Twelve (very serious) tips on how to get your picky child to eat

Posted by on Apr 30, 2013 in Parenting | 23 comments

 Since Dominic was born twenty months ago, I’ve gotten good at letting most unsolicited parenting advice roll off my back. I can shrug and smile now when people tell me my child is tired or cold, or when total strangers look offended when Dominic doesn’t respond to their overtures with open-armed affection and kisses on demand. However, there’s one parenting mantra that people trot out that I could quite happily never hear again.

That line is: “When a child gets hungry enough, they’ll eat.”

This really pushes my buttons.

You see, Dominic is what you might call a picky eater (“non-eater” would also be appropriate). I’ve never seen a toddler so unmotivated by food. He would seemingly rather do anything than eat most of what we put in front of him.

This has been the cause of more stress and angst over the last six months than any other parenting issue, and after watching Dominic carefully I’ve decided the following …

  1. Almost all children probably will eat enough to stay alive if you provide enough good food but don’t coax them into eating it.
  2. If this is all you ever do, some children will not eat nearly enough to get what they need (either calorically or with regards to micro-nutrients) to grow and develop according to their potential during this critical developmental phase.

Some kids are simply too distracted by the lure of exploration and play to be bothered with food most of the time. And some kids, I now believe, rarely feel hungry enough to voluntarily prompt them to pay attention to their plates rather than their dogs/the fan/the wonder that is gravity/trying to maneuver their foot up on the table/gazing at their own fingers/watching paint dry … the list could go on.

I have read plenty of expert advice about how to conquer the picky eater. Some of the common suggestions (routine, variety of food, minimize distractions, etc) have helped some times and not others. Nothing has worked consistently enough to keep him well nourished. Consequently, the lengths I have gone to in recent months to get food into my child would have shocked my pre-parent self.

I’ve decided to put all this experimental learning to good use and publish a new list – a list of tips and tricks for picky eaters that you won’t find on any of the experts’ sites. Never mind that this is because the items on this list are ridiculous and, frankly, sometimes less than hygienic. No, never mind that, because these are things that have worked.

I offer them to you in the hopes that they’ll at least make you laugh.

If you also parent a picky eater and this gives you some new ideas for how to ignore all the “expert” advice that doesn’t work for you, better still. And pay no attention to people who will tell you that you’re setting bad patterns that will impossible to reshape. Regardless of how this all turns out, I’m fairly sure Dominic won’t be demanding to eat his dinner out of the palm of my hand when he’s thirteen years old just because I let him do it sometimes when he was a year and a half. Just a guess.

So without further ado, here are twelve things that Mike and I have done recently to cajole Dominic into eating (Mum and Nana, don’t read past number 8 – you’ll be too disturbed):

1.  Clap every bite. Seriously. Make a big celebration out of every bite of healthy food. Never mind the fact that your royal babyness will start to expect applause for putting a single pea in his mouth. Also, don’t fret that he will, in fact, start to expect applause not just from you but from everyone else sitting within twenty feet and that he will point to person after person commandingly until they oblige him with said applause. Just hang onto the fact that he ate a pea.

2. Perform a “happy sandwich/noodle/chicken/carrot dance”. The happy sandwich dance will work when simple applause is no longer enough. The more ridiculous the happy sandwich dance makes you look, the better. That way, when you point to your child’s tray and say, “if you eat this piece, Mama will do the happy sandwich dance,” your tiny tyrant’s face will light up and he will wave his arms in the air in anticipation. Do not think about how silly you look waving your own arms in the air and shaking your butt, especially when you do the happy sandwich dance in public. Instead, think of it as an unscheduled mini workout.

3. Make it a game. The game that’s worked best for us is “chicken on a stick.” Break off a piece of chicken satay and work it to the end of the skewer. Offer it to your child. When he closes his hand over the chicken, use your most dramatic voice to say, “one … two … three … PULL!” Then yank the stick away, leaving the chicken in his hand. Don’t do it again until he puts that piece of chicken in his mouth and eats it. (Warning: This can work so well when you first start to do it that you child may eat more chicken than his under-fed little system knows how to cope with and then wake up screaming in the middle of the night because of a tummy ache. Yeah.)

4. Bargain. This one has only started to work very recently. If your child loves fruit, have a cup of cut up grapes, watermelon, or mandarin sitting on the table. When he points to the fruit and whines, tell him you’ll give him a grape if he eats one thing off his tray. Repeat, bite for bite.

5. Peanut butter and pine-nuts: On nights when he won’t eat any dinner at all, wait half an hour and then feed him teaspoons of peanut butter straight out of the jar and let him wash it down with whole-fat milk. Also, pine nuts are loaded with fatty nut goodness and easy to chew, and for some reason Dominic will eat these when he won’t touch much else. Go figure.

6. Milk boxes, yogurt squeezes, and ice cream. We never thought we’d be “milk box” parents, much less parents who put three different types of milk boxes in the fridge and let our child choose which one he wants. Also, I’ve noticed that Dominic will drink eat yogurt out of an expensive “hold and squeeze” container when he won’t touch identical tasting yogurt off a spoon. Finally, ice cream is a fail-safe. He will always sit still for ice cream (well, always except at the ice cream shop with the running fountain and the goldfish. Apparently, fountains even trump ice cream.) Yes, in case you were wondering, I have sometimes fed him ice cream on nights when he didn’t eat any dinner.  

7. Feed him in different locations around the house. Sometimes on days when he won’t touch a thing in his high chair, Dominic will eat when we’re sitting together on the stairs or when he’s distracted by the television.

8. Let him eat his dinner “like the dog.” This might mean letting him pick up food with his mouth off the palm of your hand or kneel on the floor and eat straight out of a dish without using his hands. NB, do not use the actual dog dish, no matter how much your toddler seems to want you to (even I don’t go that far). Also, if you are letting your child eat off the floor, make sure the actual dog is locked outside. Trust me, the actual dog is much more food-motivated than your toddler. If given half a chance the dog will nose his way in there and eat your baby’s dinner for him. Far from being upset, your child will think this is all great fun.

9. Share with the dog. While we’re on the topic of the dog … I have, on occasion, let Dominic feed the dog some of his dinner. I’ve noticed that Dominic will usually feed the dog a couple of handfuls, and then eat one himself. (Yes, using exactly the same hand. Mum, I warned you not to read past number 8).

10. Let strangers feed him. Sometimes when we’re in a restaurant or a public park, Dominic will toddle up to total strangers who are eating and gaze at them as if he is a starving foster child who hasn’t seen a decent bite in months. If they offer to feed him some of what they’re eating I let them, because here’s the thing … he will almost always eat it, especially if it’s other children who give him food. I will even admit that once or twice I have given a strange child food and encouraged him or her to feed it to Dominic.

11. Feed the chickens together. Buy four chickens. Put them in a pen way up the back of the garden. Make a daily ritual out of taking the scrap bucket up to feed the chickens, and let your toddler throw the food into the pen. There’s a good chance that during the process he’ll decide that the half-eaten banana or a piece of buttered toast he wouldn’t touch with a ten food pole at breakfast will do quite nicely for an impromptu snack. Let him eat it; it’s not that dirty. There are mostly just vegetable scraps in that bucket. Mostly. 

12. Put bread out for the birds. Yesterday we got some stale bread, ripped it into pieces, and tossed it out onto the lawn for the magpies to feast on. Twenty minutes later, no magpies had appeared but Dominic had found and eaten at least half of those bread pieces himself. Winner. We’ll definitely be doing this again. (Note, don’t try this if you’ve recently put chemicals on your grass. It’s also best not to do this if you’ve recently mowed the lawn or if the bread is, you know, actually moldy instead of just stale).

There you have it. As we’re not out of this phase with Dominic yet, I’m sure there will be more to add to this list later. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you done things to encourage your toddler to eat that you never in your wildest, well-educated dreams thought you’d stoop to doing before you had a child? What?




Related posts:

Introducing Dominic McKay Wolfe
Naming your cows: Mike's childhood experiences
Notice of pending termination: Lactation services


  1. Wow, you really have explored all options!! Have you seen the you tube of a toddler refusing to eat anything, and then tolerating his dad shovelling food in whilst watching gang nam style? Pretty funny and may be worth a try??? Not that this parenting advice from me….

    • Nope, will look that one up when I have a spare minute. Which, you know, if I wait until after this new baby comes won’t happen for, oh, about four years. I’ll be calling you soon to say hi by the way :). It’s on my “I want to do this week” list but I’ve been absolutely prostrated by icky vertigo the last three days. It’s just starting to ease now. No fun at all.

      • If you wanted a science promoting version of that song search “NASA Johnson style.” I show it to my fourth grade when they need to move.

  2. Great read. I identify completely! My son is nearly 3 and at last is starting to eat a variety of food or just let’s say food, but we still have the “stand offs”. Even tonight, the reward for actually eating his dinner was the obligatory ice-cream, however he did not even want to eat that. My husband looked at him and said, “You silly kid! That’s the silliest thing I have heard all day”. Yep, that’s our boy, ice cream isn’t an enticer and even spending a whole year in the States last year didn’t turn him into an eater of McDonalds!

    • It’s so strange, isn’t it? I’m just getting to the stage where I might be able to try “eat dinner or no desert” but I’m looking forward to it! So far ice cream HAS turned out to be an enticement for him.

  3. My daughter is a bit of a wanderer at meal times too. A fairly successful method for getting her to eat something is to let her make/cook it: smoothies are excellent (whole milk, a banana, icecream (some eaten as you make it), a bit of topping and sneak in nut powder). Make it, pour it, big production re straws, drink it. Louisa will often also eat with slightly older kids, especially her cousins. If they are laughing and having fun she’ll sit and eat with them. So maybe find a tame, not fussy eater toddler somewhere and let them set up tea parties or picnics? We also do choice plates each night. Platter of different things to choose from: pasta, meat, fruit, custard, veggies, bread etc etc. a little of everything often on a funny or interesting plate. Good luck!

    • Dominic LOVES cooking. Watching it, participating in it, etc. I’m trying the whole “let’s cook it together” thing too. Sometimes works really well. Other times no so much. Also agree, smoothies/fruit shakes a life saver. We might take some nut powder back to Laos with us.

  4. wow. you have been doing the tough yards. we have a fussy eater but things improved between 3 and 4. still have a small restricted menu of meal items but we are getting there. in time a sibling onto solids will add more options… races, food swapping, food throwing / catching / eating etc. we also tried a few food related games party inspired by rachel barr – like afternoon tea on a string, edible necklaces etc. it gets really tiring though – i remember dreading the dinner hour (our worst meal). i truly agree with you – for some kids, our son included, most activities are more fun than eating. it’s not the food is bad – it’s just any book / car / discussion is more interesting. some days i really want a no talking at the table rule. once you get a chatterbox then having them stop to take a bite is a real real challenge. so though we have usually cleared the table of all known distractions there is nothing we can do about the why and how questions!

    • Some great ideas, and sounds like Rachel is the person to hit up for fresh inspiration for the next stage. It does get exhausting, doesn’t it? And on those rare occasions when he unexpectedly gobbles down a bunch of food the relief is enormous knowing you’ll be putting him to bed full and well fed. Then it all starts again at breakfast.

  5. Love it! If he eats out of fancy squeezy yogurt things, you should definitely try a reusable food pouch and try putting all sorts of things in there. 🙂 We have the Sili Squeeze that I know is newly available in Australia. I think I posted a link on your wall a bit back as they were looking for an Australian blogger to test them out. They’ve got fun colors, if he likes that kind of thing, and there’s sorts with animals from other brands too.

    • Yes!! Thanks for the reminder. I’ll be hunting that down.

  6. Lisa, that phrase can still push my buttons years and years and years later!!!
    At one point when we moved countries he (you know who I mean), would not even eat the yogurt because it was a slightly different taste. With a concave stomach and a hospital visit imminent we discovered heinz baked beans and never looked back. Well, not quite. But I swear marmite sandwiches, readybrek and baked beans saved all our lives!
    As you can see I have no advice. I failed. I am still traumatised. I had a small cookbook of things he would eat and I ended up keeping him alive on those until he could be responsible for himself – and then of course the inevitable happened.
    He left home and began to eat everything!
    I feel for you – Vivien

    • Ha! I can see his royalness digging his heels in and deciding to go on a hunger strike. Yes indeedy :). Thanks for the empathy vote!

  7. Love this!! I regularly leave discarded, far-flung remnants of meals on the floor for my child to snack on throughout the day. I’ve even rushed at my husband yelling “Don’t sweep! Put the broom down!!” when he tried to clean up the mess. Yeah.

    • Yeah … Dad snatched up Dominic in a restaurant in Bangkok two weeks ago right when another child was handing him a french fry and I was like, “Noooooo! Let her feed him!!!!”

  8. Most nights I feel like either a cheerleader or the referee at the dinner table. Beau refused all dinner for 4 nights in a row after Kyah was born. It was not a happy 4 nights for anyone and there were many timeouts – for both Beau and Mummy! Food intake, eating, and now manners (with Noah) are the largest causes of parental stress for me. I find a glass of wine helps.

    • Can’t wait when I’m back in the territory of being able to resort to the nightly glass of wine when needed!! Ugh. Four nights. No fun.

  9. Hiya Lisa! You could check out the ‘Tiny Tastes’ research project run by University College London for some scientific stuff on how nursery-age children develop a wide palate (whether they want one or not!). My sister in law persevered with her 2 very picky eaters, they are now 9 and 7 and they eat whatever she gives them so don’t give up! Lots of love from London xx

    • Thanks for that. Will take a look for sure!!

  10. You are speaking my language here! My 3rd baby has always been a shocking eater, and hearing ‘When he’s hungry enough, he’ll eat’ makes me want to punch someone!
    Our situation was different to yours in that S (my non-eater) was always happy to eat what he wanted to eat – but it was the narrow range of foods that he would eat that was the problem. And as he got older, the list that he would eat was getting smaller and smaller, he was looking gaunt and falling off the bottom of the weight graph, and I was panicking. I won’t go through the long (and traumatic) list of ways we tried and failed to get him to eat, but we finally found something that works for all of us.
    I decided that my job was to provide him with 5 opportunities to eat each day. Whatever I provided was all there was – no other options were available. Our biggest dramas were at dinner, with lunch also being a problem, so I always knew he could fill up at the meals that he liked eating, which reduced the desire to panic! For dinner, he would get a tiny (so tiny sometimes you could barely see it) portion of whatever everyone else was eating, and the rule was that if he ate some (usually half) of everything that was on his plate, he could have whatever treats were on option for the next 24hrs. And if he ate everything on his plate, he got treats AND whatever else he wanted (usually sandwiches, milo etc) after dinner. It was his choice as to what he ate, and how much, and he could chose to eat nothing if he wanted to. If he chose to eat nothing for dinner (and he did, for several months in a row (this boy plays hardball!)), we accepted his choice, and made No Fuss Whatsoever. No coaxing, cajoling, pleading, begging, threatening or bribing. None. We would remind him that this meant he would be missing out on treats the next day – but only once, not 20 times! – and if he still chose not to eat, we calmly said ‘Ok, that’s fine.’ and carried on with our own meal.
    We started doing this when we was between 2 – 2.5yrs, and he is now nearly 6. He is way, way, WAY better! The range of foods he will happily eat has increased immensely, and the range of foods he will eat reluctantly is also much bigger. I think the most helpful things were that he felt in control. His choices were accepted by us, and we weren’t forcing him to do anything he didn’t want to. It also took the emotional intensity back into the normal range – dinners had become a complete nightmare for everyone, including our 2 older children who had to endure 2 very stressed parents and a screaming younger brother! We were calm, and felt in control of the situation, and he could relax and decide for himself what he wanted to do.
    We still occasionally have patches where he will decide not to eat dinner several nights in a row – sometimes for a week or more – but he is also willing to at least try things he thinks might be yucky. Sometimes he pulls terrible faces, and swallows things with the help of drinks of water – but he is eating food that I wouldn’t have even been able to get him to look at before! And he is doing it himself, without me having to force him, or bribe him, into doing it.
    All of this extremely long (sorry!) novel to say – this is what worked for us. I am not saying it will always work for everyone, but it worked for us. I know how scary it is when your child isn’t eating enough, and if I can help another parent not have to feel that fear for as long as we did, then I will continue writing very long comments on blogs 🙂
    I’m stopping now, I promise!

    • Thanks Donna … I love hearing what other people have tried. Food for thought. And this blog is now amassing quite a number of different stories on different approaches which will help not just me, but all the others who land here because of search engines every day. Hope you’re well!!

  11. It was my second child who was so picky. My oldest child was/is a fantastic eater! As a toddler, I would put little bits of tofu and beetroot and chickpeas on her highchair tray and she would eat it up! I seriously thought I was an awesome mother who had done an incredible job introducing my child to solids, and what were those other mothers doing wrong?? Hah.

    Enter second child. Total opposite extreme. Even now at 6 years old, he has a limited repertoire of food. It’s getting better, but for a while there, making him try certain foods resulted in him crying hysterically and making choking sounds. Even things like a plain noodle or a blueberry. He doesn’t eat any meat, he will tolerate peas or carrot sticks, and he still rejects many fruits. Thank goodness for whole grain breads, cheese, peanut butter, and scrambled eggs. I nursed him until he was 3 and thank goodness I did, I had no idea how poorly he would take to solids as a toddler.

    Tough, but then I was picky too, and now I’ll eat about anything so hopefully all will be well.

    • Hi Erin, Thanks for sharing. Goodness. Some of the stories here are making me realize that although it’s difficult to get D to concentrate long enough to eat, he maybe doesn’t actually qualify as “picky”. He’ll try a lot of stuff if I can just get him to get interested in food. I’m also starting to wonder what unique challenges this baby #2 will bring my way 🙂


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