Fool-Proof Ways to End Mealtime Battles with Kids 

Written by:

Maia James


Updated: 09/28/2023

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Guest post written by Julia Niego, Elementary Educational Therapist 

So, you spend all this time making conscious choices about what your kids will eat….now how do you make them eat it?  

First, each kid and their issues with food are different. Coming from a place of curiosity – why doesn’t my kid dig in to these lovely healthy options? – is key.

Helping your child identify the specific obstacles helps to make some small but significant shifts in the meal-time dynamic that can help bring the focus back to the joy of wholesome eating.  

I’ve identified five primary types of children that cause the most stressful meal times–you might recognize your child in more than one of these!

(Please enjoy the photos of my kids as well as Maia’s, below!).

1. The Picky Eater 

We all know the battles that can happen when certain foods are just a no-go.  

I always recommend against simply pushing your child to keep trying new things by being more “open minded” (ok, Daniel Tiger). Instead, you can try letting your child take the lead by creating a visual list of healthy options they will try.

Your job, especially at first, is to respect their choices and base their meals on only the items on the list, while continuing to dish up enticing healthy meals for the rest of the family.

Adding a new item to the list is their choice when they’re ready – you’ll be surprised at what might end up on there when it’s their decision! (You can keep the list posted right on the fridge for easy reference.) 

2. The Squirmer 

Some children struggle to sit in place even for even the most enjoyable activity. For these kids, the mandate of being chair-bound for the duration of a meal may undermine the energy they can put into eating.

In addition, home-prepared meals naturally involve more focus, time and effort – no, all green veggies do not come smushed into cute, dino shapes that can be eaten on the go!

The best solution here is to take the focus off of how long they are sitting, and decide ahead on how much they should try of each part before being able to get up.

You might try serving meals in parts, and have your child assist in getting the next course and serving themselves. Have them wait one minute and listen to their belly before jumping up when they finish each portion.

3. The Bird 

Some kids have tiny tummies, and what looks like a handful to us can look like a mountain to them, especially when it is not marketed to appeal to kid sized hands and appetites.

Less can be more when it comes to meals, especially those with intense colors, smells, and textures. I suggest you start small – put only a few bites on the plate, and encourage your little ones to listen to their bodies. They can always ask for seconds–or thirds!

When your child asks for snacks or treats later, remind them that eating a few more bites at mealtimes would help get them through to the the next one.  

4. The Grazer 

Many kids turn up their noses to whole food options at mealtimes because they’ve already filled up on packaged snacks.

The solution here is to bring the focus at mealtimes to the shared fun of eating – twirling pasta on their fork, adding the perfect toppings to their sandwich, building just the right bite of soup, or trying chopsticks!

Kids can also participate in preparing healthy grazing options on a tray in the fridge – an ice cube tray or extra bento style lunchbox works great – bites of boiled egg and cheese, carrots with hummus, cubed avocado, protein and veggie combos on toothpicks – creativity encouraged. The extra can be a side dish at meal time.  

5. The Control Hog 

Let’s be honest, food is often about control. A child cannot help but feel some satisfaction watching mom and dad interrupt their first bite repeatedly to edit the plate so they’ll eat it – or in our worst moments, whip up a whole new set of less healthy options just to get them to eat something!  

Shift the focus to give the child a sense of autonomy, while respecting meal time as a joyful space that they want to be a part of. Have them help with choosing and preparing dinner, setting the table, or serving themselves. Ask them to take a look at their place and decide on their choice of beverage, toppings, or sauces ahead. Involve them in dinner time conversation, or have them give a review of the food afterward and what they would like to try again, or how they might like to change a recipe next time. 

We’d love to know; what are the most common meal-time battles in your home? Have you found solutions that help?

Julia Niego, MS, PCET, has been driven from the start by a fascination for the intersection of learning and the child brain. After earning an undergraduate degree in Behavioral Neuroscience from Colgate University, Julia went on to receive a MS in Neuroscience and Education from Columbia University/Teacher’s College, the country’s first integrative graduate program to link educational theory with cognitive neuroscience research. Since 2011, Julia has been working as a private organizational tutor and consultant with Organizational Tutors LLC, supporting children in building executive functions, growth mindset, and strong academic selves. Julia is also a Brooklyn mother of two, and the founder of neuleaph Child & Brain LLC.

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