🙂

picky eaters cooking own food

3. Once you’ve eaten three bites, you can make something else for your dinner.

This last rule has been the most helpful when dealing with picky eaters!

We’ve found that oftentimes, the kids will think they won’t like something at all, but then they’ll change their mind once they’ve eaten three bites and they’ll end up eating a full serving. If they still decide that they don’t like something after three bites, they can eat something else. This is usually either the sides we made for dinner or a separate meal they prepare themselves.

The kids know that they can fix themselves yogurt, oatmeal, cereal, scrambled or fried eggs, oatmeal, or mac & cheese to go along with dinner at any time — so long as they’ve eaten their required three bites.

That’s right, I let them fix it themselves (and they are expected to clean up after themselves, too). This keeps it simple for me, but it still makes sure that they are eating enough at dinner time.

man prepping healthy food for picky eaters

As our kids have gotten older, they’ve become more accustomed to different foods because of this simple system. In fact, these days, it’s rare that they fix something extra for dinner. The three bites rule really helped them to slowly expand their palate over the years!

They’ve now become quite adventuresome in their eating and will often choose to eat something that they don’t think they’ll like just because they want to try it! I can’t guarantee that what has worked at our house will work at yours. But hey, if you’re struggling with how to deal with picky eaters, let me know if you give it a try!

An Important Note: I know that some kids genuinely have severe sensory issues when it comes to certain textures of foods or certain other issues that are very legitimate reasons for them having a “picky palate”. I’m not saying you need to or should force a child to eat three bites of something — especially in this case. You know your child and their unique needs and I think each parent should decide what would be best for each child.


Do you have any other tips on how to deal with picky eaters at your house? I’d love to hear! Tell us in the comments!

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  • Marsha says:

    What worked for my 3 children… as soon as they were able to eat regular food I would have them eat whatever I made for dinner. They grew up eating a wide range of items including all ethnic cuisine. Also, include them in the preparation. A 3 yr old can learn to peel an easy vegetable like carrots and then they will eat it!!

  • Kandra says:

    We have a one bite rule and when they were little if they didn’t want what we were having then they were out of luck. Luckily they learned to cook fairly young and once they took their “no thank you” bite then they could make something of their own. I am fairly picky but when they were first learning to eat I would say “Mommy is too full! You eat that olive” just so they wouldn’t pick up on the idea of being picky. Their tastes have definitely changed over the years (they are teens now) and they will still take a bite of something they didn’t like before to see if things have changed.

  • Jill says:

    Thank you for your suggestions, I find it helpful to find out what other parents are doing. I love how you take into consideration other families situations. I have a son with autism and helping him eat healthy was a long process but it was certainly worth the effort.

    • If you have any great ideas or tips on what you did with your son, I know many parents here would find this helpful!

      • Michele says:

        We also have a son with autism who had pretty severe sensory issues- in spite of being exposed to many foods early, by kindergarten he only tolerated chicken, white bread, and applesauce. We took one entire summer to work on this. Several times a day I would give him a small spoonful of pudding or applesauce with finely crushed graham cracker mixed in. We did that for a week or so, them used larger crumbs for a week. After that we put the mixture on those bumpy coated baby spoons, then the similar baby spoons with ridges. I just slowly increased the amount of texture by adding bits of apple to the applesauce, etc. This was pretty tedious, but we made a game of it and did something fun for him afterward. We began to require that he eat a bite or two of each food- I would mash them (vegetables, particularly) to a smoother consistency, but did less of this over time until he could manage on his own. He is now 21, cooks healthy food for himself, and tolerates virtually everything (he does have the odd item that he’s not fond of). I fully recognize that this will not work for every child with sensory issues, but we did have a lot of success with this method and thought it might help another family who is dealing with this issue.

  • Deb says:

    I can tell you what doesn’t work! We had a daughter who did not like soup at all, even when it was cold outside and cozy inside. So I said, you have to eat it or just go to bed. We only gave her about a quarter of a cup. She sat down, peered in her bowl and said, “GOODNIGHT!” 😉

  • Cheryl says:

    Thank you for addressing special circumstances in families!!! When there is picky eating and it gets to a point of your kid not growing or not gaining weight or just not eating enough as they should, parents should speak with their pediatrician. There are several eating disorders most people don’t know about one being called-ARFID (Avoidance Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) We are blessed to live in a city where Children’s Mercy can help kids with all types of eating and feeding issues if that may be the case. Just wanted to share for reaching others when sometimes you never knew other types of eating disorders existed.

  • phyllis Jost says:

    I am now 79 and I grew up in a family that had enough but not much more. My mom carefully prepared meals that were enough. Pork chops? 1 per person. The basic rule was that we ate what was served or do without. There were seldom leftovers, but if there were, they were available for something we didn’t like, but she never cooked something special for a person unless they were sick. It worked for me, and I was definitely a picky eater. Today I will at least try anything, even snails!

  • Holly says:

    I wanted to thank you for adding the disclaimer about sensory issues. My middle daughter had such severe issues that had she lost even 1 more ounce as a baby we would’ve had to do a feeding tube. Her vomiting issues due to texture began at 4 months old. We have literally had to work up to a place where she finally allowed us to have certain foods on OUR plates, much less on hers because she was so terrified of food. However, I will proudly say that she is 11 now and will sometimes try new foods, but we have worked tirelessly with her and spent thousands and thousands of dollars on therapy for her. One thing that has worked for us is to make accommodations without making a completely new meal. For instance, she loves any and all chicken, so we will pull hers off to the side prior to adding any sauce or toppings, etc. As far as my other 2 daughters go, they will try anything so we’ve never had any issues. You’ve offered some very good advice!

  • JoDi says:

    I used the 3 bite rule too. I figure it takes 3 bites to really know if you like something or not! I wish I had thought of the 3 extra bites for complaining rule! LOL

  • Jamie says:

    Growing up my dad was in the Navy and kind of strict, so at our house the rule was you eat a tablespoon of anything you don’t like and you stayed at the table until you finished it. Some things I had to eat this way I eventually ended up liking but I still don’t like beets or mushrooms. Lucky for me I’m the cook so these are not served at my table

  • Christine says:

    I tried various methods and finally got fed up. Most of the time my kids would take one bite and wouldn’t eat any more. So instead of giving them a full dinner I started putting one bite on their plates even it if was something they liked. In order to have more they had to finish the single bites on their plate. If they didn’t then all they were allowed to have was water until the next day. I was permitting alternative food, juice and milk but they would fill up on that and not try the new foods so I had to get tough. There may have been 3 dinners in a year where water was chosen. It wasn’t long before they began eating age-appropriate portions.

  • Jennifer says:

    My parents had a rule that we could each pick 1 food that we never had to eat growing up. I did the same for my kids until they started switching their food choice frequently.

    I too have a child on the spectrum with tons of sensory issues. Food has always been a challenge. I have to already accommodate for my dairy allergy child so if my sensory child prefers what the dairy free child is having that is an easy accommodation.

    Also, we try to let him figure out a way to eat his dinner his way. If he wants to separate things, pick it apart, de-skin it, whatever. Allowing him to figure out his own way to get what I served for dinner down has helped him become way more open to eating things that previously would have never gone down.

    Lastly, on days when he just can’t bear to eat what I am making then I tell him to make eggs or pb&j. Not a battle worth fighting some days.

    Growing up has really helped him overcome a lot of his food issues – time really does help. He is 17 now and an Eagle scout. All through scouting on campouts where they cooked their own dinner, ate at 8 pm after a long, long day, in front of all his peers – you better believe he just ate what they gave him. Every campout he came home with something new he liked it seemed.

    • Jordan says:

      Thank you so much for sharing such an intimate look into your family and how you have handled various situations! -Jordan, MSM Team

  • Emily says:

    I think it’s because we were simply naive instead of on purpose, but my husband and I have never prepared separate meals for our kids. No sensory issues or other issues, so I realize this won’t work for everyone. They can choose their own portions, and we’ve never used food as a reward. Our oldest HATES mashed potatoes, but she’ll load up on zucchini or asparagus instead. She also likes potatoes in every other form, so I’ll try to bake them or roast them instead of purposefully serving something she hates. Having our kids help cook from a young age has also helped, in my opinion. We let them experiment with spices, which has encouraged them to eat a wider variety of foods that have just been seasoned differently.

  • Anne M says:

    My son _absolutely_ detests bread. It can be tricky for my husband and I to fit it into our diet plans (we both have Type II Diabetes), so our family has more-or-less agreed to not have bread in the house, as opposed to crackers. He also doesn’t like most raw vegetables, but will happily eat them cooked, especially in a soup!

    • Jordan says:

      Preparing foods in particular ways like putting veggies in soup are a great way to get a picky eater to enjoy them! I personally like cooked vegetables more than raw veggies. May I suggest roasting veggies in the oven or on the grill with some salt pepper and maybe a few other spices? It really makes them delicious! -Jordan, MSM Team

  • Guest says:

    We introduced both of our kids to a wide variety of foods from the time they could have solid food. Husband and I both love a lot of ethnic foods so there’s always been diversity in our meals. First child is a laid back and varied eater. Second child is picky and does NOT like to try new things. Now 10 and I wonder if there are some sensory issues or other things at hand because some of the things are just bizarre that he doesn’t like – what kid doesn’t like mashed potatoes?!? Nonetheless, I love what you have outlined hear and will try it. I always assumed if you introduced your kids to a wide variety of foods from early on, they’d learn to eat them and move on. I’ve now learned that is not always the case.

  • Airy’s Mom says:

    Be very careful with trying to force kids to eat something they truly don’t like. This led me down a path of anorexia and bulimia. I’d rather starve than eat something I didn’t like and when forced to eat then sneak and purge all the food. My family never knew. I still struggle with eating to please other then purging. It has affected my 9yr old I just tell her to try one bite my husband demands that she eats whatever is put before her. She is under weight and my husband is always trying to fatten her up and demand that she eat 2 plates of food. More often than not I intervene.

    • Jordan says:

      Thank you so much for being so vulnerable and sharing about such serious topics. Mental health and a healthy relationship with food are extremely important factors to be aware of for every parent! -Jordan, MSM Team

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