What Do You Do When Children Won't Eat Their Dinner?


Q: What do you do when your children just won’t eat dinner or the food you prepare?

Let’s begin with you are not a short order cook. Parents provide the food. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink. Food and going to the bathroom are ENTIRELY within your child’s power what they are going to do. Let us respect and understand that. It is their body.

With that being said, it is up to us to PROVIDE the food. It is up to them to EAT the food. They may. They may not. It is said that it takes a child seven exposures to a food before they will try it. So? Expose, expose, expose. Keep putting things on their plate that are a stretch for them. Also include those foods that you KNOW that they enjoy. Stop arguing about it.

A fabulous phrase that I encourage all of you to adopt is “at our house”. "At our house, we taste everything on the plate if we would like dessert.“ (“At our house, we go to bed at 8.” “At our house, we have x amount of screen time.”) You get the idea. AT OUR HOUSE… I am willing to put sweet food in a mouth that has also had healthy food. That was our rule. Taste it all (you may spit it out), dessert was available then. (which was a bowl of treats in the pantry they can choose from) If they choose NOT to taste all the items, no problem. Stop arguing.

Natural consequences are the most effective form of learning, when we say nothing to intervene and let the consequence speak for itself. The consequence of not tasting everything? No sweets. No lecture either. Just be still and let it play out. Hard for us parents who talk WAY too much, which is most of us. Children then become parent deaf - hearing everything around them except us!

The consequence of not eating the dinner at all? Hunger. Do not save them from the natural consequence. That moment later of hunger pang is their moment of learning. 

“I’m hungry”

“That makes sense to me. I wonder what you will do tomorrow night at dinner?”

(“At our house” a banana was always available on the counter. That was it.)

Sound harsh? Feel guilty? You have done nothing wrong. You PROVIDED the food. They CHOSE not to eat it. Remember also that there are many nights that they LIKE the food and still choose not to eat it and do not starve. SOMEHOW these kids all still seem to progress on those pediatric growth charts despite their picky food choices! Step back. Provide exposure to foods. Recognize the power is in their hands. You have done a fabulous job of providing food FOR them! You got this!

- Michelle Gambs

Michelle Gambs is a parenting coach and private practice psychotherapist with a masters degree in counseling. She teaches an Indianapolis based 5-week parenting course titled "Redirecting Children's Behavior", and is a wonderful addition to our team as the host of our podcast.