Picky Eater: Behavior Edition

Let’s just start with the big one. Your kid is a picky eater, and it is all based on behaviour.  You are going about your business raising this little human, and then all the sudden they start exercising their independence. Before you know it, you are making multiple dinners just to avoid a total meltdown around mealtime. It happened... you are here. Let’s not worry about how you got here, let’s just move forward to solve this problem.

Not sure why your kid is a picky eater? Head over to this blog article to determine why. 

I want to start by saying: you are in charge here. You know your kid better than anyone. You hold the magic keys to get them to eat dinner. As you read these tips and tricks think about your kid. Think about what has worked and hasn’t. You totally got this…. totally.

I am going to focus mostly around dinner time. This is when most families sit down and eat together. You sitting at the table, eating the same thing as your kid... this is the time you have the most influence. To get the most “bang for your buck” focus your energy on dinner (or whenever you try to eat as a family).

Stop using rewards to get them to eat - Start establishing some rules around mealtime

What is Expected

Eating dinner is an expectation, not an option. You expect that your kid will eat what you put in front of them. Are you thinking, “no I don’t, they never eat what I put in front of them?” OKay… let’s reset.  Do you let your husband throw a fit when he doesn’t like what you made for dinner? No. You expect him to at least try it, and be nice about the effort you put into it.  Okay, same goes for your kid. They are a member of the family, just like your husband.

Take some time to think about what you expect from your entire family. You are making dinner, you are doing something nice for everyone in the family. What do you expect in return? Some ideas:

  • One mealtime a day  where you all sit down and talk with each other.
  • Everyone has a job they must do at mealtime. For example: set the table, get glasses, etc.
  • Manners must be used: napkin in lap, please and thank you, etc.
  • Only one meal will be made for the entire family.


So, we have established that eating dinner is an expectation. Do you reward things that are expected from your kid? Do you reward them for sharing their toys? No, you may praise them and make a big deal, but most of the time they don’t get a cookie for it. Once your kid is potty trained do you reward them every time they go to the bathroom? No… see where I am going here?

Rewarding establishes value. “If you eat your dinner, you get dessert.”  Right away you are establishing with your kid that they should really want dessert. Yes they do really want dessert, but you are reinforcing that they should want dessert more than dinner. Dinner should be an expectation of them, not something that is rewarded. Dessert should be something special, not an expectation they have.  

Sidebar: Same thing goes for saying things like, “you have to eat all your veggies before you can go play.”  Why do they have to eat their veggies, and not the meat on their plate? By saying things like this we let them know what is most important to us, and these little geniuses run with that.

Daniel Pink is one of my favorite authors. He reviewed four decades of research around rewards and concluded that offering short-term incentives to elicit behavior is unreliable, ineffective and causes “considerable long-term damage.” Wow that sounds dramatic… long term damage? The main takeaway: People (or little people) perform the task merely to get the reward; when the reward is removed, they stop doing it.  The battle you might be experiencing at mealtime over dessert, is caused by this. You can’t remove the reward and expect them to keep doing the behavior.

He takes it a step further to say that if you continue to offer an ongoing reward, they will lose intrinsic interest for the activity. That also seems dramatic, but now you know your kid has quite literally just lost interest in eating dinner. Now you know the problem. You just need to reset the interest in dinner without rewards.  Ideas to do this:

  • Start a weekly themed night: taco, pizza, Hawaiian… get into it.
  • Just get all the dessert out of your house, have nothing to offer as a reward.
  • Explain to your kid that there will no longer be rewards for eating their meal.
  • Host a princess ball with dinner, something new “that princesses eat”.
  • You get the picture, get into it. Whatever you do… go for it.

If your are still sitting there thinking I am going to use rewards. Go for it. You know your kid, just considered yourself warned. Another idea that might work for you. Instead of if, then statements, use now, that. After the fact rewards quickly become entitlement, this is a work around.


Okay we have established it is time for a dinnertime reset. Establish some ground rules for dinner. Explain that you are going to serve one meal and that is it. I know you are thinking,”then my kid won’t eat.” That is okay. Always serve something familiar to them, something you know they will like. This way you know there is something on their plate that they will finish.  

Example Rules:

  • Everyone stays at the table till everyone is finished
  • One bite to be polite
  • Or one bite for every year you have been alive
  • Can’t use the word yuck
  • You have to try new things on your plate (just like Daniel the Tiger… ha)
  • No electronics at the table
  • The only option you have for dinner is the food on your plate

You know your family. You know what will establish peace in your home. Don’t go overboard, and be willing to make concessions as you transition. Like I said, you hold the magic keys to solving this problem.  Just be intentional. Stop letting the days pass without making dinner time a peaceful time in your home.  Take some time to sit down and think about how you are going to implement this with your family.

Final, final thought: You never want to force your child to eat. This is a teaching opportunity. Like most things in your kid’s life they are learning about something new. Food is no different. You are the teacher, walking them through a new experience.

Other Picky Eater Information: