How to Deal With a Picky Eater

Let’s face it, we are bound to face the rash of the inevitable picky eater – it’s not uncommon, but it can become frustrating. So we leaned on our friend, Dr. Darria Long, author of the nationally bestselling book Mom Hacks, on how to deal with a picky eater!


I have two goals for mealtime with my family: (1) That my children eat good, healthy food, (2) That achieving (1) doesn’t lead to battles that ruin everyone else’s [namely MY] dinner.

We start with my 2 Rules of Mealtime Zen.

1. Your job when it comes to your child’s food:

  • To offer nutritious food
  • To model enjoying it yourself

2. Your child’s job:

  • To eat it
  • Or not – her choice

Not included in your job description:

  • Letting her eat whatever she wants
  • Being a short-order cook to accommodate child’s requests
  • Adopting hostage-negotiation style tactics to coax a child to eat.

Which is why, with two children (one of whom is adventurous, the other who is a little more… independent…), I’ve had to come up with a few game theory manipulation strategy hacks.

Tips for Managing Your Picky Eater

1. Cook ONE Dinner

I hear from MANY parents who cook two meals, which leaves me gob-smacked because it’s all I can do to get ONE meal on the table. Cook a single meal – and make it clear that it is the only dinner. There is no going-to-the-pantry-for-snack after dinner. Unless your pediatrician is specifically concerned about your child’s growth, stick to your guns.

And I’ll say it again – if your child only eats a quarter of his plate – that is ok. Children don’t need to have a balanced meal at every meal – they need a relatively balanced WEEK. It’s ok if they only ate starch tonight, only protein at breakfast, and then produce at lunch.

2. Involve Them in the Decision-Making

Everyone likes to feel like they’re in charge. Even young children. Correction: especially young children. Let your child have a vote amongst two dinner options, and they’ll feel less tempted to exert their independence by refusing to eat the food imposed on them by an oppressive regime … mom. I have a list of 10-15 healthy meals that I can make quickly during the week, so on Sunday (usually on the drive from church to the grocery store), I let my kids choose the week’s menu.

If you have a picky eater, of the 4 food options on the plate (a protein, a starch, and two veggies) make sure that one is something that he’ll eat.  He doesn’t need to clean his plate – if he eats at least one (and I ask that they just have a single taste of each of the others), that’s fine.

Special Dessert-Coup Trick: When dessert requests started to get out-of-hand, I told my children that we didn’t need to have dessert every night. But it wasn’t off-limits – we could have it 3 nights a week, and they could choose which 3 nights. My daughter happily now feels in control of dessert nights, which makes it a win-win.

3. Keep Offering

It’s disheartening to have your child refuse what you cook, which is why 90 percent of parents give up on a particular vegetable after offering it three to five times. But it can take up to 10-15 introductions before some children accept a new food. That means that the difference between your child liking and not liking a vegetable may simply be repetition (and patience—and wine). In one study, mothers were instructed to alternate a liked and a disliked veggie on separate days; by the end of two weeks, 70 percent of the children were eating the originally-disliked vegetable

4. Adopt a Veggie First Strategy

Serving produce as the appetizer before the rest of the meal. Breakfast? Put out a bowl of berries. Lunch or dinner? Start with a salad or cut up carrots and peppers and serve with hummus. This buys you time while you prepare the meal and leverages your child’s appetite to overcome food resistance. We do this every night for dinner—and even if dinner is actually ready, I’ll stall and pretend that it’s still cooking (no one tell my kids, please), to ensure they have time to eat veggies.

Don’t think you have time to have fresh veggies at the ready? Find my weekend veggie prep plan here, which takes 30-45 minutes on a Sunday, and leaves you with fresh produce all week (because in a grocery bag in the produce drawer is where produce goes to die). You can also get tips from Once Upon a Farm on how to get your kids to love veggies. 

5. Aim for the 80/20 Rule

No one needs to eat perfectly. We have pizza on Friday nights. Without guilt. And that’s ok, because the rest of the week we’re eating pretty well. It’s ok if my child has cake and ice cream at every birthday party, because she’s not eating those most of the time at home.

Although some children will immediately respond well to these hacks, others will take longer; and some little meal terrorists will resist entirely. It’s not you, it’s them. And remember, the one key perk of adulting: if there’s a food that’s always a hot-button fight with your kids that they want to eat, just don’t keep it in the house. Because adulting does have its privileges.

Never wonder “What’s for dinner?!?” at 6pm again— grab my “Make Healthy Weeknight Dinners a Breeze and Easy Nutrition Quick Guide” here! And to the extent that you can, stay patient, keep consistent, breathe, and carry on. You’ve GOT this.


Dr. Darria

Want more hacks in your life? Grab your copy of Mom Hacks or get access to Dr. Darria’s “The Unexpected Power of Tiny Changes” webinar here! 




About. Dr. Darria

Dr. Darria Long is a Yale- and Harvard-trained emergency physician, author of nationally bestselling book Mom Hacks (Hachette), and a TV host and expert on HLN, CNN, The Dr. Oz Show, and other networks. A mom of two herself, Dr. Darria has become the national “make-life-better-for-women doctor”. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School and residency training from Yale School of Medicine.

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