Mealtime Battles


Every night dinner is a lengthy negotiation with my four-year-old son alternating between bargaining, bribery, and threats.  I’ll say, “you have to take 3 more bites of your broccoli if you want ice cream for dessert.” Michael replies, “only one bite.” I reply, “two more bites.” We go back and forth with nearly everything on his plate. Some nights I get so tired of the constant negotiations that I give in and give him dessert even though he hardly ate any of his dinner. It’s ridiculous; what can I do?


Young kids are naturally picky eaters. Most kids are naturally skeptical of food with new tastes and textures or foods with bitter or strong tastes. There is actually a good reason for this pickiness. Babies explore their world by putting everything in their mouths. When babies start to crawl and walk, they become cautious about new tastes. That caution protects them from eating poisonous or dangerous things. Historically it was the pickiest eaters that survived to pass on their DNA. As a species, we are all picky eaters.

A number of studies have shown that when young children are given a variety of healthy choices, they will choose a healthy balanced diet. We want to provide kids with a healthy diet and help them form a healthy attitude toward food. We want them to listen to their bodies to tell them when they are hungry and when they are full to stop eating.
Here are some ideas:
  • You choose the menu, your child chooses what they are going to eat and how much. 
  • Let your child fill their own plate. If they are too young to serve themselves, let them ask for what they want and guide how much you put on their plate.
  • If a child doesn’t have to eat something they don’t like, they are more likely to try different foods.  One mom I talked to uses a no-thank-you bowl.  Her child can put any food they don’t like in the no thank you bowl.
  • Serve one healthy item that you know your child will like.  Another option would be to let your child have a healthy sandwich, peanut butter, and jelly or cheese when there isn’t anything on the table they like.
  • Using dessert as a reward or bargaining chip doesn’t help kids learn to enjoy healthy food.
  • When kids help prepare the meal, they will be more excited about eating what they made. Let them tear the lettuce, stir the vegetable and sprinkle the spices, or pour the beans and water into the insta-pot and push the buttons to start the insta-pot.