My Three Rules for Mealtime with Picky Eaters

These three rules for mealtime with picky eaters have helped our family enjoy dinner again.  

If you have kids in your house you’ve no doubt dealt with your fair share of picky eating habits. Our family made it through a really tough picky eating phase and now we’re actually enjoying dinner again. I give all the credit to sticking by three very simple rules.  From the very first day we started following these rules we saw positive changes.

I often hear from parents who desperately want to start my all natural diet plan to improve behavior but they’re paralyzed by the fear of their picky eater.  “I can’t take away the toaster pastries, it’s the only thing she eats!  She’ll starve!”  I promise you, in over five years of helping families make the transition to an all natural diet we haven’t lost anyone to starvation yet.

I always share these suggestions with all the families I coach through the all natural diet plan so I thought it was only fair to share them with you, too!


My Three Mealtime Rules for Picky Eaters

1.  No Complaints.  This is by far my favorite rule for mealtime.  Complaints are not tolerated, ever.  No one is allowed to say that the food looks gross, smells gross, or that they hate it.  If it’s a negative comment it must be kept to yourself.  (This goes for adults, too!)  There are times when there is quite a bit of silence around our table, but that’s not such a bad thing.

Why it works: My kids have a lot of influence over one another.  If my daughter says she tried green beans five years ago and hated it, my son automatically hates green beans.  If no one gives a negative opinion of the food then less negative opinions are formed.  It allows everyone to go into dinner with an open mind and more willingness to try something new.

2. Eat it or don’t, it’s up to you.  This one is a bit controversial, but it works amazingly well for us.  Some families have the One Bite Rule, some go by the Three Bite Rule, it’s not a one strategy fits all thing here.  Our rule is more of a No Bites Necessary Rule.  The reason it works so well for us is that it completely ended the dreaded power struggle we were constantly battling.  Before I had this rule we found ourselves bargaining, begging, and shouting our way through dinners.  No one looked forward to sitting down at the table.  Forcing my kids to take a bite of something just wasn’t worth the stress it created.  Once we stopped arguing about food, dinner became fun and relaxing again.  I always put a little bit of everything from the dinner menu on their plates and they can decide what to do with it.  Right away I noticed the kids started paying attention to the food on their plates instead of actively ignoring it.  Then the magic happened – they began trying their food without so much as a word from me.  Are there times when I throw away perfectly good food?  You bet.  But there are also times when one of my kids finds out they really like salad or asparagus.  Trying new foods is no longer filled with pressure and anxiety, it’s something they actually enjoy doing now.

Why it works: Studies show time and again that a positive atmosphere during mealtime leads to greater food consumption in children, while negative vibes do just the opposite. Plus it can take over twenty exposures to a new food for a child to finally accept it.  Forcing my kids to taste something they weren’t ready for was getting us nowhere.  It certainly didn’t make them want to eat more of it the next time it was served.  I made peace with the fact it was going to take time for them to warm up to new things and I was willing to wait it out.  It’s paid off for us because just in the last few months I’ve added green beans, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and salad to the list of things my kids choose to eat for dinner, plus there’s the bonus of no arguments.

3. No snacks.  In our house this means no snacks allowed two hours before dinner and the kitchen closes after dinner.  We eat dinner around 6:15 every night, so the kids get an after school snack between 3:30 and 4:00 then the next thing they eat is dinner.  No one has collapsed from hunger yet.  At dinner everyone is expected to eat a large enough portion to be comfortably full until bedtime.  This took some getting used to but now it’s second nature to all of us.  I try to remind my children that it’s okay to feel a little hungry, you don’t need to stop everything and have a snack at the very first sign of hunger.

Why it works:  It’s soooo much easier to get kids to try something new when they’re actually hungry.  Shutting down the snacks ensures everyone comes to the table ready to eat.  Similarly, closing the kitchen after dinner means there’s no opportunity to come back for a snack as soon as the dishes are done.  How many times does that happen in your house?  I saw a Facebook post last week that said “I wish I was as brave as my 6 year old who sat through dinner without taking a bite then asked my wife for a snack three minutes later.”  TRUTH.  Cutting out snacks has been a huge help with my fussy eaters.

These are our daily rules that work for my family at mealtime.  As I said before, each family is different and there are so many strategies that can be helpful.  The important thing is that you decide on your own rules and be consistent.  If all else fails you’re welcome to use my dinnertime motto:  “You can’t eat your favorite food every day unless you make everything your favorite food.”  My kids really hate when I say that.  It’s such a Mom Thing to say, isn’t it?

Do you have picky eaters in your family?  What’s your best advice for enjoying mealtime with your own family?

Looking for inspiration on healthy meals for your family?  Be sure to check out my recipe index at the top of the page!


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  1. Lisa says

    Hi I was wondering we eat at 5pm if my kids don’t eat they don’t get a snack 5 mins later…. But I do a bedtime snack…. Do you do something before bed if your kids don’t eat dinner?


    • says

      We don’t typically do a bedtime snack because there are only about 2 hours between dinner and bedtime for us. But if they do eat well at dinner and are still hungry we do things like a banana or nuts occasionally. If they don’t eat dinner then no snacks, it’s our rule. They know that dinner is their chance to eat and they can make decisions based on that fact.

  2. Wendy says

    Love this article. Our food rules are basic. No negative remarks is a given in any polite household. We did a 2 bite trial of anything new, because as you said, tastebuds change over time. The 3rd is they are only allowed to push aside 1 item on their plate to not eat. They also had to do it with out comment, very quietly, so even the hostess didn’t know. This also kept our oldest from going without any food for the night, as she didn’t like the 3 most used, i.e, mushrooms, onions, peppers. She could push aside the one she didn’t like the most that night and choke down the rest. To this day she happily eats them all!

  3. leah says

    Love, love, love rule #2 but my question is – what do you do if they just won’t eat? I have heard always have one thing as a back up (plain pasta, pb&j sandwich) but I don’t like the idea of separate meals or having them eat plain pasta every night! I’ll make things and my girls (the oldest is 6 and she’ll try nearly everything now…it’s more the 5 year old and the 3 year old) just have it sit on their plate. So what happens on the nights that they just won’t try it/eat it? Thanks!

    • says

      In my house, they just don’t eat. If they decide they’d rather be hungry than try the food on their plate then I go with it. I always serve at least one thing with every meal they do like, so at least they have something in their bellies at the end of the meal, but I don’t make anything separate to please them. And almost every time I’ve served something my kids wouldn’t try the first time, the next time I made the same dish they decided it wasn’t so bad after all.

  4. Kristin says

    How long did it take your kids to adjust to the “No Snacks” rule? I would anticipate pushback in my house, so would appreciate any tips on how to enforce. For instance, my 4 and 6 year olds can get most things from the fridge and pantry themselves as well as make sandwiches or milk and cereal.

    • says

      It didn’t take long, but they have never had free reign of the kitchen so it was easy for me to enforce. There is always pushback whenever change happens but for us the adjustment was easy. Hoping it will be easy for you as well!

  5. stacielk says

    Just found your blog. Trying to feed my family ‘healthy’ overall. Wondered about your first rule…complaining…a pet peeve of mine! I know everyone has different disciplines but if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do with the kid that complains before you even sit down to eat or after, until they learn you won’t tolerate them?

    Looking forward to looking around at your blog over the next few weeks more! THanks!

    • says

      I still have one who complains every day! But he knows his complaints won’t change anything now. He says his peace and we just keep moving forward with dinner. I found that arguing with him only made things worse so I let him share how he feels and keep rolling. I’m glad you’re here! Let me know if I can help!