What to do When Kids Don’t Like Dinner

A couple of years ago my daughter and her friend were having a play date during which I served them what I considered to be an appealing and wholesome lunch. When her friend informed me that she didn’t like what was on the plate, I suggested a few options, all of which she uniformly rejected. I finally threw up my hands, pointed to our pantry and said, rather tersely, “why don’t you just look for yourself and see if there’s anything that you can eat.”

This was not one of my finer moments, and was mildly horrifying for my daughter. It hit me then how dissent at dinner table can really get under a mom’s skin.

I was thinking about that incident recently after my friend Leslie disclosed how frustrated she sometimes gets when her kids won’t eat a meal she’s made. Getting food on the dinner table day-in, day-out is no small feat, so when a child turns his or her darling little nose up at the fruits of your labor, it’s enough to make you want to throw in the cooking tongs.

The question is what to do? It’s not easy, but here are few strategies that might prove helpful

  • Take the emotion out of mealtime 

This is tricky. From that first struggle over breastfeeding (why doesn’t my baby want to nurse?) moms know food and feelings are inextricably linked. The more matter-of-fact and less emotional you can be around meals, the better. That is, don’t take it personally.

  • Cook what you love to eat 

In a day and age when life revolves around the kids, it’s hard to make this shift. Consider what you crave when it comes to meal planning as opposed to thinking exclusively about the kids. This might make it less of a blow when they take a pass on a particular dish. Over time most kids will fall in line with what you enjoy cooking and eating.

  • Insist on polite children 

Kids are entitled to their opinion, but should be mannerly about it. They can express their feelings with a simple “no thank you,” as opposed to “eww,” “yuck,” or “I hate it.” Banish negative comments from the table both in deference to the cook and because opinions are highly contagious. If one sibling rejects something out of hand, it can impact another.

  • Don’t be a short-order cook 

If your child doesn’t like what’s being served, resist the urge to fix something else. That said, it’s a good idea to have a few dishes on the table so if a single food doesn’t appeal, they have options.

  • Don’t give up 

Just because your child doesn’t enjoy a meal on one occasion, doesn’t mean it needs to be permanently struck from your repertoire. It often takes multiple tries to warm up to new foods.


01.20.2011 at3:24 PM #

Mop Prime

I have always ascribed to a traditional perspective of meal time behavior: make a good meal, call everyone to the table, and let the chips fall where they may. If the children are really hungry, they will eat.
Kids learn to appreciate great food over time, and the keys to getting them to experiment are really quite simple: Never play short order cook, and always allow them the option to “only taste.” That tiny taste may only be one pea, but it gets them past the point of complete refusal and teaches them, one tiny bite at a time, to learn the taste and texture of different foods. It also takes the tears out of dinner, and avoids waste. I might also add, my mother and father were brilliant at getting their children to try new foods by simply saying, “That’s fine. All the more for us!”

01.20.2011 at3:24 PM #


All sage advice. Thanks.

01.20.2011 at6:14 PM #


I’m greatly relieved to know that I’m not the only parent out there whose kids don’t always like the dinner of the day. Great suggestions on how to deal with a situation that makes me a little crazy (I have one very picky eater in the house who is happy with dinner about 2 times a week!). Any suggestions on good things to have around the house for those nights when she’s going to make something else for herself?

01.20.2011 at6:14 PM #


If they can opt out of what’s on the table, whether they cook it for themselves or you do, it’s a disincentive for them to open up to new tastes. On nights when when the kids are on their own for dinner, however, a few options include: bean and cheese burritos, cold cereal with fresh fruit, soup with cheese and crackers, scrambled eggs with fruit or vegetables on the side, peanut butter sandwiches, and mini pizzas on whole wheat english muffins.

01.20.2011 at7:42 PM #

Sarah Roberts

All very good advice. I try to have a 2/4 ratio of success– make four items for a meal, and choose the four carefully so that each kid will eat at least two of them.
By the way, that child who refused to eat your lunch didn’t happen to have the initials E.R. did she . . . . ?
Love the blog, keep it up!

01.20.2011 at7:42 PM #


I’m staying mum on this one…

01.21.2011 at1:18 AM #


GREAT post — very helpful. THANKS!!!

01.26.2011 at1:12 AM #


What a great discussion, and I am particularly grateful for point #1. As a new nursing mother who wants to give her babe the very best every day, it’s hard not to take it personally if occasionally she’s too fussy to focus and seems disinterested in natures perfect food. I vow to start not making it personal right now, and make meal time and the family table {or breast, for the time being} a time and place where we can all be welcomed and loved, on our best and worst days.

12.02.2021 at3:49 PM #


Your post here is the first one I have seen (and I’ve looked for many!) that takes my and my husband’s food preferences into account. I have a lot of issues at my table with picky eaters and it is very very difficult. Your post is like a warm hug! 🙂

Any suggestions on moving from providing alternative foods or snacks after (porridge in our house often comes after a meal that the kids didn’t eat) to just serving what I’m serving and leaving it at that? The transition seems insurmountable.

12.02.2021 at3:49 PM #

Katie Morford

I hear you. Thinking about making a change like that probably feels daunting. I’m sure a Google search will turn up lots of suggestions, but here are a few thoughts. 1. I always find making a change in any household habit is best during transition periods, say at the start of summer or the school year or after the winter holiday. It’s a period of change anyway and you can make the case for trying something a little different 2. When you begin with just one family meal, I’d suggest making a conscious effort to be sure there is at least one thing on the table that you know your children will embrace 3. Practice what we call the Division of Responsibility. It’s your responsibility to put nourishing food on the table. It’s up to them to choose what and how much to eat. Try not to be a food pusher. 4. Stay calm (that’s the hardest part) 5. Don’t cave 🙂 Another good resource is the book Fearless Feeding and Jill Castle’s website.

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