What Do You Do When Your Kids Refuse to Eat Dinner?

Help wanted.

By Camille Styles
Easy Healthy School Lunch Ideas

Ed. note: this post was originally published in September 2019, but we wanted to bring it back out of the archives in hopes that it inspires you with some fun ways to get your little ones excited about meal times. There are so many great recommendations from you guys in the comments, so make sure you check the bottom of the post for some more ideas from our fellow mamas… It takes a village!

Before having kids, I remember dreaming about my future adventurous little eaters who would gobble their veggies, savor sushi, and slurp pad thai with relish. No fish nuggets in our house! And I would never stoop to “hiding” vegetables in their meatballs and smoothies — mine would eat them whole and happily.

My strategy? Simply expose our kids to all the foods that Adam and I eat and love, and if at first they don’t do salad… try, try again.

Seven years in as a mom, and all I have to say to my former self is: HAHAHAHAHA. You were such a dreamer. Turns out, kids are actual humans with taste buds and preferences that are totally individual and all their own, and mine (at least at this point in their lives) happen to be skewing extremely picky about the foods they choose to eat. And it’s unpredictable: one day, cucumbers with a little sea salt are a major hit, and the next time I serve them they’re “too slimy and gross.” Le sigh.

Healthy kids school lunch

In theory, I’m a proponent of not forcing kids to eat anything they don’t want to eat, and instead presenting them with a well-balanced meal. They can reap the natural consequences of not eating should they choose to skip dinner (ie, they’ll be hungry.) But like so much parenting advice, it sounds far simpler than it is to actually put into practice, so (in my desperation), I thought I’d share a few problems I’ve been running into to see if any of y’all have advice.

Healthy kids school lunch

So, let me paint you a little picture of an average weeknight at our house lately. Our family comes home from a long day of work, school, and after-school activities, and I spend thirtyish minutes making a healthy and delicious dinner. I wrangle everyone to the dinner table, where Henry (4) usually wrinkles his nose and says “Where’s my taco?” (He’s currently really into a corn tortilla with beans, rice, and cheese, which I’m fine with maybe 50% of the time, but c’mon — every night?!)

When I explain that I’ve made a different dinner tonight, and that he may choose what he’d like to eat but he must try everything, he either refuses outright or eats maybe one crumb of his salmon, one pasta noodle, or maybe a near-microscopic leaf from his broccoli floret. Then he pushes his chair away, says “I’m done,” and leaves the table.

Sound familiar to anyone else? Okay, so here are my current problems with this scenario, in no particular order:

  1. I feel terrible wasting so much food day after day, but I don’t want to be a human garbage disposable eating all my kids’ leftovers, and heaven knows that if they didn’t eat it the first time, they’re not going to eat it the next day.
  2. Henry shows up 30 minutes later saying, “Mommy, I’m starving!!!!!” And considering he’s a growing 4-year-old boy, I believe him! I know that some experts recommend teaching kids a lesson by making them go to bed hungry, but I don’t have the heart, especially when he insists that he tried his dinner and did. not. like it!!
  3. Life is stressful and busy enough as it is; I really don’t have the bandwidth to make multiple dinners for each member of the house. Sometimes I can make a more kid-friendly version of whatever Adam and I are having (ie skip the seasoning or the heat, etc), but often, he won’t eat that, either.

Healthy kids school lunch

Outside of all those practical considerations, I really don’t want FOOD to become a major source of conflict and stress in our home. Not only have I read that the habits and messaging we get around food as children follow us into adulthood; I want to model for my children that food is something to be enjoyed and savored, not something to stress about or eat because “we have to.”

So, my questions stands: What do you do when your kids refuse to eat dinner?

Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!