Push or Pull? When picky kids pick your dinner to pieces

Oct 5, 2010 by

How do you deal with, or not deal with, a picky kid? -- photo by Anna Migeon

This question came recently from a reader, Rosie Kate:

“How do you deal (or not deal) with a child who picks through food for ingredients he doesn’t like?  My five-year-old son went through an ‘anti-onion’ phase, in which he complained about bits of onion in his food. I told him to quietly remove them, but not to be rude about it.

Now it’s zucchini (of which we eat lots because we have lots in the garden, of course!). Same rule applies, but it kinda bugs me (I’m making sure not to let him know that, though, because then it would be a control game).”

So what would you do?  The normal, intuitive response to this situation is generally to find away to induce the child to eat the zucchini.

Which of these typical reactions would you try?

1.   Command: “You must eat it anyway: zucchini and all.”

2.    Offer a reward: “If you do, you will get dessert/get to play video games tonight.”

3.    Threaten: “If you don’t eat it, no dessert, or no video games tonight.”

4.    Talk about it.  Express displeasure. Try to talk him into eating and liking it. Tell him it’s good for him.

5.     Put up with his whining and complaining and misbehavior in hopes he’ll end up eating it.

6.     Put up with him picking out all the pieces, and then throw them away (or eat them yourself), but not feel happy about it.

Picky eating may just be experimental: “Let’s see what happens when I try not eating,” thinks Sam, unconsciously, of course.  “I want to be my own man. Maybe this is a good way to show Mom I can do my own thing.”  It’s up to Mom, next, whether it works well for Sam or not.

Keeping in mind that pushing leads to further resistance, and pulling away may well lead to greater appreciation for the thing withdrawn, we need to look for a way to pull away food, somehow, somewhere, when kids act fussy. We need an an anti-push action to counter their resistance.

My suggestion to correct undesirable eating behaviors is to always look for a way to restrict access to food somehow. Turn the rejected item into forbidden fruit. Turn it around so that instead of getting to turn something down, he’s getting turned down. For example, when any kid didn’t want to eat something, my mom used to say, “Good; leaves more for the rest of us.”

If your child isn’t hungry at dinner, don’t try to make him eat it; rather keep him from eating anything that allows him to be un-hungry for what you want him to eat until you are ready for him to eat. Then he’ll be hungry for YOUR choice.

So for Rosie Kate’s dilemma, this is my suggestion:

Tell your son, “If you are going to pick parts out, I’d rather you not take any at all. That is not an acceptable way to eat. You do not ever have to eat anything you don’t like or feel like eating, ever, but this dish has zucchini it in. That’s what it’s made of and how we eat it. No way am I going to throw out a pile of zucchini. You can just eat the carrots / soup / chicken tonight if that’s all you want.  Absolutely!  Dad and Ashley and I will keep the zucchini tetrazini for ourselves. But we all want some carrots / soup / chicken, too, so you can only have your share of them (another pulling away action that increases the perceived value of food). Now, I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

Having another component, such as carrots or whatever, to the meal, gives him some options, but if he’s still hungry after eating those options, all the better.  Don’t make him lose face if he decides to eat the zucchini tetrazini after all. Don’t pay any attention to what he does, how much or what he eats, or if he is hungry later. He might decide being picky is not really all that rewarding.  Not getting to eat something doesn’t have the same thrill as refusing to eat something.

The most important principle to stay true to is always leaving kids totally in charge of what goes in their mouths from among the foods you choose to offer. No pushing to eat and loads of pulling away: not allowing him to eat when, what, and where you don’t want him to.


Related posts:

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat Part II

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi Rosie Kate, good to hear from you. I was hoping I'd given you a miracle cure! Oh well... I am wondering if maybe it would help to ignore the issue more, pretend you'd forgotten all about how he doesn't like peppers, especially now that he's had time to experience being passed over for a yummy looking breakfast. Go ahead and offer food all the time, as if you'd forgotten his current pet peeve. I remember once my son was little and announced to us that he was going to "fast" from I forget what--all meat or all vegetables (I think it was veggies). We listened and said OK, and then proceeded to forget all about it, and so did he. I guess your little guy knows now that if he is planning to start picking pieces out, he shouldn't take any, but maybe he will lose face less if you go ahead and offer it and act like all is forgotten. Then he won't have to admit he's changing his mind or wants to quit being picky and can just go on as if nothing ever was said. It may make it easier to give up the fight if you don't make him come out and admit he was wrong and wants to eat stuff after all, and ask for it when you don't offer. It might be for him like when two friends were mad at each other and don't want to be anymore but don't know how to change gears and be friends again. If he starts picking out pieces again, you could say, "Oh I forgot you don't want peppers," and say he can't have it if he's going to pick.


Hey, my question made a post! Thanks for the advice. I did this just this morning when my husband and I had yummy garden peppers and onions in our scrambled eggs. Since my 5yo has been complaining about peppers, none for him! Didn't even offer him any. We enjoyed our yummy breakfast, and he watched and pouted just a little... I'm reeeeeally hoping this picky phase will pass soon. It's a fairly recent development, so we're just trying to ride it out.