MU Extension MU Extension       University of Missouri    ●    Columbia    ●    Kansas City       Missouri S&T     ●    St. Louis - Adults and Children - Adolescents




Unhappy young boy staring at plate of vegetablesAvoiding mealtime hassles

ParentLink, College of Education, University of Missouri


Mealtimes can quickly become battlegrounds when parents insist that children clean their plates or finish all of their peas. Eating is one of the few areas where young children feel they have control, and their budding independence can easily lead to unpleasant power struggles. Mealtimes are an opportunity to share time together as a family. The best thing a parent can do is provide a healthy, nutritious meal, but go with the flow and relax at mealtime — the time shared together is more important than engaging in a power struggle to make the kids finish every last veggie. 


There are several things parents can do to promote cooperation and harmony at the dinner table. Remember the more you work with your children — not against them — the better they will eat and the more peaceful mealtimes will be for everyone.


Here are some common problems and solutions to alleviate mealtime problems.


  1. One day my son is constantly hungry. The next he may hardly touch his food. Then he gets on food jags and only wants to eat cereal for several days. Should I be concerned?
    Children’s appetites may vary from day to day, and children often eat in spurts. While some children may be able to eat regular meals, others may need a series of small meals through the day. Give children credit that they will eat when they are hungry. It’s also not uncommon for children to get on food jags and want the same thing to eat meal after meal. The important thing to do is learn your child’s individual needs and preferences and not overreact when he won’t eat or wants cereal three meals in a row. As long as your child is growing and healthy, he or she is probably doing fine. If you have concerns about your child’s growth rate or health, see your pediatrician.
  2. My children only seem to want to eat peanut butter sandwiches, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. They turn up their noses at anything new. How can I get them to try new foods?
    Try offering one of these favorites at each meal, but present new foods in a balanced combination as well. If new foods are served often, they become more familiar and children may be more willing to try them. Encourage, but do not insist, that children try new foods. You can also present new foods in small, bite-size portions and provide dipping sauces your child likes which may make them more appealing.
  3. My father made me clean my plate as I was growing up. Should I insist that my son do the same?
    Trust your child to decide when he has had enough to eat. Pushing food interferes with a child’s development of the ability to regulate how much he eats. Insisting that children clean their plates can lead to overeating. It can also set up a power struggle.
  4. The only way I can get my daughter to eat vegetables is to bribe her with dessert. Is this okay?
    Using dessert as a reward can make nutritious foods such as vegetables undesirable to your child and cause her to be even less willing to eat her carrots. Using desserts as punishments or rewards can also set up an unhealthy emotional relationship that may lead to development of eating problems later on. Offer a variety of vegetables to give your child some choice and if you link a reward with eating vegetables, make it non-food related such as watching a video or a trip to the park after dinner.
  5. My children want all the junk food they see advertised on television. I know it’s not healthy. What should I do?
    Avoid buying junk food and foods containing lots of sugar when you go to the grocery store. Offer children balanced meals and nutritious snacks with an occasional treat, but avoid making these foods part of their everyday diet.
  6. My three-year-old daughter likes to play with her food instead of eating at the table and then complains later of being hungry. What should I do?
    Not all children will eat on schedule with adults. Children will get hungry at different times. If your child doesn’t seem hungry, remove her plate and allow her to draw pictures or do a quiet activity while the family shares dinner. If she gets hungry later, warm up her dinner and offer it to her again.
  7. My four-year-old twins are so picky about what they will eat that I worry they're not getting a balanced diet. What can I do?
    There are many ways you can add variety and make foods fun, such as:
    • Make smiley faces on foods.
    • Add cheese to vegetables or other foods.
    • Cut sandwiches into shapes with cookie cutters.
    • Make juice-sicles by freezing juice using popsicle sticks.


Involving children in shopping for food and planning, preparing and serving meals can also help take some of the struggle out of eating. Children may be more willing to eat meals that they have helped to prepare.

Providing healthy snacks can also help your child maintain a balanced diet.

  • Set out healthy ingredients and let children put together their own snack creations.
  • Keep fruit and other nutritious snacks available and accessible for children.
  • Give children choices — “Would you prefer carrot or apple slices?”
  • Don’t allow snacks to take the place of meals.


Remember that most picky eaters will change their eating habits over time, but this will usually happen naturally much sooner if parents avoid power struggles over food.


University of Missouri logo links to

Site Administrator:
Copyright  ADA  Equal Opportunity

MissouriFamilies is produced by the College of Human Environmental Sciences,
Extension Division, University of Missouri

Last Updated 04/30/2014