My Food Rules To Help a Picky Eater

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I get my kids to eat healthy foods. In the beginning, having picky eaters was a struggle for our family. I was searching for a way to create better eating habits and encourage family meals. 

After reexamining our family’s attitude about food (and with trial and error), I figured out some “food rules.” This adjustment in how we viewed food and eating, along with getting my kids more involved, has worked well for us.

If you’re struggling with picky eaters, start by looking at your family’s attitude about food. Offering a variety of foods will help establish good eating habits. However, having some guidelines around food and mealtimes will help change their eating behavior. And it’ll make the time you spend around the table more enjoyable!

Why Do We Have Picky Eaters?

Often, parents assume their kids won’t eat or like certain foods — even if they haven’t complained about (or even tried!) a certain food before. There’s a perception that “kid-friendly” foods like chicken nuggets, sandwiches, and pre-packaged snacks are the only things they want to eat. So we become hesitant to introduce different foods because we’re afraid our kids won’t like them.

When a child’s diet regularly consists of this type of food, they’re missing out on important nutrients of a varied, well-rounded diet.

I’ve also noticed that the attitude we teach our kids about food is just as important as the food choices we offer. When I’ve visited other countries, I’ve noticed a significant difference in how children ask for, eat, and behave around food.

I certainly think the foods we market to and prepare for our children in the US need to change. But, I think it’s equally important to change the way our kids (and we!) think about food.

7 Tips to Help Overcome Picky Eating

As I noticed our family’s attitude toward food needed to change, I began incorporating ideas from other cultures. I noticed my mom’s French family ate a wide variety of foods, wasn’t picky, and was naturally thin. I started using these ideas with my children, and the difference has been astounding.

These are our “Food Rules,” though the name is slightly misleading. These aren’t hard and fast rules that make dinner times more problematic. Instead, these are guidelines about how children should act in food-related situations. These “rules” are best taught by example and practiced as a family rather than with an iron fist (or wooden spoon).

1. No Complaining About Food

In my home, children (and adults) aren’t allowed to complain about food. This doesn’t mean that they’re forced to eat at every meal. But it does mean that negative talk about food is not allowed.

Food’s number one job is to nourish us. It’s not for entertainment. This is an important thing to teach children. Additionally, complaining about food is rude to the person who prepared it and also shows a closed-minded attitude. A negative comment about a certain food can spread quickly and is hard to undo, especially with multiple kids. So it is better to head this off completely!

No one is ever forced to eat if they aren’t hungry (see Rule #6). But everyone must sit together and participate with a positive attitude. Those who insist on a negative attitude can leave to get ready for bed.

2. Food Is Not a Reward (or Punishment)

To help create a neutral attitude toward food, I never use it as a reward or punishment. I want to avoid my kids creating an emotional connection with food. Because, remember, food’s number one job is for nourishment, not entertainment.

Many of us (myself included!) have emotional connections to a certain food. Or we feel a desire to eat certain things in emotional situations. How many times have you reached for a snack when you’re feeling sad, stressed, excited, or bored? 

This is also known as emotional eating. I want to avoid this with my kids, especially with rates of obesity in kids on the rise. So, it’s important to not create an association between foods (especially unhealthy ones) and emotions.

To that end, I don’t use food as a bribe or reward for good behavior (although I’m not perfect at this!). I also don’t highlight certain foods on birthdays or other special occasions. Instead, I focus on experiences. For example, we’ll go to the zoo instead of having a birthday cake and sugary snacks.

In the same way, I don’t present foods as a punishment or associate them with punishment. I’d never say, “You have to eat your asparagus or you’re in trouble.” While I don’t let my children complain about food (see Rule #1), the negative attitude is disciplined, not the action related to the food.

3. Eating Is a Positive Family Activity

Eating meals as a family at the dinner table has become less common. But it’s so important for everyone in the family! The trend of eating on the go and while watching TV contributes to negative attitudes about food. For this reason, I work hard to eat our meals (especially breakfast and dinner) together as a family when possible.

Everyone comes to the table with a positive attitude (see Rule #1). If they choose not to eat, they can stay and enjoy the conversation. This promotes our family time and makes it less about eating and more about bonding.

While we’re eating, I focus on having calming conversations to reduce stress at the table. We talk about things we are grateful for, things that made us laugh. This creates a space to eat slower and more mindfully. And it helps increase their well-being by eating in a less stressful situation.

4. Get Kids Involved

This is a big one to help kids get more interested in food, especially new foods! Kids of all ages can get more involved in the process. And when kids are involved, it gives them buy-in to try new things. Added bonus: they’ll learn how to plan and cook meals for when they move out on their own!

Starting when my kids were little, as young as 2 years of age, I’d have them help. At the grocery store or farmer’s market, you can talk about the different foods and have them pick out new ones to try. I always make an effort to explain why certain types of food are more nutrient-dense and how they benefit the body (see Rule #7).

Kids can also help with meal planning, prepping food, setting the table, and cleaning up. I love this course from my friend Katie Kimball, Kids Cook Real Foods. She offers courses with age-appropriate learning and even has a mini-course for young children! It’s a great solution to help avoid (or cure!) a picky eater.

5. Try, Try Again

In my house, the whole family eats the same thing at each meal. Children don’t get special “kid-friendly” foods. As soon as they can eat solid foods, they get tiny pieces of what we’re all eating. This atmosphere encourages them to eat what’s served and avoids battles over food. When I serve an unusual or new food, I don’t make a big deal about it. I simply present it with a positive attitude and assume they’ll eat it.

They get one small bite of each food that’s served (one green bean, one bite of sweet potatoes, and a piece of chicken). When they finish one bite of each, they can ask for more.

If they don’t like a food or don’t request more, I reassure them. I explain that it’s ok as long as they’re willing to try it every time. I explain that one day (when they’re grown up), their taste buds and food preferences might change and they might like the food. They’re not forced to eat huge amounts of foods they don’t necessarily like. But I do serve it repeatedly and set the expectation that they keep trying it.

6. Hunger Is OK

In our house, we don’t view hunger as a negative experience that we’re constantly trying to correct. I’ve known people who have completely lost a natural sense of hunger due to constant access to food.

It’s perfectly normal (and expected) to be hungry before eating a meal. Children who are at least slightly hungry tend to be happier and more adventurous eaters at meal times. For this reason, I try to limit snack times and make sure they occur well before meals. There’s no need to practice continuous eating.

Normal hunger at meal times encourages kids to eat what’s served. It also helps them want to eat enough so they avoid being hungry too soon. At the same time, a child who complains and is excused from the dinner table to get ready for bed (see Rule #1) quickly learns to have a more positive attitude. It’s never taken my kids more than two nights total of missing family dinners to find an improved outlook.

7. Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods

I noticed that my mom (and the French in general) eat smaller amounts of higher-quality food. They enjoy it more and obsess about it less (in general). To help make all of the above “rules” easier to implement, I focus on cooking nutrient-dense, rich foods from scratch. We incorporate bone broth, raw cheeses, homemade sauces (with butter or cream), high-quality meat, eggs, and egg-based foods like hollandaise sauce on a daily basis.

My kids are nourished with a balanced meal after eating an omelet filled with meat and veggies and topped with hollandaise. But they’ve also received a boost of beneficial fats (as opposed to a bowl of cereal).

Although it’s time-consuming, I value home-cooked, nutritious meals. So, I cook from scratch most days, but I also batch cook on the weekends. This saves a lot of time and sets us up for the week. And because the kids help (see Rule #4), it saves me time now that they’re older.

Changing my family’s attitude about food has been a process. But it’s one that’s well worth it to change picky eaters into healthy eaters! As you begin this journey, remember that you’re the best role model for your kids. They’re watching your relationship with food and how you react. Soon picky eating will be a thing of the past!

Is it a battle for your family or are your kids adventurous eaters? How do you handle a picky eater? Share your tips below!

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