Q&A: Food Battles, Pickiness, & Trying New Foods?

Q&A: FOOD BATTLES, Pickiness, & Trying New Foods // jessconnell.com

Are you facing food battles in your home? You’re not alone. Read on to find out how we deal with it in our home.

Q: I’m a mum of two (3 and 16m) and was wondering if you had any specific advice about encouraging 3 year olds with regards to eating new things. We try and get him to try something newish once or twice a week and it often ends up with half an hour or so of howling (he’s not allowed anything else if he doesn’t try or his favourite cereal the next morning) before he’ll reluctantly try something. I’m reluctant to ‘force’ him with threat of discipline as I don’t want to turn food into a major battle ground and I think some of it is that fear that kids his age get about putting unfamiliar things in his mouth but also want to avoid the long drawn out wailing it has become and for him to get used to trying new things with a positive attitude…any thoughts?

A: I would not make eating the central battleground for a child who does not obey in general, but –that said– I do require that they eat some of everything.

What I mean by that is this: my battles are fought elsewhere, but my authority is used to influence their eating. So I can and will (after I’ve consistently proven to them that I am committed to out-stubborn them for their own good) take on a food battle, but I prefer to just insist that they eat once they’ve already (in other areas) given into the idea that I am their authority.


So, for example, I’d tend to outlast and be FIERCE about obeying me about not having a tantrum, or about picking up the toys if I ask them to, or about taking their diaper to the trash, or about staying in bed at night… but if they are not obeying me in those other, daily areas, I would not pick food battles, or make mealtime a battleground. But once they’ve already yielded to me across other areas, it makes mealtime things easier. They know I am the authority. They know that it’s no use trying to outlast me, whine, complain, moan, stomp, fuss, whatever… so then, in general, mealtimes are not (typically) combative.

OK, that said, I also don’t press things they find particularly gross. Each of my kids is allowed to have one (give or take) thing they really don’t like. I don’t make them eat it, but I also am not a short-order-cook and will not make them something different. By choosing not to eat with the family, they are choosing to either eat something they can make for themselves (PBJ? cheese & crackers?) or not eat.


I would also coach in advance: “we’re about to have lunch. You are to eat what you’re given and be polite and thankful. You are not to grump or fuss. If you do, you will get X.” Give him the proactive teaching to know what to do when he sees something on his plate that he doesn’t know if he’ll like. Tell him how you want him to handle that.


Sometimes (probably more like 4-5 year olds and up) I’ll even say,

“instead of thinking, ‘YUCK, I’m never gonna like that; it’s terrible! it’s green! I’ll never like it.’ I want you to think, “Mom and Dad like it. They say it’s good. I’m going to try it and see if it might be something I’ll like. It could be really tasty!”

Helping them give voice to their thoughts and to replace them with beneficial, winsome thoughts with a positive approach to the world is giving them tools that will benefit them for their whole lives.

Other articles you might find helpful:

Are You LETTING Your Kids Walk All Over You? // jessconnell.com

"HELP! I feel like my daughter's in charge!" // jessconnell.com

Do Your Kids Recognize Your Authority // jessconnell.com

Is Your Child IN CHARGE of Your Home? // jessconnell.com



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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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13 Responses

  1. Brittany says:

    Very well said. People always ask how we get our kids to be such adventurous eaters, and I never really have a good answer. But I think you nailed it. We’ve already fought the battle that mom and dad are the authorities, who want what’s best for them. So when we ask them to try at least a small bit of something, they are willing to do so.

    My husband and I really enjoy food and trying new things, so I think that also helps them be more adventurous. We also talk about and try to set the example of eating small servings of things that aren’t our favorite as a way to show love to the person that made it. (Oh how their eyes sparkle when Grandpa serves up something that they know Mom or Dad doesn’t care for. :) )

  2. Bethany says:

    I love how you point out that obedience in general makes meal battles less of an issue. So true. And proactively coaching? That’s so important! It’s not just about teaching our kids what *not* to do, but about what *to* do. I was reminded as I read this of an ancient post I wrote, so I just dug it up and updated it a little (including a link to this post). I’ll link it here in case it’s helpful to anyone.


  3. Allison says:

    This is something that we are definitely struggling with in our house. Our 7 year-old will eat almost anything, except, like you mentioned, a very few things that while we don’t push them, we don’t serve something else either. However, we have a 5 year old who has some pretty difficult eating struggles. In a nutshell, he doesn’t like any food that is wet or heavily mixed, which basically means he has trouble with pastas, casseroles, and soups, in addition to ground beef, some chicken, and many vegetables that are cooked (though he’ll often eat the raw version). I’m really not entirely sure how to approach it. Sometimes it is defiance that we do disciple for, but other times, it seems to be beyond that. Some foods just generally freak him out. It’s a battle over and over again meal-time after meal-time. Often he gets very distraught, occasionally, he’ll even vomit over it, and overall, would genuinely prefer to go hungry over eating certain foods. We have had a couple of people suggest to us the possibility of a sensory processing disorder (and not only because of eating issues), and while in no way do we want to jump to a premature conclusion and label him (or let him get away with misbehavior), we have certainly wondered if, for him, it’s more than just a disobedience issue. I’m curious to know if anyone reading this has any experience with a child like this? I’d love to read other people’s thoughts on this issue. :)

    • Jess Connell says:

      If there are foods that I genuinely think they have a dislike/aversion to, then I don’t push that. But honestly, it helps me to think back 100, 400, 1600 years. Food choice is a luxury we have now, but wasn’t always an option. Pretty much, you eat what’s available. For some people that was the same thing every day (usually rice, or bread, with water or tea). For some people, it was catch-as-catch-can and so things were always changing.

      Either way, the general approach would be to
      – eat what God provided
      – be thankful for it.

      So then when we’ve had kids who are more sensitive about stuff (we have had some of the things you describe) I try to discern very carefully what’s happening in their heart.

      Is it a power play?
      Is it genuine aversion (i.e., have I seen them push past ‘dislike’ but cheerfully eat food that is not their favorite, but this is a different animal where they’re gagging, not faking it, etc.?)?
      Are they trying to get a different alternative or are they happy to go without?

      Honestly this is all stuff that a well-informed very-observant mom and dad are probably the best assessors of. You know your child best. Are they using similar tactics at the table that they do when something happens they don’t like in life in general? Or do they typically are agreeable and go along with what you say? Is this typical or atypical?

      Once you really assess your child, and discern whether your child is prone to be a complainer/whiner, or prone to tough it out but genuinely doesn’t like this, then you can start to sort out–

      * are there some things they are being unreasonable and selfish about just because?
      * are there some things you need to not make them eat anymore because they genuinely dislike that particular thing

      (For example, one of our sons doesn’t like melted cheese in any form. So for him, even though he generally likes cheese, and generally goes along with anything, I don’t push melted cheese. However, if we’re at someone else’s house and he’s served it, he either has to eat it cheerfully or find a way around it without making a scene.)

      But the main thing I wanted to say is: carefully watch the kid in front of you. Try to discern what’s happening below the surface, in the heart. This is what will give you the most information and help you find your way forward in what to do with this child.

      • Allison says:

        You’re exactly right, it really is a question of what’s going on in the heart. I’ve noticed that even with him in particular, sometimes I can tell it really is nothing more than a discipline issue (like when he decides he doesn’t want to eat carrots, which I know he isn’t grossed out by) and other times (like with spaghetti), I know there is some genuine anxiety about it which needs to be handled with grace. They really are different issues. Just typing the question and subsequently contemplating the matter and talking it over with my husband was incredibly helpful to me. Thank you for your post! :)

  4. Michelle says:

    Six years into parenting I can say that I feel like this is one area that we have done well in (others are still TBD, but we can see fruit here!). We have chosen to fight food battles because of living overseas and we feel that it’s important for our children to BE ABLE to eat a variety of things, whether or not they like them. So food battles have taken up a chunk of our lives for the last four or so years, but we have pushed through and are now seeing fruit from sticking to our guns.

    Our oldest has always been super stubborn. I clearly remember her at two years old sitting on a chair in “timeout” for almost an hour until she was ready to eat her one bite of raw tomato. I clearly remember her at two years old chewing up food and then attempting to spit it out, which has never been ok, so she’d chew and chew and chew and 45 minutes later finally swallow. She has always been the one who we had to outlast and out-stubborn, and four years after starting food wars with her I think it’s safe to say we’ve won (actually I think it was safe to say we’d won last year). A few weeks ago she ate a whole tomato of her own volition which helped me to see that the battle has been worth it!

    We’re still working on this with our middle child. She has never really cared for things with red sauce, for example, but now, about 1.5 years after beginning the fight, she’ll eat her required bites without a fuss. She still prefers plain spaghetti noodles but will eat what is required of her without pitching a fit about it. There are, of course, foods that she really doesn’t like and that’s fine, but we still require her to eat a few bites.

    Our rules/philosophies:

    1) I learned in college that it takes a child an average of ten times of seeing a new food on their plates before they will try it of their own volition. That doesn’t even mean they’ll like it. They need to be exposed to it, and if you’re not going to require them to eat it, it still needs to be on their plates for exposure.

    2) Taste buds get used to flavors. Texture is a different thing (I myself don’t like certain foods because of their texture, asparagus for example, yuck! but I can eat it if needed) but flavors are often an acquired taste. With this in mind our menu does not have a huge variety. I make the same things often so that they get used to eating them and how they taste. When we’ve conquered one meal I might add another one in.

    3) Our children must take as many bites of something they despise as their age. Our 4-year old must take four bites of spaghetti with sauce and then she can have plain noodles. Our six-year old never has to abide by this rule because there’s pretty much nothing she hates anymore that’s on our regular rotation. If I make something new and I personally don’t care for it, or it’s too spicy, or whatever, I give them a pass. I rarely make things that I don’t love (I am cooking the meals, after all!) AND that nobody else loves. If I love it, they need to get used to eating it. If we never eat it (asparagus, brussels sprouts, liver) I will not force the issue when it comes up. There is no reason to fight a battle over something I never cook. They can work on those when they’re adults and their taste buds are already used to a variety of flavors.

    4) We make our children clear their plates but I never give them big portions. It’s important for kids to listen to their internal cues telling them they’re full. But it’s also important not to waste food, in my opinion. So I’ll give them maybe 1/2 cup of soup, or 1/4 cup of peas and 4-5 bites of meat and I expect them to eat it. When their dinner is gone they may have more dinner, or anything else they want, within reason. If they refuse to eat they go to bed (at dinnertime) or they don’t get anything else to eat until they have finished what I served them.

    5) Cutting out snacks is a big help to curbing pickiness and we have done that at various points in time.

    6) None of my kids have been big fans of meat/chicken. I have found that a lot of this has to do with the “chewiness” of it. If I make sure it’s in very small pieces they are much more likely to eat it and not complain.

    7) I’ve found it important to be careful as to when we eat certain things. I don’t make things they don’t like when Daddy is traveling, because I’m not up for fighting the battle then. Daddy is gone = meals they all like. It’s not worth the battle then when I’m already exhausted. If I know we’re going to eat something my 4-year old doesn’t like I make sure she takes a nap that day (she’s down to every other day most of the time) because she’s much more pliable and has a better attitude when not exhausted. I don’t make things I know are going to require extra time for a battle when we have somewhere to go. Etc., etc., etc.

    I personally don’t feel like food is just a matter of obedience, although I do think that children are more likely to eat when they know their parents mean business and expect them to eat, even though it might take some time. Taste buds are very varied and just because a child is generally obedient does not mean they will just eat what they are served. I feel like it’s important to decide what you’re going to do and then do it. We decided to fight the battles, much as it’s not fun, due to our lifestyle. I am not aiming for my kids liking all foods, I’m aiming for them to be able to eat and not be rude. Pickiness is such a first world problem and I don’t find it ok.

    I’ve rambled enough, I hope this helps someone! =)

    • Jess Connell says:

      I like your rules/observations.

      #4 is a norm here too. I pay attention to their appetites (i.e., growth spurts v. plateaus) and serve them reasonable amounts.

      One other rule you made me think of, that we have, is that anything you serve yourself, you have to eat all of. So, we pretty much “control” food portions when they are too young to discern, but once they start serving themselves, we teach them, “if you take it, you must eat it.” We don’t want them to think food waste is OK, and we want to teach our kids to consider others by not wasting food and leaving less for others.

      Thanks for sharing! Lots of good stuff in your comment!

  5. Beth says:

    I like this! We have truly good eaters at our house (except the 15 month old, but we’ll give him a pass for now, as he just recently got teeth and is still exploring textures), and I think it’s because we focus on obedience very early and insist that our children recognize our authority in all areas of life. I also like Michelle’s comments–we’ve found those things to be true as well.

  6. Emily says:

    Yay, are you bringing back the Q&As? 😉

    • Jess Connell says:

      Haha, well, you know me. I’m pretty random.

      But yes, I’ve got a line up of old Q&As I’ve done (either via e-mail or comments or in private forum settings) that I’ll be sharing in the coming months. I’ve found that it’s less daunting to share one Q&A at a time, rather than in big bulk posts each month. Those were hard to edit and felt overwhelming for me.

  7. katy says:

    Our rule used to be ‘say thank you’ or say nothing. So one day, my 2yo sat down to supper and said, “Nothing”. it was so funny! :) Now the rule is to ‘say thank you’. period. :)

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