1. Thanks for this. I have 19 month old toddlers, one of whom is extremely picky, and I confess I’m guilty of #4 too often.

    I have a question about #6. I always make separate meals for my kids because I eat an extremely restricted diet. I have digestive issues (and let’s be honest, an unhealthy relationship with food), so my palate consists of fish, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, berries, and leafy greens. That’s pretty much all I eat and I will happily eat the same thing day after day.

    My question is, should I be serving the kids the same thing I’m eating, even when it’s so restrictive? Or is it better to serve them a variety of foods even if they don’t see me eating them myself?

    • It is tricky to navigate health constraints around food, I’ve actually had to do this myself. I would suggest still giving them a variety of foods even if you aren’t eating them and when ever you are able to fake it. Try to at least put a piece on your plate and move towards everyone eating the same thing as a first step. Good luck!

  2. Great list!! I read your blog regularly and we follow the rules you recommend above. I would also add:
    No toys or electronics etc. at the table.
    No getting up and down, standing up on the chair, throwing food/dishes on the floor (for preschoolers – not babies)

    Thanks again Alisha – you have been a huge help to my family!

    • Yes, yes, and yes!!!! I almost put those on the list. Mealtime should just be for eating, for everyone. It is really important that adults follow this too. When babies and toddlers are throwing food and plates, I use the mantra, “food stays on the table.” With kids that are a bit older they have to get down immediately and pick it up!

      Thanks so much for your kind comment and for following along here!

    • My 5 1/2 year old still stands on her chair at mealtimes, acts like an animal(literally) jumps around and gets up and down for no reason. She is always the last one done and always crying cause she can’t finish the small portion she is given and then 10 minutes after she is allowed to be done she comes in crying that she is starving and MUST have a snack or some form of junk food…

    • Anonymous, thoughts from a teacher, not a foodie; she may be trying to satisfy sensory needs. Maybe give her a bumps cushion to sit on, to a textured fork. You may find she is a kid that needs to stand in school. Seeking sensory stimulation actually helps some people focus better.

    • To the 51/2 year old starving 10 min after meal time. Keep her plate ready to go , so when she comes looking for a snack, she is only offered the same supper until it is finally gone. 😉 works for us.

      • Yeah just… don’t do that with cereal, okay? It’s one thing to say, “If you won’t drink the milk/eat it all, you can’t have any at all” and something else entirely to force your child to eat soggy cereal and stale milk four meals in a row until they choke it down and get sick and never eat cereal again. Learn from my parents’ fail! I’d much rather never eat cereal because I was just never fed it as a kid than gag at the smell of it.

    • Thanks Katie, I’m sure there are still challenges! I’m so glad this was a reminder and is exactly why I wrote this post, too many parents feel pressure to do what is “working” for other parents. Hang in there!

  3. This is a great article, I’m so glad I found your site. I do agree with not letting children graze but I do also think it’s important not to confuse that with letting them have snacks. Children (especially young ones) can’t go the long times in between meals that adults can (and they get so grumpy when they’re hungry). Letting them have healthy snacks is good. We have 2 snack times in our day, in the morning and the afternoon. But as you say, we still sit down and eat 3 meals together each day. I think people often equate ‘snack’ with sugary treat, but a snack can be anything. And healthy snacks such as fruit and vegetables can be counted in your ‘7 a day’.

    • Well, I guess you have to decide if you want to make it a rule that if he eats he gets dessert. If you aren’t making that a rule, which I recommend, than I would tell him dessert is a special treat and not something you have every night. If dessert is a ritual try serving fruit or something healthy as an alternative.

      • It sounds like splitting hairs, but there’s a difference between “if you eat, you can have dessert” where you’re rewarding with dessert, and “If you DON’T eat enough healthy foods, you DON’T get dessert” where you’re taking away a privilege for unhealthy choices/not allowing additional unhealthy choices. Even so if dessert is not an expectation, it’s hard to take it away. Eating well for its own sake seems like a better tactic.

        When my kiddo was 4yo, when I started having a bit more say in parenting choices and convinced her dad to change some rules around, we had to switch my kiddo’s dessert time to afternoon snack–an after lunch dessert instead of an after dinner dessert. We did it because she was having nightmares from sugar crashing, and I’d been planning on the next step of cutting back from it being an every-day expectation, but even just the decision of what time of day dessert was meant she didn’t always get it. Making desserts a treat on a grander scale, like going out to an ice cream parlour as both an adventure and a luxurious food, meant we could use it as a treat for great accomplishments and grand occasions.

    • We would give the child dessert but only in quantities similar to the amount of dinner the child just ate. So, if he only ate four bites of dinner, then only four bites of ice cream. If he complained of being hungry, then he could have fruit or veg, but nothing carbohydrate. I also found that my child was drinking his dinner – we were giving him way too much milk. When we cut back on his milk at dinner, he ate more food and was complaining less of being hungry. He still got plenty of milk and water, but just less at dinner time.

    • Milk quantity at dinner can be a huge culprit of a poor dinner consumption. You can definitely give some, as you said, and then when he is done eating, give him more.

  4. My sons 14 months old, and very independent. He doesn’t let us feed him anymore which is fine but I’m worried that his not eating enough. He still as up to 8 bottles a day. Two to three of them through the night. He’ll have three to four mouth fulls then it’s all on the floor and the dogs eat it.

    • It sounds like he is getting most of his nutrition through milk still, which leaves him not feeling really hungry. At his age he should be getting around 16oz of milk a day, give or take a little. I would start to modify his schedule first during the day so that he has more of an appetite for meals.

  5. My step daughter is not a picky eater as much as a selective eater…meaning, she will eat it one day and the next hate it and the next ask for it again…when she doesn’t want to eat what we serve (as I already plan meals around when they are going to be there and what they like) I make her a plate, I give her already what I know for sure she can finish, usually not enough to fill her up for her age/size and until she finishes that she can have nothing else. I will let her get up from the table when she says she is done and leave her plate. I think f you aren’t careful with the rules kids like my stepdaughter learn that if you don’t want what we are having say you don’t like it and you can have candy and junk food instead.

    • I totally agree, that kids will learn to manipulate quickly. That is why one of my cardinal rules is always have one preferred food and secondly no food in between meals. I make it clear to my kids when they get down that there is no more food until the next meal 2.5-3 hours later.

  6. My son is nearly 2 and has recently gotten picky. He’s vegetarian by choice (like me, not my husband) so I get concerned about him eating enough protein. We eat family style- all the food on the table, second helpings at hand- and my son eats what he likes off his plate then asks for more of just that. I’ve recently started bargaining that he can get more X if he eats another bite of Y and it works, but I’m wary of him turning more sour on the ‘healthy’ food (usually lentils, which he used to love, still likes, but doesn’t

    • It is normal for kids to go through some phases, it is important to keep presenting and try food in different ways to keep him interested. Try to build off the proteins he is eating by making small changes to what he already likes.

  7. What do you do when you live with picky adults? My husband and I aren’t picky eaters and love trying new foods. Our daughter is, so far, the same way. We live with my brother, who isn’t very picky at all, but legitimately doesn’t care for some of the foods we make, which is understandable and on those nights, he happily makes his own dinner or goes out, so as not to inconvenience us. We also live with my father who is, by far, the pickiest eater I’ve ever met. He refuses to eat the vast majority of things we like, claiming it’s too weird. And this isn’t exotic or ethnic foods he’s refusing. He won’t eat spinach or broccoli or any of the healthy food we keep on hand to snack on. I’m constantly having to make two meals because of this and I don’t want his behavior to influence my daughter’s eating habits. He lives with us because he is elderly and disabled and we take care of him, but I’m at my wits end.

    • Oh Margaret, I feel for you, this is such a tricky situation. Is it possible for you to have a talk with your Dad about how you respect his choices but are concerned that the negative talk may affect your daughter? I’m hoping if you approach him at a time when you aren’t particularly frustrated he may get it a little. It may also be helpful to talk to your daughter if she starts to question some of this things he says and does. I would keep it very positive and explain that her grand-dad doesn’t understand a lot about food but that you are trying to be respectful. Let he know how happy it makes you that she eats so well and how proud she should be of herself for taking care of her body with nutritious food.

  8. This was so helpful. Thank you. We have an almost 14 month old. I didn’t even think of some of these things, just was naturally doing them, and I’m glad I read this so i can re-think strategy and promoting good eating before there is a problem. Love prevention. I grew up in a family of 8 kids. We had to eat everything on our plates. I’m 32 now and overweight. I know I STILL really struggle with leaving anything on my plate because of that family rule. YIKES!

  9. Love this!
    I just read Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter and it was such a fantastic resource to read. Went immediately to read her other stuff. I have a picky eater and so far in the few days we’ve been following those principles (same ones you mention here, it seems) it has been a huge load off my mind about whether she eats. And it’s helping ME in that I don’t feel the need to graze along with her and instead be more intuitive about what I eat at meals and snacktime.

  10. I had most of these when my kids were growing up and we never had food issues. Another one I had was everyone could have one food they did not like and didn’t have to eat. They could make themselves a sandwich or bowl of cereal to eat instead. I wouldn’t make anything special for them. We all have foods we really don’t like and as long as they had previously tried it, I gave them this out. One of mine hated barley because of the texture, another one didn’t like fish. I for one gagged on milk when I was growing up. My body can’t tolerate it now and 3 out of 4 of my kids are allergic to it. I think my body was trying to tell me something. Mine are all grown now and all eat a healthy diet.

  11. I came across your site recently and have read every post on “picky eaters.” Thank you so much for sharing… I’m feeling enlightened and overwhelmed all at the same time! My 5 year-old son is extremely picky – may even possibly fall into the “problem eater” category. Everyone is always giving me advice. No one seems to understand the extent of the issue. They either brush it off and say “he’ll grow out of it” or they say I need to be more strict and just let him go hungry if he won’t eat the meals I fix.

    I feel like I have a good plan in place and have been working on our eating routine, eliminating unnecessary snacking, and spacing meals closer together. My biggest stress as I’m trying this is wondering what to do if he refuses to eat his dinner? Tell him he won’t eat again until breakfast? I feel awful sending him to bed with a grumbling tummy! At the same time, I know if I give in and let him eat something different, it sets a precedent for future nights… Help, please!

    • I know that sounds like tough love, but it is completely fair as long as you have at least one food for dinner that he normally eats. If you normally have a bedtime snack than he can wait until then, but if you don’t it is fine to tell him to wait until breakfast. He probably isn’t experiencing hunger the same way as adults do, if that helps ease your conscience at all.

  12. We are currently using #5. We are struggling with our 4 year old. Often after 1 mouthful she states that she is full. She is having a small piece of fruit for afternoon tea. If we try to get her to eat more, it usually ends in frustrating for everyone. Any advice? Should we just leave it and hope she starts eating more dinner?

    • It is really important that she have at least one food that she usually eats, if she does then have peace of mind. See the post Exploring New Foods in the article index (menu bar) under picky eaters for more ideas on how to get her eating new foods. You definitely want to avoid a power struggle and the “just take a another bite” route.

  13. Oh my gosh! I am so happy to find this blog. I’m going to go through and read everything. But I have to ask, in case I don’t find anything on my specific question, because I am so desperate for an answer. I was just thinking I might need to call a nutritionist.
    We were vegan for a couple months, now vegetarian, but perhaps we’ll be omnivores I don’t know what to do with my toddler. I have a very hard time getting her to eat protein. She’s 2 and has recently shown that she has hypoglycemia and I can’t get her to eat! She wants to snack on crackers all day so I’m trying to keep her to specific meal times that are 3 hours apart hoping she’d be hungry and eat. She will not try new foods. She has to see them many times before she’ll eat them. I’m guilty of shoving cotton candy in her mouth to get her to try it. Normally I won’t do this, never had before and haven’t since. It’s just an example. She ended up loving the cotton candy. But this is what happens, she won’t eat anything but carbs and then she’s shaking and I’m giving her anything she’ll eat, which is usually a starchy or sugary food. I have recipes for slipping in veggies but I need ideas on slipping in protein. I have protein powder but it’s a bit grainy and she has rejected my previous attempts with it. Cheese, almost always no, ‘chicken’ nuggets usually yes, yogurt, sometimes, beans never, nuts no way. Smoothies yes as long as no protein powder. So seriously what to do with a picky eater that’s also a hypoglycemic?

    • She’ll eat a certain food for a little while and then change her mind and it takes me weeks to find a new food she’ll consistently eat…until she changes her mind again.

    • Thank you so much! Protein can be tricky for kids. I would really work on cheese and bean dips with her for her crackers. It won’t be easy, but the repetition would be helpful. See my post: Exploring New Foods in the Article Index, which is in the menu bar, that will give you some ideas to get her trying new foods. I also have a post, Getting Your Kid to Eat Meat- you can apply some of the same principles to other protein sources. Try not to give her the same foods every day, because she will burn out on them. I would highly recommend looking into a feeding therapist, which is usually an OT like myself or a SLP. There is no pressure but I also offer private consultations, if you think that would be helpful.

  14. She’s also shaking every morning. She’s a terrible sleeper so I hate to wake her but since she’s shaking almost every a.m. maybe I should wake her a few hours earlier so feed her?
    I’m seeing her pedi this week too but any ideas are helpful.

    • I would definitely talk to her doctor about this, but I would probably not wake her. Maybe she needs something right before bed, the doctor or nutritionist should be able to recommend so that her sugar intake is where it needs to be.

  15. Interesting post. Our rules are staying seated (no hopping up & down, standing on chairs, running around the table swapping chairs), no toys & your number 2 – if you eat all your dinner you get a treat/dessert. We also just started number 9. We really struggle with number 4 & 6. He eats so much his grazing is more like full on meals! He eats super healthy too, just limited types of food, so I’m not sure if I should rock the boat too much just to get him to eat more variety. It’s tough!

    • It is definitely a personal decision. I respect any parents decision to do what works in their home. If things start to go south though, you have these strategies to put in place.

  16. We use a “no thank you bite” at our table so my daughter needs to take at least 1 bite of everything before saying “no thank you”. We have always eaten all of our meals at the table and she picks out what she wants for dinner at least 1 night a week when we go shopping and she helps prepare it. She has never been a problem eater and loves to try new things and pick out new things at the store. When she is finished, she has to ask to be excused. If she isn’t hungry, I don’t force her to eat but I do save her plate for when she is hungry and she usually will eat everything when she is ready.

  17. When I was growing up, we had a rule that my brother and I could have 5 things on our list of things we didn’t like. We were allowed to change it once a month… it’s funny, the consistent things on my list are still things I will not eat as an adult and they’re all textural based dislikes. But a separate meal was definitely not an option…Broccoli was always on there but I liked the core peeled so that’s what I would get whenever we had broccoli. And we also had the “kitchen’s closed until breakfast” rule if we chose not to eat what we took (we always served ourselves the amount we wanted) 🙂

  18. “It is our child’s job to decide how much they eat”- well, I’ve got the opposite problem. My 20 month old boy has a massive appetite, eats sometimes more than. He is allergic to milk and dairy, soya, tomatoes, coco, still breastfeed. Because of allergies I would say our diet is extremely healthy, no processed or junk food, no sweets etc, a lot of veggies, fruit, fish and grains. So we’re not talking chips and ice cream here. Is it possible to a kid at this age to eat to much of the good stuff? He used to be a very skinny baby on the bottom of scale, now he’s well build, but not fat in my opinion. Our pedi says he gained to much and I should restrict the amounts of food. But that doesn’t seem right to me, he’s always in motion, grows so fast and he does eat only healthy stuff. Can a kid have to much millet or broccoli?

    • We are really getting into personal opinions here and I obviously don’t know that much about your child, but I think it is an incredibly rare situation to limit children’s food at this age if they are eating healthy. However, if he just eats all day long that isn’t a good thing either. I would try to make sure he is on a schedule and doesn’t have anything but water in between his meals.

      • I wonder if my son has a sensory issue – not against food, but FOR it. When he’s in an overly stimulating situation he has always, since infancy, wanted to eat until he spills over. He remains a dedicated thumb-sucker and it can calm him instantly. I wonder if his internal senses become blunted by stress and so he seeks food stim. I get terrible looks when I deny food or water to a crying toddler, let me tell you! But I try to manage the stress rather than let him eat himself sick.

        • Yes, that is entirely possible! I don’t know how old he is, but give him something appropriate to chew on- vibrating teethers, toothbrush, or gum.

  19. Our house rule: No screens at the table. No phones. No laptops. TVs and iPods go off. In fact, no toys of any kind. This goes for mom and dad too. Sharing food is one of the ways the human animal bonds with others. I expect everyone at the table to be present.

  20. I have a question regarding dessert. My six year old always “saves room for dessert” at dinner time. In the past, I’ve asked her to eat x amount of food before she is allowed dessert. What do you reccomend, as I would like for her to trust her instinct but still eat a proper dinner before dessert.

    • It can be really tricky to go backwards on this. I would start to make desserts smaller or better yet healthier. Maybe a baked apple with some oats and honey? Maybe some fresh fruit? Have her be part of the process and you could even tell her that the cookies/candy/cake/ice cream are just “sometimes” food. I would also start to talk to her about how you want her to eat her dinner until she feels full and then later you can have dessert when she’s hungry. Let her know she doesn’t need to save room. I would focus on this being a process, not something you need to change drastically.

  21. I totally agree! I’m a dietitian who loves working with families and I teach very similar principles. I would go even farther and let kids plate their own food if it is safe to do so (i.e. not a giant hot pot of soup). Thanks for your blog, I’ve sent clients and my FB page followers to some of your articles too 🙂

    • Thank you so much Adina! I totally agree with you, serving family is style is such an important tool. I’ve actually written a post completely on that topic, which you can find in the Article Index (in the menu bar at the top).

  22. we have a picky eater but we are on a tight budget so meal planning is really important to us. we have decided to make little picture cards with a picture of our most common meals and a list of their ingredients. on sat we all sit down and work out a meal plan for the following week. we each get to choose one card (including our 1 yr old) and the other 3 days of the week are chosen in agreement. the cards are then our shopping list and added to our wall chart of what we are doing that week so he can see for himself whats for dinner. it makes my 4 yr old feel more in control and consulted. we respect his choices on the day he chooses and expect him to respect ours on the days we choose. we compromise with each other on the other days

  23. My question is about eating until the belly is full and dessert. So if they decide their bellies are full after only a few bites because they are avoiding what they don’t like. Do you then still offer dessert? I struggle with this.

    • I would say no, then dessert is off if they are full and let them know that. I would also consider having dessert a little later or not having dessert every day, maybe it is just a sometimes thing that has nothing to do with how much or what they ate. This can be a gradual change, I know that these changes can be hard!

  24. I’m so happy I found this site! I have read similar things on the internet about food rules, but this is the first time I’ve heard anyone mention 2.5-3 hr. between meals, which is something that I think would totally help me with my ultra-picky 4 yr. old. As well as the one-preferred-food per meal. Wonderful advice! But I have a couple of questions: In regards to rule #2 when it comes to dessert: We don’t eat dessert a lot, maybe once a week or so on average. So, you’re saying if my child doesn’t eat dinner I should still let him eat that piece of chocolate cake/cookies/ or whatever it is the rest of us are eating? That’s a tough one for me to grasp. And regarding preferred foods; should I allow my child to just fill up on that one food if he refuses to eat the other foods on his plate? In that case, my son would probably eat nothing but carbs at every meal! Or, should I tell him he needs to eat the other foods on his plate before he has seconds of his preferred food? *sigh*…. It’s been difficult for me to enforce any type of rules in regards to eating in our house because my husband isn’t totally on board with me. He feels that I’m “starving” the kids if I don’t give them their preferred foods whenever they don’t want what’s on the table. He’s a very picky eater himself, so I believe some of the negativity towards food may be influenced by him, unfortunately.

    • I know dessert can be tough to let be a freebie so to speak, but the idea is that you are having dessert that night it has nothing to do with what else they ate. Otherwise you are sending the message that dessert is a reward that must be earned and the other food is less desirable. With that being said if you kid eats nothing, especially food you know they like I think you have some wiggle room, but choose your words wisely. I would say something like, “All the sugar that is in the dessert could upset your belly if you haven’t eaten anything else. We need to eat some our dinner to be able to have dessert.”

      As for preferred foods, serve an appropriate portion of everything, or smaller sizes on non-preferred. Again, you will want to choose your words when they ask for more of the preferred. This happens nearly every night at my table. I say something like, “we need to try (touch, taste, etc.) all the foods on our plate. I don’t request a specific number of bites or get to specific. This will be different for each kid and you will want to make the demand greater over time as they make progress.

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