10 Tips for Getting Your Kids to Eat Their Dinner Without the Tears

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This can be a huge area of contention, amirite? The sometimes nightly battle of wills over broccoli and chicken. I’ve been there more evenings than I’d like to count. We still have those evenings but overall my kids are pretty good eaters and I consider myself fortunate. But there was a time in our not-so-distant past where this wasn’t the case. My oldest son was an incredibly fussy eater from the ages of two to about nine and I take full credit for that. I also take credit for breaking him of his bad mealtime habits and not instilling them in my second son. This is how we handle mealtimes in our house. 

How to get kids to eat their dinner without the tears

Make one dinner. 

Do you make dinner for yourself and your spouse and then turn around and make a different dinner for your child(ren)? Lots of people seem to do just that these days but this is where I think I went wrong with my oldest son. As he got older he was still in the habit of eating certain things and didn’t want to eat the dinner I’d prepared. Dinner often became a battle of wills, but it was a habit that I started. We finally broke the habit by making just one meal and eventually he became a fantastic and more adventurous eater. My second son never had this luxury and we haven’t had the food issues with him that we did with the oldest. 

Don’t force them to eat what they don’t like. 

On the other hand, if you’re having a meal that you know your child doesn’t like then yes, offer them something else instead. It doesn’t have to be fancy; a tuna melt or leftovers will do. Just don’t let it be an everyday occurrence. 

Offer a variety of foods.

You don’t have to feed your children “kid food”. Kids will eat more than chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers if that’s what they’ve always been given. We make a large variety of meals in our home and don’t often repeat meals for several months. Because of this my kids, even the four-year-old, eat meals like jambalaya, coconut curry, homemade Chinese food, and other meals that aren’t usually seen as kid-friendly. 

Give them choices. 

Every once in a while ask your child(ren) what they would like to have for dinner. My kids love to have input on the meals we eat.

Let them help you cook. 

How can they say no to a meal they’ve helped cook? Handing you ingredients from the fridge and pantry, washing vegetables, and helping to stir are great ways for little ones to help. If you have older kids, let them cook an easy meal by themselves once in a while. 

Don’t argue.

Some nights your kids won’t be in the mood to eat something and that’s okay. Your child won’t starve. If he doesn’t feel like eating meatloaf tonight then let it go. Harping on them to eat their meatloaf will just make them dig their heels in more. There are nights where my four-year-old has been on the ornery side and has just eaten noodles but the next night he will make up for it by eating everything on his plate. 

Don’t make them clean their plate.

How many of us have grown up with parents who made us clean our plate? It often ended in arguments and tears. Not only will it cause arguments, it could encourage overeating. If this is a common occurrence then give them less food going forward. They can always ask for seconds. 

Give them dippers.

Try serving chicken and pork with some unsweetened applesauce for them to dip it into. 

Be a ninja.

My kids are good vegetable eaters for the most part, but not all kids are. Try sneaking vegetables into meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, tomato sauces, soups, and quiches. 

Cut off snacks.

Even if it’s healthy it could fill them up. My four-year-old will sometimes ask for a snack around 5:00 and if I gave in to him he wouldn’t eat his dinner. Make a no snacks after a certain time rule so they are hungry at dinnertime. 

How do you get your kids to eat without the arguments?

Photo credit: francois karm via flickr

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  1. Regan, I hope a lot of parents will come across this post because it’s both wise and practical. Eating should never turn into a battle, but neither should it be a “have it your way” thing. It’s possible to strike a balance between teaching and encouraging good eat habits and allowing some freedom and preference on the part of the child.

    We’ve discovered over the years that if we offer the same food over and over (and over and over!) again, most of our children will eventually accept it and usually come to enjoy it. Persistent wins them over. I used to get so discouraged after giving them a new food 2 or 3 times. Nope, it’s more like 10 times! But it’s worth it because it discourages finicky behaviors and teaches curiosity and openness.

  2. I let my 4 year old son know ahead of time that the kitchen will be closed after dinner. He can have a small snack later like yogurt or fruit snacks or cheese, but I will not be cooking another meal for him later when he is hungry because he chose to not eat any of the dinner we all ate.

  3. Such a huge issue here too, and I think my husband and I deal with it differently which we need to work on. He eats EVERYTHING at day care, so I have to stop being a short-order cook!

  4. This can be a source of contention at our house, too. A nutritionist told me, “You provide, they decide.” I make one meal, with side dish options like veggies and fruit. Great tips!

  5. My daughter eats what she is offered or she waits until the next meal. She does get to help pick out meals sometimes, but I do not tolerate messing around at mealtimes. I figure that, when she gets hungry, she will eat. Fighting about food is not worth the battle.

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